One in Every Class – Dealing with disruption

It wasn’t that long ago that kids brought apples to school for their teachers. But today it seems they just drive them bananas! For those readers who are teachers or who know teachers this appears to be an increasingly common scenario in our schools today. Statistics from Australia give a window into what’s happening in kids’ lives which results in some of the behaviours seen in the school setting. Much of this is applicable around the world and the insights below remain current.


In Australia:

  • In 1996, there were 106,100 marriages and 52,500 divorces.
  • 6% of all divorces involved children (Australian Bureau of Statistics, Marriages and Divorces, 1996)
  • One million children live in one parent families. (Australian Bureau of Statistics, Focus on Families, Demographics and Family Formation, 1994)
  • 4 children in every 10 live in poverty.
  • There are 370,000 families with children under 15 whose parent, or parents are not employed. (Sydney: Mission Australia, Children in Poverty: Lost Expectations, cited in the Herald Sun, 2 Dec. 1997, p24)
  • Children spend about 19 hours a week in front of television. (Sydney: Centre for Independent Studies, State of the Nation, 1997)
  • 25% of children have a TV in their bedroom; 75% have a radio, cassette or CD player. (Families and Electronic Entertainment, 1996)

The best form of behaviour management and discipline control is to have a well prepared, dynamic and interactive program. The goal is to have kids feel like they’re missing out if they’re not focused and involved. However, we’re only human and sometimes we don’t quite reach this standard. This article looks at the issue of accommodating the child who constantly pushes the boundaries. Of course, these principles apply to all children and consistently implemented will establish a positive and warm learning environment.

Dr. William Glasser is a psychiatrist, well known in the fields of education and social sciences. Midway in his career he began his insightful development of Choice Theory. This theory maintains that all we do from birth to death is behave and that our behaviour is internally motivated and chosen. Behaviour is never caused by a response to an outside stimulus. Instead, the choice theory states that behaviour is inspired by what a person wants most at any given time. The only person’s behaviour we can control is our own and all of our behaviour is simply our best attempt to satisfy one or more of the 5 basic needs built into our genetic structure. Glasser’s work is similar to the hierarchies suggested by Maslow who states that a child cannot learn until his/her needs are met. Glasser states that the child cannot behave until his/her needs are met. We all know that children cannot learn when they are not behaving.

The Five Basic Needs

  1. Survival
  2. Freedom/Choice
  3. Personal Power (Success/Recognition)
  4. Love, belonging, friendship
  5. Fun

Some introductory responses

Disruptive behaviour can still arise even after investing time into ensuring these basic needs are being met. Some simple introductory responses to a disruptive child are:

1    Ignore the behaviour (except when safety is an issue). Don’t give them the attention they are trying to demand.

  1. Move to position yourself next to the child while maintaining the flow of your program. No eye contact, yet. Your presence is often enough to influence the behaviour.
  2. A gentle touch on the shoulder, while maintaining the flow of your program, communicates your disapproval.
  3. A short, clear request directed at the child for the behaviour to cease. Use the child’s name and maintain a normal tone of voice. Return to the flow of your program as quickly as possible.
  4. Use a gesture e.g. clicking finger to get immediate attention and to indicate the change of behaviour required.
  5. Ask a question of the child concerned, related to the program.
  6. Change the activity, if appropriate, so as to refocus their attention.

Many children are masters at the game of trying to get the desired response from their parent, teacher, leader, etc. Once the adult raises their voice, goes off on the tangent that their questioning demands or has to stop their teaching to talk with them, they have ‘won’ that round of the game. The best way to help these children is to not play their game. Keep the tone of your voice respectful, even in the face of outrageous behaviour. Consider carefully your response to the situation confronting you, implementing some of the above strategies.

Choices and Consequences

For the child who persists in disrupting the program another approach is required. Remembering Glasser’s words, “The only person’s behaviour we can control is our own” our challenge now is to help the child to control their own behaviour. To do this, we have to realise that any ‘disciplinary action’ that may take place is the result of the choices made by the child. Our role in this process is to be thinking ahead so as to give the child clear choices and consequences in each situation. For example… a child is swinging on his chair and causing a distraction. The introductory strategies above have not had the desired response, so you stop your program and say,

“Brendan, you’ve got a choice to make. You can either choose to stop swinging on your chair knowing that you can then stay where you are next to your friend Ben. Or you can choose to keep swinging on your chair knowing that this means you will have to go and shift your chair next to Melissa. Make a good choice, Brendan!”

Return to your program, not feeling any pressure about the situation because what happens next is not up to you. If Brendan makes a good choice, don’t forget to compliment him at some stage. If he make a poor choice comment,

“Brendan, you’ve chosen to move your chair next to Melissa. Please do so now.”

At this point, explain his next choice and the consequences.

“Brendan, if you choose to join in with the rest of the children and focus on what we’re doing then you can return to sitting next to your friend Ben. If you choose to continue swinging on your chair then you will choose to move to the corner and face the wall for the rest of the program. Make a good choice, Brendan!” And so on.

Our responsibility in this process is to have thought through the levels of consequences for each action. If the process moves to a point where the child cannot be part of the program for a week or two, this is not because you are banning them from the program, but rather that they have chosen to miss these two weeks. In the conversation with the parent about this action, the various choices made by the child can be clearly explained, again taking the responsibility from your shoulders.

Time Out

A child’s series of choices may result in them choosing to spend some time out from the program. Time out is removing the child for a specific and relatively short period of time, from a situation that is enjoyable and full of positive reinforcement to a much less pleasant situation. Some points to remember:

  • The timeout location must be safe, uninteresting and away from the mainstream activity. The goal is for the child to prefer to be somewhere else.
  • The rules of time out must have been explained before the behaviour occurs and will happen each time it occurs.
  • Set a time limit according to their age. If a child resists add more time or start time again.
  • When time out is over, go over the correct behaviour and clearly point out the child’s choices before returning to the program.
  • Catch the child doing the right behaviour soon after.

Prevention Principles

  1. Know your children. Take a personal interest in them. Learn and remember their names. Discover their interests. Build caring relationships with them. Pray for them. Establish rapport before you have to intervene or the intervention, no matter how reasonable, is less likely to have a positive outcome.
  2. No one child has the right to be disruptive so as to prevent you from teaching or other children from learning or having fun.
  3. Be consistent in your approach. Children need to see justice being the same for all.
  4. Don’t forget positive reinforcement. It’s easy to forget to praise and reward a child for doing the ‘right’ thing. Don’t be guilty of only responding to negative behaviour.
  5. Give clear instructions and always before they move. Never talk over the top of other children. Ensure you have attention when giving directions. The best instructions start with a verb and are 5 words or less e.g. “Move to your groups now”, “Walk inside the building, thanks.”
  6. Recruit the help of extra adults. To have a spare adult who is free to withdraw a child from a program, if necessary, is an asset to any team. For many children their actions reveal their need to be noticed, loved and listened to, so to go for a walk with a child is an effective discipline strategy.
  7. Withdrawing privileges is a useful strategy in achieving positive behaviour. Consider what privileges you can withdraw that can be included in your list of consequences.
  8. Involve the parents. Some children think they can get away with certain behaviours because their parent/s don’t know what they are doing. Ask the child how they think their parents would respond if they knew about their behaviour. If you say that you are going to ring the parent/s to talk over the incident, keep your word
  9. Have realistic expectations in the light of the age of the children and today’s setting. Children need boundaries. Work with them in establishing these for your program and be consistent in enforcing them.
  10. In any situation involving negative behaviour, ask yourself the question, “What is the real reason why this child is displaying this action?” To find and deal with the answer to this question is the best way to help that child.

This article is drawn from the Max7 archive. You can download it here.