Student behaviour: The unforeseen consequences of teacher word choice.

This is the first blog in a possible series on school behaviour. Let me preface it by saying I am happy to be challenged on what I propose here, especially by those teachers with much greater expertise and academics who might be able to find flaws in my application of certain theories. The aim of these blogs is not to declare myself an expert but to encourage some granular discussion on the optimal ways of dealing with students who are drifting outside the bounds of acceptable behaviour and to look at some of the complex interplay between the students, teachers and systems. 

For some reason I have been thinking a lot about the unconscious signals we send students during behaviour interactions. Behaviour interactions is a term I’m going to use to describe all those conversations you have with students regarding their behavioural choices in both lesson and communal time. These don’t have to be negative behaviours, but most likely they will be. It’s the nature of the beast after all. 

I’ve been thinking about the language I use when challenging students and what the dynamics of the situations are. It’s become clear to me that there are many different factors that need to be considered. Some of these might be more important than others and the impact on some factors on individuals will vary. After all, students are all different and schools all have different values, cultures and systems in place which impact the situation. To try and make my points clearer I am going to illustrate with a scenario, the aim being to give us all a common context to explore.


Your school runs a ‘late bell’ system. You are walking down the corridor and see a group of students huddled together chatting 1 minute before the late bell. What do you say to them?

Hopefully I’ve chosen a scenario you can relate to. It seems pretty benign, and when I polled Twitter I got a consensus top two that involved instructing the students to go to lesson in one way or another

It’s worth pointing out that I should have used ‘thank you’ instead of ‘please’. This classic Bill Rogers technique of assuming compliance is a better way of phrasing it.  However I think Bill, legend that he is, is wrong this time.

I think the best response to this situation is to inform the students of the time remaining until the late bell. 

*pause for audible gasps*

The rest of this blog will try to make a case for this response on four levels. 

  1. The empowering of the individual.
  2. Transactional analysis.
  3. The currency of attention.
  4. The opportunity to improve peer status.
  1. The empowering of individuals

I think we all want the students in our schools to grow up to be empowered individuals that show initiative and agency in their lives. In the modern vernacular, we aren’t trying to raise NPCs. To allow young adults to learn autonomy they have to be given choice and consequence. This is the foundation of most school behavioural management systems. The idea is that students who choose to do the unacceptable thing incur a cost as a consequence. A phrase I keep finding myself saying when talking to people about a lot of aspects of education is “You can’t have accountability without autonomy”, i.e. you can’t expect to hold someone accountable for their choices if there was never really a choice in the first place. When we go up to students and ask/tell them to go to lesson, we rob them of making that decision themselves. They become passive participants in their lives. This might sound a bit melodramatic but I think it’s important. Now if they want to seize power and control they have a move they can make: they can create a choice by refusing you. By ignoring you or dismissing you, they actually take control in the only way they can. Their defiance is a show of autonomy and an attempt to empower themselves. 

  1. Transactional analysis

Transactional analysis, TA, is a way of exploring the dynamics of human interactions. I’m a big fan and included it in the pastoral section of Middle Leadership Mastery because I think it helps explain why some students react to certain staff in different ways. My shortest possible summary of the approach is this:

  • People can respond to each other in one of three different ego states: Parent, adult and child
  • Well, actually, it is a bit more complicated because parents can be controlling or nurturing and children can be adapted (which includes rebelliousness and negativity) or free which is basically joyful (see here for more details).
  • Crucially the state we choose to use to communicate to people can encourage them to reciprocate in a complementary state. So if we use a parent state we will receive a child state in response and vice versa.
  • Ideally we want to engage with the student in an adult-adult level. In TA, adults are emotionally secure, rational and objective (Yes, that’s a reach, but it’s a theory so we can live with this!).

