As a new teacher, I remember looking into the well-behaved and attentive classes of my experienced colleagues wondering what magic they possesses to be able to "run a tight ship." Some of these calm and focused classes were ones that I found difficult to manage when the same students were with me. How were my colleagues doing it?

The following are lessons and discoveries that have changed my attitude regarding the importance of behaviour and its impact of the academic success of the students for which I am responsible.

Tough but fair

The best advice that was given to me during my teacher training was "be tough, but fair." Students can sniff out any injustices (including how consistent you are in administering sanctions) and will not respect you or the rules if they feel slighted. Do not give them an easy reason to justify not adhering to the rules.

The two adjacent videos demonstrate some good tough but fair strategies that are based in compassion yet are highly effective.

On day one

9 months later

Watch this video of Tom Bennett discussing classroom culture - click here for my summary of his excellent book "Running the Room."

Setting Culture & Norms

As a new teacher to a school - although this can be true for veterans too - it can feel like you have no control over the culture or norms that you must adopt. The good news is that norms can be taught and culture can change. The bad news is that's not easy (one is never done teaching behaviour)!

Some simple advice:

  • behaviour is a curriculum - teach, don't tell.

  • culture is the dominant set for norms so normalize good behaviour.

  • you can never relax - you must consistently enforce the rules.

  • Practice doesn't make perfect, practice makes permanent - don't let students practice imperfect behaviour.

  • normalize the good by highlighting positive more than negative behaviour.

Rules and Routines

You will need to select rules you wish your class to follow - if you are serious about a rule, write it down. Be careful not to bite off more than you can chew. Having more rules than is enforceable is counterproductive. Make sure your rules and routines are explicitly taught - don't play the "guess what's in my head" game with your students.

Routines are very specific sequences of skills that students run through almost algorithmically. By chunking and practicing these skills, routines will reduce cognitive load - students will have freed up working memory to focus on the task at hand rather than spend energy thinking about "what to do when I come into a class" or "what to do if the computer doesn't work", etc.

Teach the rules and the routines explicitly. Model desired behaviour - even if you think it's obvious. Tom Bennett writes: "treating behaviour as something obvious to all and easy to grasp is to treat well-behaved students as morally superior beings rather than the fortunate recipients of more nourished circumstances."

Watch the adjacent videos to see some interesting routines you may like to adopt.

Watch Adam Boxer describe his favorite rules, routines and strategies

High Standards & Expectations

Having Rules and routines is necessary, but not sufficient! You must also have high expectations. What this means is that if we slack in monitoring and enforcing high standards (even a little - even if you feel too tired to deal with it right now), students will quickly learn that the consequences are arbitrary, and random. Even the best behaved students will begin to test the teacher and within weeks the culture will degenerate. Remember, people don't do what you expect; they do what you inspect.

You are not their Friend

Students don't need another friend - they have friends in excess. What they need (some may even lack) are good (and caring) adult role models. It's great if the students like you, but we're not here to be liked - we're here to teach them. The good news here is that if you teach them well, they will probably like you.

Early in my career, I cared a little too much if my students liked me (I didn't push them as hard as I could or should have). I even tried to keep up with their vernacular and favorite video games. While there's nothing wrong with knowing about youth culture, using their slang and talking about their games didn't make me part of their in-groups and perhaps even distracted from, what was ultimately, my academic mission for them. If the teacher acts in a way that suggests they think school values are stupid (even if we disagree with some school rules) they will contribute to the weakening and eroding of the school culture. The teacher needs to live and breathe the school values.


In the same way that routines ease the cognitive load on students, scripts can ease the load on teachers. Have predefined things to say for the most common scenarios. Perhaps these scripts should be put together by you and your colleagues in the school or department. How do we address the following while maintaining the school values:

  • a student coming in late?

  • a parent calling to complain about a grade or another kid in the class?

  • excuses for unfinished work?

  • a kid in the lunch line accusing you of cutting in?

  • a student swears near you but then denies it?

  • a student ignores your safety instructions in the hall?

  • you intercept a fight?

  • a student makes a rude comment about you?

  • etc.

Scripts are not dogmatic rituals that must be used on cue - if something better to say comes to mind, say it. A script is an opportunity to anticipate tricky situations and know ways to deal with them that are aligned with your or the school's values. Scripts are:

  • as short as possible, but not shorter

  • to the point

  • clear, linear and concrete

  • functional rather than emotional

  • practiced for strong delivery

Sanctions & Rewards

Good behaviour cannot be secured in all students by great instruction alone. Some students, understanding perfectly well that they should not, will still break rules. For boundaries to count, they must be patrolled. The two most common tools of behaviour are sanctions and rewards.

Sanctions are meant for one thing: to deter. They do not cure or transfigure. Students don't sit in detention thinking "what am I doing with my life?" Instead, they sit in discomfort and think "I'd like to avoid this next time."

Sanctions are not retribution. they are not a way to repay a debt to the community. They are not revenge. They are a way to discourage future misbehaviour.

Playlist of Dr. Bill Rogers' strategies (I find"tactical ignoring" very useful).

Not all sanctions work all the time. They will work to different degrees depending on people and context. A thought experiment goes like this: if all the rules of the road were removed, would there be more or less bad driving. Obviously, the rules don't prevent all bad driving - people still break the rules - but the rules act as a damper on the frequency of bad behaviour.

Sanctions don't just affect those being punished. Others will vicariously feel their effects and be deterred. This can cut the other way too - if we let things slide, those who were well behaved learn that they are the chumps following imaginary rules.

Here are 3 general factors of effective sanctions:

  1. certainty rather than severity

  2. consistency is key

  3. sanctions affect different people differently

A side note: Stoicism was a philosophy of preparedness - of being able to cope with the inevitable pressures and trials that life will provide. Over-sheltering our students by preventing any form of distress has the opposite effect: it makes them incapable of dealing with difficulty. We ought to expose children, early and in a safe environment, to the fact that their choices have consequences.

Sanctions must not be sever or disproportionate or excessive. Rather they should:

  • have escalating tariffs (bigger crimes, bigger sanctions)

  • repeated misbehaviour should be met with escalated sanctions (make sure there is room for the severity to increase or else what do you do next? However, the prudent teacher should notice red flags if there is repetition and ought to investigate if there is not something else happening in that student's life...)

  • beware of attribution bias

  • focus on behaviour, not on who is the student

  • be immediate, not delayed (train the student to connect their actions to the consequences)

  • cause students a little conflict (discomfort) - consider having them do a chore.