Education: What does it take to keep control of a class?: Managing groups of children is a fundamental skill of teaching, but theories differ about whether it is inborn, a question of trial and error or can be learnt. Diana Hinds reports

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The Independent Online
BEHIND every well-behaved and hard-working class lies a potentially unruly, loud and belligerent one. The same group of children may, in the same day, be as lambs with a teacher they like and respect, but monsters with one who has failed to get their measure.

Facing a new class for the first time is among the most daunting tasks for a teacher, particularly an inexperienced one: so many things can go wrong. As Ingrid Lunt, senior lecturer in educational psychology at the Institute of Education in London, recalls: 'When I first started secondary teaching, I assumed, rather navely, that I would be able to enthuse the children with my own interest in the subject. But it wasn't as straightforward as that. I found that because I was a very gentle, quiet person I couldn't control the class, and they quickly picked up on this.

'It was only through a painful process of trial and error that I built up ways of imposing my will on them. I learnt, for instance, not to confront individual 'troublemakers' in front of the class. Now I advise my students against confrontation, because pupils don't like being shown up in front of their peers and have more invested in not losing the argument. If you do have a showdown, you have to be pretty sure you're going to win.'

So what does it take to be successful teacher in control of a class? Is it something you are born with - the 'you've either got it, or you haven't' argument? And if it can be learnt, then how?

Most educationists agree that it is not simply a matter of personality. A naturally quiet person can peform just as well as a forceful, ebullient one, or one who keeps a class in order through jokes and bonhomie - although it may be harder for a quiet teacher to succeed in a school where the general culture is more boisterous.

Chris Watkins, senior lecturer at the institute, who specialises in classroom management, believes most people with a good level of communication skills and an interest in children can be taught to handle a classroom environment. 'The only style of personality I would consider unsuitable is someone who is very authoritarian, who sees the world in black and white and ends up being judgemental rather than engaging. This is likely to create a negative cycle in the classroom.'

Children have strong ideas about the kinds of teachers they like. Ted Wragg, director of Exeter University's School of Education, in his new book Primary Teaching Skills (Routledge, pounds 9.99), says surveys since the Thirties have shown that children prefer teachers who are slightly strict, but not over- severe, or permissive; who treat them as individuals; who are fair in their use of punishments and rewards; and who have a sense of humour without being sarcastic. They hate teachers who shout at them, are too bossy, and tell them off all the time, often unfairly.

Teachers must have the ability to respond to, and get to know, each group of children they work with, without becoming too set in their ways. For this reason, Mr Watkins believes studying classroom management is important not only for trainees but also for long-serving teachers. 'Experienced teachers can become stale and less good at coping with the different pupils they meet. They stop reading the classroom situation.'

Providing a framework for discussion about what classrooms are like is the first stage in the process Mr Watkins advocates. Then teachers spend some time observing what goes on in a classroom, and begin to investigate why some tactics work and others do not. Gradually they become involved themselves, teaching with someone else before going solo. Feedback comes from tutors, as well as from other teachers in the school.

Professor Wragg agrees that context is all- important in teaching people how to manage a classroom. What works in one situation with one child will not necessarily work in another, so there is no simple set of fail-safe rules and strategies to be learnt.

There are, nevertheless, guidelines. Unacceptable behaviour is to some extent determined by the teacher; where one teacher may allow free movement, another may forbid pupils to leave their seats without permission. The Leverhulme Primary Project, a four- year study co-ordinated by Professor Wragg, found that noise and illicit movement were the two most common forms of misbehaviour; teachers are therefore advised to establish basic rules in these two areas. The majority of teachers surveyed by the project said they would expect to introduce rules on the first day with a new class.

If there are no clearly stated rules, pupils will be tempted to test the limits: how much can they get away with? But the real test of rules comes when they are broken. Should the teacher react by confronting the pupil, or by ignoring the offence?

Many educationists believe that ignoring bad behaviour, provided it is not too serious, can be more effective than confronting it. 'If you respond to everything that happens, you risk losing momentum in the class,' Mr Watkins says.

If a pupil was told to sit down and refused, Ms Lunt says she would ignore the lapse and hope the child would eventually get bored with wandering around. But Professor Wragg argues that ignoring bad behaviour - for instance, a child who swears at the teacher - could sometimes have the effect of reinforcing and prolonging it.

Dealing with the disruptive child privately - for instance, having a private talk at the end of the lesson - is almost invariably more successful than haranguing the pupil in front of the class. That is particularly true in secondary schools, which demand a tougher but basically similar approach to primary schools. 'Being shown up is hurtful for any child, but for 14- and 15-year-olds, who tend to be terribly self-conscious, it can be social death,' Professor Wragg says.

Not only must the teacher be fair and consistent in the treatment of disruptive children, but a consistent policy operating throughout the school is important. Generous praise for good behaviour and good work, either informally or through stars or house points, is crucial in establishing a positive atmosphere in the classroom. One primary teacher in the Leverhulme project won favour with her children, and enhanced their self-image, by calling them her 'smarties' ('Time for my smarties to go to assembly').

The notion of teacher 'with-itness' - having eyes in the back of the head, picking up any misbehaviour early - is generally considered helpful. Jacob Kounin, who posited the idea in research in 1970, also recommends that teachers should keep up momentum in their lessons, and avoid staying on any one issue for longer than necessary.

There is nothing like boredom for making children play up. According to Ms Lunt, a common problem in classrooms is when teachers gear a lesson to the children of average ability, failing to challenge the most able and going over the heads of the less able, who then became bored and difficult. Ideally, she says, in both primary and secondary classrooms, different groups of children should be working on different tasks.

When children are busy and interested they are less likely to be disruptive, as one student teacher in the Leverhulme project discovered the hard way. In the space of one minute, in a class of seven- and eight-year- olds, she had appealed for quiet seven times, stamped her foot, clapped her hands, named individual pupils, raised her voice and asked them to put their hands on their heads, all without success - until she finished giving out the maths worksheets and quiet reigned.