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Your Career• 3 Min read

18th November 2021

Behaviour management strategies for teachers: how to handle difficult students

Behaviour management strategies: positive versus negative reinforcement

In order to understand the motivations for pupil behaviour patterns, it’s important to consider positive and negative reinforcement and the effect that they can have on the relationship between students and teachers.

Positive reinforcement in the classroom occurs in many situations. For instance, when a pupil hands their homework in on time and their teacher praises them for it.

The pupil then knows that if they hand their homework in on time, they will receive praise from the teacher. They thus have an incentive to do so. This is the ideal way to reinforce pupil behaviour.

However, negative reinforcement can also have a powerful impact on the behaviour of pupils, particularly those that already have the tendency to act out in disruptive and difficult ways. This is because many students who behave disruptively do so because they want the attention of the teacher, regardless of whether it is good or bad.

When you’re working with disruptive students it’s all too easy to focus too much attention on them – after all, their behaviour can literally bring the class to a halt. Unfortunately, this can reinforce the same negative behaviours that you are trying to control and reduce.

For instance, if a disruptive pupil is in a class that they do not like and knows that if they cause a fuss they will be asked to leave, they may learn to disrupt the class (and any other classes they don’t enjoy) for the purpose of being sent out. This is negative reinforcement.

Continuing to send the pupil away not only gives them what they want but also makes it increasingly hard to break the cycle of negative reinforcement. In order to change the dynamic, teachers should focus on implementing the following steps.

When the student is not misbehaving, give them positive attention in small ways that do not disrupt the class. This will reinforce that behaviour, as opposed to the disruptive behaviours they normally use to solicit your attention.

Examples of positive attention include:

  • Making eye contact and smiling
  • Patting the child briefly on the shoulder
  • Chatting with the student briefly about their weekend or evening
  • Praising the student for the work that they are doing
  • Encouraging the child when they are working on a task
  • Giving the student classroom tasks that they enjoy
  • Inviting the child to participate in discussions by asking them their opinion in a friendly, engaging way – ‘How would you summarise Mary I’s political views?’
  • Asking the child about their personal views in relation to the topic on a one-on-one basis – ‘Do you think that boondoggling had a positive impact in New York during the Great Depression?’

When your pupil reverts to their old behaviour and disrupts the class, looking for attention, do not give it to them. Quickly and calmly redirect them to their task and move on. Simply ignore any minor disruptive behaviours and focus on praising the positives.

Behaviour management strategies for teachers: don’t forget yourself!

It can be all too easy to focus too much attention on your pupils’ behaviour and too little on your own. Don’t let this happen. You need to teach to the best of your ability.

Invest in yourself professionally – keeping up to date with your continuous professional development (CPD) means that you will be well-equipped to dealing with any difficult students you might encounter during the course of your teaching.

Focusing on yourself does not just extend to professional development, however. Make sure to incorporate self-care into your busy weekday schedule. Maintaining a good work-life balance is the best way to make sure that you’re rested, refreshed and ready for anything.

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