Structure, instruction, discipline

Creating an environment focused on learning and teaching is one of the greatest challenges for beginning teachers. Managing the classroom learning environment involves more than managing the behaviour of students. It involves creating an optimal classroom environment where learning and teaching can take place.

Several factors impact on the learning environment including: putting routines in place; interacting with students; negotiating rules with students; ensuring the rules are consistently and fairly carried out and arranging classroom furniture.

Henley (2009) has identified three areas: structure, instruction and discipline that provide a useful set of organisers when considering the range of factors that influence the creation of an effective classroom learning environment.

Structure refers to organisational practices, routines, and procedures that form a platform for daily activities. Structure involves such concrete issues as how desks are arranged and influences such abstract concerns as group dynamics. Effective structure evolves with time and needs to be flexible and responsive to learners’ needs. Flexibility allows for changes that will improve the learning climate. (For example: establishing routines for all daily tasks and needs; orchestrating smooth transitions and continuity of momentum throughout the day.)

Instruction refers to the delivery of content using knowledge of students, how they learn, the subject content and how to teach it. When students are engaged in their lessons, disruptions are minimal. Conversely, monotonous, dull lessons create boredom, which in turn leads students to seek out distractions. Effective teachers are enthusiastic, they know their curriculum, they take their students’ needs and interests into account when planning, and they use a variety of teaching methods. (For example: striking a balance between variety and challenge in student activities; increasing student engagement in learning and making good use of every instructional moment).

Discipline refers to the approaches and strategies teachers use to guide and promote constructive student behaviour. Discipline is as immediate as correcting misbehaviour and as far-reaching as developing a trusting relationship. Discipline involves more than simply reacting to misbehaviour and punishing recalcitrant students; discipline is proactive and educational. Effective disciplinary practices teach students how to manage their feelings, behave appropriately, and respect others’ rights. (For example: heightening awareness of all actions and activities in the classroom using consistent, proactive disciplinary practices; anticipating potential problems to limit disruptions and resolve minor disruptions before they become major problems.)

Henley (2009) asserts that focusing on a combination of structure, instruction, discipline has a dynamic effect on the learning environment. Everything that transpires in a classroom—moment to moment, day to day, and week to week—is influenced by the teacher’s approach to these three areas.

Proactive teaching

In order to teach well, the teachers must establish an environment that is both productive and harmonious. To do this, teachers need to be proactive.

Proactive teachers accept responsibility for their students’ successes and their students’ failures (Henley, 2009)

Proactive teachers:

  • Take a solution-oriented approach. Proactive teachers find solutions. They recognise that while there are often explanations for students’ difficulties, they do not use these explanations as excuses.

  • Adopt a can-do attitude. Proactive teachers have a strong belief in their students, do not give up on them and maintain a ‘no-excuses’ attitude toward their learning.

  • Make wise choices. Proactive teachers make wise choices about the use of structure, instruction and discipline in ways that facilitate learning.

  • Acknowledge the needs/rights/expectations of students. Proactive teachers acknowledge students' basic needs including survival, belonging, power, fun, and freedom . They establish optimal learning environments and expect high standards of behaviour.

  • Acknowledge teacher needs/rights/expectations. Proactive teachers acknowledge that a teacher needs the full attention of each student and that they have the right to establish optimal learning environments. He/she may expect behaviour which contributes to optimal student growth (Canter, 1996).

Creating an orderly classroom

Establishing and maintaining order is an important part of managing the classroom learning environment. Proactive teachers ensure that off-task behaviour is re-directed before it leads to misbehaviour. In an orderly classroom, students are focussed on instructional tasks and are not misbehaving.

The explicit teaching, modelling, demonstrating, practising, reviewing and implementing of classroom rules, consequences, procedures and routines is vital in the establishment of an orderly classroom. When it comes to the application of classroom rules and consequences teachers need to be consistent, insistent and persistent.

Each school will have in place school procedures related to rules, consequences and routines, as well as key personnel whose role it is to support students with specific learning and behavioural needs. In collaboration with the supervisor and/or mentor/coach, beginning teachers could consider the following strategies to prompt discussion regarding procedures and behavioural expectations for students within the classroom and across the school.

