Unfortunately, we’ll never have 100% perfect student behaviour 100% of the time in our schools and classrooms. Students must learn what we consider appropriate and inappropriate behaviour; just like they make mistakes when learning spelling, arithmetic, or literary analysis, they’ll do the same with learning our norms and expectations. This is not to say that school leaders or teachers should give up on trying to improve students’ behaviour. By understanding some of the factors that can explain why students misbehave, teachers and leaders can take steps to improve students’ behaviour—and minimise disruptions to learning.
Factors affecting students’ behaviour can generally be categorised into three categories:
- Individual student factors (e.g. mental health, aspirations, prior attainment)
- Immediate environmental factors (e.g. family, peers, school)
- Indirect environmental factors (e.g. government policies, social media)
Of course, these are not perfectly neat categories—and many factors are inextricably linked. The connections between social media, peers, and mental health are an obvious example of these connections.
As teachers and school leaders, we have little direct influence over many of the indirect environmental factors affecting students’ behaviour. Again, this is not to say that they should not be acknowledged, but trying to change them may not be a productive use of our energy.
One area where we do have the capability to influence factors is within the school or college environment. This includes both individual factors (like motivation) and some environmental factors (like classroom routines). This can be done in particular by establishing and sustaining a positive culture for learning through the creation of shared values and norms.
There are three factors that teachers and school leaders can focus on that can have a positive influence on a school culture, and hopefully on student behaviour. These are motivation, “groupishness”, and social norms.
Understanding what motivates students can help us to understand what they are trying to achieve, which may, in turn, help us to understand why they behave the way they do, and what we might do to “nudge” them towards those behaviours that are necessary and conducive for learning.
“Groupishness” gives us an insight into the ways that humans instinctively form communities: classes, corridors and playgrounds are predominantly social spaces, rather than spaces occupied solely by one student at a time (although the experience and interpretation of the environment is an individual one). The presence of other people affects the behaviour of an individual; our actions are influenced not only by which other people are around, but our relationship with them. This influence of others leads to a discussion of social norms, that is, the (often implicit) rules that affect how we behave in social situations.
Acknowledging and responding to these factors is essential for a school or teacher when seeking to improve—or set—standards of student behaviour. A new set of rules or a reward system that does not reflect existing social norms or relies on non-existent disparate student motivation will face greater challenges.
As an example, consider a secondary school where the students often socialise in the corridors between classes. If a school wanted to minimise this behaviour from students for whatever reason (perhaps class tardiness is becoming an endemic issue), there are a range of policies or practices to consider. A rule about silent corridors might address the problem, but it runs counter to the existing social norm. Will the rule itself be strong enough to overcome the conflicting factor?
Alternatively, the school or individual teachers could institute harsher penalties for late arrival. However, this may be in tension with students’ motivation to socialise. Of course, this is not to say such new policies will fail or should not be considered, but it is important to acknowledge the added inherent challenge.
Ultimately, when looking to affect student behaviour, teachers and school leaders should first seek to understand how these three factors are already in play. From there, we have a choice:
- Do we want to use these factors as they currently exist to bring about a change? Or,
- Do we want to seek to change these factors themselves?
The latter is more difficult, but can be done—and can have a far greater impact on student behaviour in the long term.
In our next blog, we will explore these factors in greater detail, including ways teachers can influence these factors to a positive effect.
The content of this blog is taken from our Behaviour and Culture Programme, which is available as part of the Great Teaching Toolkit and is aimed at school leaders. At the heart of our Great Teaching Toolkit is the Model for Great Teaching, which lays out the extent to which creating a supportive environment is so important for effective teaching.