When we use a reminder or nudge like ‘Time for lessons, off you go’, we are using a nurturing parent state. It’s friendly but also direct. You are politely telling them what to do, so they are being encouraged to be childlike and helpless. This creates a dynamic whereby the student will wait until they are told to go to lesson before they will move. They are now no longer responsible for their punctuality; you have taken that away. If we choose to use a more critical tone like, ‘Stop loitering in the corridor and get to lesson’, then we can consider this a more controlling parent state and we might get a more aggressive, adaptive childlike response in the form of back chat. The only real way to engage them in the adult state is to merely be the deliverer of information. Telling them how much time until the bell forces them to take responsibility for their own actions. 

  1. The currency of attention. 

Attention is a very important thing. We all know that being ignored is one of the worst things that someone can do to you. In trauma-informed circles, attention-seeking behviour is often reframed as attachment-seeking to remove some of the connotations that it is by choice and not a reaction to certain life events. That’s not really an aspect I can comment on in detail, so I will keep it as ‘attention’ because I’m not going to assume all students that are hanging out in the corridor are victims of trauma. Consider the situation from a student’s perspective. If they just get going to lesson, then they do not get the interaction with the staff as they come along to ask them to move on. If they wait around, they have the member of staff come up to them and engage in conversation. Now that conversation may be good or bad, but it is attention. To some students that attention is very important, they like to engage in this conversation and extend it. It makes them feel good to be noticed. So they wait for the teacher to remind them. They still get to lesson and they get their special conversation outside the toilets next to room 5 with Miss B. So they do it again and again. 

  1. The opportunity to improve peer status.

We all know the importance of peer status and belonging in students’ lives. The effects of peer status inform many decisions students make on a daily basis.  If we go up to a student and ask/tell them to move on, they could respond by refusing to comply. They could even go further and demonstrably refuse. They could say ‘no’, they could offer some back chat. All these things will probably improve their peers’ opinion of them, raising their status. If the cost of such actions is low (due to the systems built in the school or the capacity of the staff to follow up), then this calculated risk generally pays off. They can leave having gained peer status. I agree with all those that find finishing with ‘thank you’ instead of ‘please’ implies compliance, but I still think refusal is status-gaining for the student no matter how the request is phrased. If I just tell the group of students the time, I make it impossible for them to refuse me.

This refusal to comply has potentially subtle but significant ramifications. Social learning theory suggests the rest of the students that witness this interaction will use the outcome of it to decide if they will also try and do it. If the student gets a visible and instantaneous consequence, then the cultural norm of doing the right thing is reinforced. However, if they get away with it the opposite happens: others see that refusing staff is an effective strategy to gain peer status.

Damon Centola is a huge inspiration to me for his work on how change spreads. One of his key findings is that change spreads faster through a small number of strong ties rather than many weak ties. Read this here if you want to know more. His other key finding is that it only takes about 25% of a network to adopt a new behaviour to create network-wide change. This tipping point is surprisingly low, but there is empirical data to support it. This means it only takes a small minority of students to create a cultural shift. If enough students choose this approach then they will create the conditions whereby it will become an acceptable norm in the school to wait to be asked to go to lesson. This leads to increasing numbers of students hanging around the corridors and staff becoming frantically busy trying to get them to lesson on time. 

Obviously there will be a proportion of students still doing the right thing. Some students always do the right thing no matter what. They’re not really part of this equation as they don’t really need systems in place to encourage them to meet our expectations.

In conclusion 

I think when you consider all these complex areas there is a significant advantage to telling a student the time over telling them what to do. 

  1. You empower them as an individual and avoid them refusing as a mechanism to gain power and autonomy.
  2. You engage them in the adult state of communication
  3. You avoid them habitually seeking your attention
  4. You avoid the opportunity for them to refuse in an attempt to gain status with their peers.

There is also a fifth benefit. I don’t know about you, but I find it incredibly frustrating when a student ignores me or refuses to follow one of my instructions. Just telling them the time prevents these experiences and saves my patience to focus on the students I teach.

I wonder if you agree?

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