  • Negotiate class rules

  • Identify consequences for positive behaviour

  • Identify consequences for non-compliance

  • Explicitly teach, model, demonstrate, practice and review the rules

  • Consistently uphold agreed classroom rules

  • Develop a set of standards for quality and quantity of work

  • Develop procedures and routines for reoccurring events

Each of these strategies are outlined in further detail in

Link to PDF: Strategies for creating an orderly classroom
Strategies for creating an orderly classroom. (.pdf 164kB)

Preventing student misbehaviour

As a result of two seminal studies regarding classroom management, Jacob Kounin (1977) concluded that what teachers do to prevent management problems from occurring in the first place is what makes the real difference with regard to successful classroom management.

Kounin identified 6 key strategies that effective classroom managers use as preventative measures:

Ripple effect occurs when the teacher corrects misbehaviour in one student, and this positively influences the behaviour of other nearby students.

The ripple effect is influenced by the clarity and firmness of the correction. The effect is greater when the teacher clearly names the unacceptable behaviour and gives the reasons for the desist. Firmness, that is, conveying an ‘I mean it’ attitude, enhances the ripple effect.

Withitness is an awareness of what is going on in all parts of the classroom at all times, often referred to as having the proverbial ‘eyes in the back of your head’.

To be effective, the students must perceive that the teacher really knows what is going on in the classroom. If students are off-task and fooling around, the teacher needs to send a clear message that communicates to the students that the teacher sees that they are not working and they need to get started. Withitness can be improved with practice, such as learning how to effectively use systematic techniques to scan the class. Keeping your ‘back to the wall’ as you move throughout the class helps you see the broader picture and be more aware of what is going on. Move around the room and be physically near the students, and maintain a good field of vision to see all students wherever you stand. Move around during seat work to check on student progress.

The effectiveness of withitness is increased when the teacher can correctly identify the student who is the instigator of an incident. Teachers who target the wrong student for a desist or a reprimand are perceived by the students as not knowing what is really going on (that is, not ‘withit’). When several incidences of misbehaviour occur at the same time, it is important that teachers deal with the most serious incident first. Timing is another aspect of withitness. Teachers should intervene early and quickly in dealing with misbehaviour. Failure to do so allows the misbehaviour to spread.

Overlapping is when the teacher can attend two or more events within the classroom at the same time.

For example, the teacher can give a student individual feedback in one area of the classroom and, at the same time, offer a quick word of encouragement to students who are working at another learning centre. Or, a teacher can deal effectively with an interruption while keeping an eye on the happenings across the room. Kounin found that teachers who are skilled at overlapping were also more ‘withit’. Students are more likely to stay on-task if they know that the teacher is aware of what they are doing and can help them when needed.

Transitions is when the teacher maintains smoothness and momentum between and within lessons.

Student behaviour is influenced by the smoothness and effectiveness of transitions between tasks in a lesson. Failure to gain the students attention, unclear and confusing directions, using lengthy explanations, dwelling too much on the details rather than focusing on key points, and allowing students to take too much time moving from one task to the next contribute to student misbehaviour. Well-established routines, a consistent signal for gaining the class attention, clear directions, preparing students to shift their attention from one task to another, and concise explanations that highlight the main points of the task help reduce student misbehaviour. Kounin found that smooth and effective transitions are one of the most important techniques in maintaining student involvement and class control.

Group focus/alerting is when the teacher is able to keep the whole class engaged and alerts students to new learning or up-coming change.

The ability to keep members of the class or group paying attention to the task is essential in maintaining an efficient classroom and reducing student misbehaviour. Effective grouping maximises active participation and keeps students engaged in learning. Accountability is a powerful force in keeping students on-task. Accountability measures can include record-keeping, both teacher and student-maintained (checklists, task cards, etc.), public recognition, skill testing, and written work. When students know that they will be held accountable for their learning and behaviour and teachers know how each student is progressing, student misbehaviour decreases. Another important technique is alerting, that is focusing the attention of the group. Directing students’ attention to the critical cues in the demonstration, using questions to check for students’ understanding, and varying the student who is called upon to give an answer are some ways to focus the class attention. Student involvement is increased and misbehaviour is reduced when teachers hold the attention of the class. Optimal learning takes place when teachers keep pupils alert and held accountable for learning.

Satiation is when the teacher knows when students have had enough and notices signs of boredom.

Satiation, which means being satisfied or having enough, is used by Kounin to describe students’ progressive loss of interest in the task. When students experience satiation or boredom, other behaviours emerge. Students may introduce variations into the task, work mechanically on the task without giving it much thought, or try to create some excitement through fooling around with a classmate or engaging in other forms of misbehaviour. Kounin suggests reducing satiation by providing students with a feeling of progress, offering students challenges throughout the lesson, and being enthusiastic. Variety reduces satiation and alleviates boredom. Changing the level of challenges, restructuring groups, extending the task, and using different teaching styles add variety to the lesson.

In addition to the above key strategies there are a range of further strategies that can be used to prevent misbehaviour in classrooms and keep the focus on learning. These strategies include planning thoroughly, using lesson starters, providing variety, establishing group cohesiveness and responsibility and concluding lessons effectively. Fuller explanations about these and other proactive strategies can be found in

Link to PDF: Proactive strategies to prevent misbehaviour
Proactive strategies to prevent misbehaviour. (.pdf 138kB)

Responding to student misbehaviour

Although effective teachers anticipate and monitor student learning and behaviour, misbehaviour and misunderstanding can still occur. The trick is to handle misbehaviour promptly so as to keep it from continuing and spreading.

When dealing with routine classroom behaviour, misbehaviours (Slavin, 2003). The goal is to handle misbehaviour in a way that avoids unnecessarily disrupting the lesson. If possible, lessons should continue while misbehaviour is handled.

Most classroom misbehaviour can be handled unobtrusively with mild verbal and non-verbal responses.

However for more serious misbehaviour where mild responses are insufficient, it will be necessary to use more direct, intrusive intervention. This kind of intervention will involve implementing strategies that have been discussed with school supervisors and that are within the context of school policies and procedures. These more serious interventions may include responses such as loss or reduction of privilege, making up wasted time, contact with parents and carers, time out beyond the classroom and respectful of removal of students from class. These interventions should only be implemented when other methods have failed and as outlined in school policies.

The following approaches provide a range of mild non-verbal and verbal responses aimed at getting students back on task with limited disruption and intervention:

  • Avoid power struggles. It is important that the authority figure in the classroom (the teacher) not engage in power struggles with students. It is best to redirect a power-seeking student's behaviour by offering some position of responsibility or decision making.

  • Address the behaviour, not the character of the student. The teacher has the power to build or destroy student self-concept and personal relationships. Good communication addresses the situation directly, letting the student decide whether their behaviour is consistent with what they expect of themselves.

  • Prevent escalation. Students who are displaying hostile or aggressive behaviour should be given time to ‘cool off’ before an attempt is made to resolve the situation. Giving the student time to calm down, talking (and listening) with the student privately, and rationally discussing the problem behaviour enhances the possibility of a constructive resolution. Confrontation with an unwilling, hostile or aggressive student could lead to the escalation of an issue.

  • Ignore the behaviour. Sometimes intentionally ignoring minor misbehaviours such as body movement, hand waving, whispering, etc., is the best approach as it weakens the behaviour.

  • Identify the cause of the misbehaviour. Isolate the cause of the misbehaviour and make changes or remove the cause.

  • Use nonverbal signals. These can be used to communicate that a behaviour is not appropriate. Non verbal signals include making eye contact, shaking a hand or finger, holding a hand up, or giving the ‘teacher look’.

  • Stand near the student/s. A physical presence near, or walking towards the student/s can help get them back on task.

  • Give I-messages. These messages prompt appropriate behaviour without giving a verbal command. For example, “When you tap on your desk it makes a lot of noise and I am concerned that it distracts others”.

  • Use positive phrasing. “When you do X (appropriate behaviour), then you can Y (a positive outcome). For example, “When you sit down, then it will be your turn to use the computer”.

  • Remind students about class rules. It is possible that a verbal reminder of the classroom rules and consequences will be all that is necessary to stop student misbehaviour. When students know that consequences of misbehaviour are in fact delivered, reminders of rules can help them get back on task because they do not want the consequences.

  • Redirect Behaviour. The teacher describes the action to the student and suggests an acceptable alternative action. The student usually only has to be reminded of what he is supposed to be doing. For example, "Instead of reading that magazine, I would like you to do your writing for the next five minutes. You can read the magazine later."

  • Give students choice. Giving choices allows some students to feel they have settled the problem without appearing to back down. The choices you provide should lead to resolution of the problem.

  • