Author interview: Glen Pearsall on Classroom Dynamics

by | Apr 26, 2022

An interview with Glen Pearsall author of Classroom dynamics 

Classroom behaviour has become a point of keen discussion for teachers this year. Why do think this is and why do you feel it is important to talk about behaviour in the classroom?

I was recently asked by a school to do some classroom observation of the behaviour of their Year 10 cohort. My report back to them said that they didn’t have Year 10s so much as ‘really tall Year 8s’. What I was suggesting was that with all the interruptions to schooling over the last couple of years, many students have missed out on all the support that helps them learn what is acceptable classroom conduct. This is a significant issue for many schools.

Of course, this just highlights what teachers have always known: for effective learning to take place you must have safe, orderly classrooms. I think what is crucial is that we talk in concrete terms about precisely how we go about achieving this goal. A schoolwide behaviour framework can give teachers a broad approach to dealing with off-task behaviour, but I think we need to devote time and attention to breaking down specific strategies for dealing with specific behaviours. Classroom dynamics does this.

What was your goal in writing Classroom dynamics? Can you describe your vision for how teachers should use it?

I was delighted when Miles Campbell, founder and CEO of Teacher Training Australia, said that Classroom dynamics was ‘the most practical book [he’s] ever read on student behaviour’, because that was my goal. I wanted to write a text that teachers could use to help them keep their students on task and engaged in their everyday classes.

The book is structured so that teachers can use it in a wide range of settings and at any stage of their career. Regardless of the whole-school approach – whether based around restorative practice, student rights and responsibilities, or a positive behaviour framework – the strategies in this book have been carefully designed so that you can apply them to meet the expectations of your school. Experienced educators might do this by dipping into Classroom dynamics to tweak a technique for dealing with a specific behaviour, whereas new educators can use the book to build up an entire toolkit of classroom management strategies.

The book features dozens of practical strategies for dealing with off-task behaviour. What are three strategies teachers can apply immediately in their classrooms?

  1. Pivot phrases

Nearly all the strategies discussed in the book can applied immediately. A versatile example of this is the pivot phrase: a micro-script for responding to students who are being argumentative or resistant. Here are a couple of examples from Classroom dynamics:

Teacher: Can you move to the other table, thank you.

Student: You’re picking on me!

Pivot: I’m not talking about who you are – I’m talking about what you are choosing to do.

Teacher: Can you please sit down?

Student: But they’re standing up.

Pivot: That’s not the issue right now.

Thinking of the precise right thing to say in the middle of a tricky encounter with a student is often hard, so having a bank of responses like these that can be applied in a wide variety of situations can be very useful.

  1. Directed choice

Offering a student a directed choice can also be useful. If a student is being resistant, or even defiant, you might offer them two courses of action for changing their behaviour and let them choose which course of action they’d like to follow:

Magda, close your laptop or turn it so it faces me. It is up to you.

Amara, either move over to the group at the back or sit with these students here. You decide which you prefer.

The great advantage of this approach is that it you are giving a firm instruction but preserving the student’s sense of agency. Young people’s lives are heavily prescribed by the authority of others: teachers, parents or carers, and all of the other adults who have power over them. It is easy to forget sometimes just how often students are told what to do (especially if you are a student who finds it hard to self-regulate your behaviour and so need lots of correction). Giving students the chance to make an informed choice about their behaviour is both a powerful motivator and a way to encourage them to take responsibility for their actions.

  1. On-task praise

Of course, teachers aren’t always dealing with students who are being argumentative or resistant. Sometimes it is low-level off-task behaviour that is interrupting student learning. In Classroom dynamics, the rule of thumb for addressing this is finding the lowest level intervention that works so that you can be get back to teaching as quickly as possible.

On-task praise is a good example of a low-level technique. When creating a positive classroom, it is often not what you say ‘No’ to but what you say ‘Yes’ to that counts. Praising students who are doing the right thing reminds off-task students of what they should be doing and nudges them back on task. Moreover, highlighting students doing the right thing as you move around the room acknowledges the quiet majority of students who routinely do the right thing but whose positive behaviour is often overlooked. My research suggests that this strategy works more than a quarter of the time, so it a useful technique to try before you move on to more teacher-intensive interventions.

It can be stressful dealing with challenging student behaviour. What one piece of advice would you give to a new teacher who doesn’t yet have the tools to manage off-task behaviour and conflict?

Too many new educators put up with behaviour that they shouldn’t have to deal with alone. ‘Endurance is overrated’ is what I always tell graduate teachers. Don’t suffer in silence. Seek out help from your colleagues. Everyone deserves to be treated respectfully and feel safe in the classroom – and that includes the teacher.

When I talk with educators who have been slow to seek support (both graduates and their more experienced colleagues), they usually tell me that they were worried about being judged as underperforming or out of their depth. This is why Classroom dynamics features a chapter on how to seek out effective support for behavioural issues. By foregrounding the strategies you have tried so far and emphasising your preparedness to be actively involved in school-level solutions, you can get help while also highlighting your competence and professionalism.

Remember that the expectations about appropriate conduct you enforce in class aren’t just personal preferences – they are the expectations of the school community, and there is nothing wrong with seeking out support to reiterate this message to your students.

If a teacher has tried to implement the strategies in your book but still has difficulty managing a student or group of students, what can they do next?

One of the first points that I make in the introduction to the book is that we need to have realistic expectations about how hard it is to change entrenched off-task behaviour. The second part of the book is built on this premise and features a detailed discussion of what to do when our initial efforts with a class or a specific student fail. We explore strategies for carefully mapping out patterns in a student’s behaviour and understanding what is driving it.

Typically, behaviour has a purpose: it helps you get or avoid something. Off-task student behaviour is no different. Whether consciously or subconsciously, repeated student behaviour has a function. Understanding what these functions are can give you insight into how to address patterns of behaviour from particular students that you otherwise might find hard to deal with or predict.

The worst part of a really difficult class for many teachers is the feelings of guilt and helplessness that can develop, the feeling that somehow it is your fault and that nothing can be done to change the situation. Following the formal process in the book for recording incidents of off-task behaviour and exploring what initiated and ended the behaviour gives you a clear plan of action to follow when you are unsure how to proceed in a tricky situation. Moreover, it can help you gain the kind of emotional distance required to deal with these behaviours without feeling overwhelmed.

This is crucial because fixing these difficult situations is a marathon, not a sprint. None of these strategies work every time, I remind teachers in Classroom dynamics – they work over time.

How can a teacher avoid having to deal with off-task behaviour altogether?

The last part of Classroom dynamics explores strategies for making your classes as engaging as possible. This is because the best way to manage challenging behaviour is to not have to deal with it in the first place. The difference between the behaviour of engaged students and those that are disengaged is profound. Indeed, throughout the book, the term most commonly used to describe poor student behaviour is simply off task. When learning piques student interest and curiosity is driving behaviour, teachers have little need for so-called classroom management techniques. It follows then that ramping up engagement should be one of your primary ways to respond to off-task behaviour.

Obviously, this is easier said than done. Teachers, after all, don’t plan to disengage students. However, understanding what engagement is, surveying what research tells us about how to generate it and exploring examples of engaging classroom activities can give you a picture of how you might modify your teaching to make it as compelling as possible.

I think that it is fitting that Classroom dynamics opens with a multi-chapter investigation of how to deal with all sorts of off-task behaviour but ends with a long discussion about engaging learning. The purpose of this book is help teachers deal with off-task behaviour so they can concentrate on what they do best – helping their students learn.

Glen Pearsall

Glen Pearsall is a leading secondary school teacher and an acclaimed presenter of professional development for classroom teachers across Australia. Glen has a particular interest in the development of young teachers and has also developed and delivered a program of renewal for mid-career teachers. His expertise is in high quality instructional practice, and the development of classroom cultures based on sound pedagogy and educational research. Glen is the author of the bestselling And Gladly TeachClassroom Dynamics, Fast and Effective Assessment, and co-author of Literature for Life and Work Right.