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How to solve behaviour problems – PP52

The topic of the week is Problem solvers and process monkeys.

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Paul answers a question this week which was posed by a listener on Twitter. It leads him to a consideration of whether it’s better to follow the behaviour management process slavishly or to try to solve the problem.

monkeysDo you have a process-driven mindset or a problem solving mindset?

Here is the tweet Paul received:

“Any tips? Learner refuses to participate. Tried praise, encouragement, paired tasks, grp work, indiv tasks, sweets! no avail?”In follow-up tweets, the low reading age of the learner as well as other issues were made clearer and the context of an English classroom was added.

Questions a teacher who is obsessed with process might ask themselves when faced with a learner who refused to participate:

  • Where are we at in terms of the policy?
  • What’s wrong with this learner?
  • What am I expected to do?
  • What sanction comes next?
  • What punishment is next?
  • Who can I pass this problem to?
  • What forms do I need to fill in?
  • How can I cover my back?
  • How do I speed up the process to get this learner out of my classroom?
  • Why doesn’t this process work?

The focus is on what the teacher should do to make the teacher’s life easier.

Problem-solving questions are similar but have a different slant:

  • Where is the learner at?
  • What’s driving this behaviour?
  • How can I help?
  • What positive behaviours can I find immediately?
  • Who can stand alongside me and guide?
  • When are we going to organise a meeting to repair restore and review?
  • How can I slow down the process in order to give the learner some breathing space to make some real decisions?
  • How much persistence am I going to need in order to change this behaviour?
  • What can I do as an adult to change what I do to really help this learner?

So, where to start with this learner? Paul suggests that the question to start with is: “What is scaring the learner?” This could be something to so with reading age or maybe something which is happening outside school. This doesn’t mean prying into their personal life by sitting them down and asking questions – rather there will be lots of sources of information in the school or college already which you can use. A tutor, a Special Needs Coordinator or a teacher who has worked with the learner for longer than you could all be good sources of information.

As this is a ritualised problem, maybe there’s something going on at break time, at lunch time or before school. Is there substance misuse or abuse? Is there a tiredness issue? Has the learner not had breakfast or eats poorly?

Learners refuse to participate for two main reasons: fear of learning or fear of something outside school which they have brought in with them.

Diving straight into the learning might be a problem if it’s the learning causing the fear. So what can you do to create easy, small steps to get them to participate on a very low level at first? Then you can build it up. Can you pass some responsibility on to the learner to increase the engagement?

Try to get to the root of the problem

What lessons does the learner engage in? Speak to those teachers. Are these lessons more active? Are they ones in which the learner has to sit down and write for long periods of time? Is there a pattern to where he is engaging and where he is not? Ask those teachers what you can try next. Is there a pattern on a Tuesday morning or a Friday afternoon?

Test out strategies

It’s dangerous to hand out strategies on a podcast to a learner we have never met but we can outline lots of different strategies for the teacher to test out in the next few weeks. Give a strategy at least 30 days and then evaluate.

  • Curiosity – how can you tempt the learner to participate?
  • Contact with home
  • Positive triangulation with other staff
  • Peer support
  • Talking to the learning privately
  • Really simple agreement in small steps – written down with the learner, one or two things for the next lesson
  • Develop trust – follow through what you say, interactions all around school, sitting down for lunch with them, a positive hello and a smiley goodbye
  • Constant positive reinforcement for what they can do

(Creative Commons image by Chi Tranter. Creative Commons Sound clip by Johnny Pixel Productions, Inc. –

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