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Banishing Bad Behaviour; is it really possible?

We’ve all been there, be it with students (or employees for that matter!) of any age range; those that don’t want to be there, those that don’t want to learn, those whose mission in life it seems to disrupt every activity and learning opportunity and apparently make your teaching life or supervisory role hell on earth.

So what can you do about it? How do you get around that one person disrupting the experience for everyone? Is there a one size fits all approach to achieving workplace or classroom zen?

When I first went to teach in Japan, I was taking over a class from another teacher who left me with this comment about the class: ‘they’re a freaking nightmare. One of them just goes nuts at the drop of a hat and the rest of the class follows suit. It’s not teaching, it’s crowd control. The only way to deal with her is to punish her and make her stand in the corner. Seriously. If you want to teach the other kids anything, just get her out of the classroom any way you can. Good luck.’

With that ever so positive and endearing advice, I thought ‘well this is going to be interesting.’ Surely flat out excluding her couldn’t be the best solution?

So I’m teaching this class for the first time and sure enough, 10 minutes in, the girl throws an absolute tantrum, smashing the games off the table and kicking and screaming at her classmates.  Her classmates freeze for a second before following her lead and the classroom descends into chaos.

Mesmerised, not knowing what to do, I simply watched and thought ‘she was right. This isn’t teaching. This is crowd control! I wasn’t trained to deal with this!’

The next week I decided to try a different tactic. Punishment. Surely that would work? Isolate the culprit and the rest will realise how little fun it is? Nope. The tantrums from the other side of the classroom were totally distracting and sent the others off task and into confusion.

Over the coming months I tried everything from calm, positive requests and inclusive discipline, to all out screaming matches and seclusion. All in all nothing I was trying was working and I was about ready to give up when I decided I was just going to stop treating her like someone with special needs, and start treating her the same way as any other student who acted up in class.

The next time she decided to sweep the game off the table, I sat back, and calmly started putting the pieces back in the box. In simple English I said things like ‘Oh well that’s no fun. No one gets to play now. Hmm,’ and started another game. When she started interacting in the next game I praised her good behaviour as I did the other kids. When she lost it again, I simply started putting the game back into the box and sighed again, saying ‘Oh man, that was a fun game. Oh well. Finished now’. 

Instead of reacting or punishing her antics, I ignored them and praised anything she did right, however minor or trivial it may have been.

Seems simple enough but little by little the good behaviour improved and the chaos lessened. One day, in the middle of the game she actually said a word in English. The first I’d ever heard from her and from what the other teachers had told me, possibly the first word any of us had heard her utter. I ran back to the office to tell the other teachers and they were all incredulous. ‘She’s interacting normally? She said something? We’ve never heard her say anything!’

When it was time to leave Japan, her parents approached me in the hall after class and offered me a full time position in their home as a nanny. I politely declined but they insisted and the mother ended up in tears pleading with me. The father explained that before my class, they had never heard her speak – even in Japanese – and that since working in my class she’d come along socially in leaps and bounds not only in school but also at home and that they were afraid of what would happen if I left.

Moral of the story? Behaviour management is one of those things that is completely unpredictable. Whether it’s adults, teenagers or kids, the same tactics, with different students, can pan out completely differently and there’s no saying what will work with one lot won’t work with the next.

With adults I believe the key is with being as honest as possible; building rapport with them as people, not as students, and making sure the lines of communication are open at all times. Firm but friendly, fun and fair seems to be the natural balance but sometimes, even depending on the culture that can back fire too. Be informed, know your target culture and ask questions. Lots of questions.

Positive reinforcement is a core discipline method that has stood the test of time with people of all ages and even pets (seriously!); reinforce and praise good behaviour, isolate and explain but otherwise ignore less than savoury behaviour.

Try it and tell me it doesn’t work, even with the hardest of cases!

So what has worked for you? Leave us your behaviour management success stories in the comments section below!

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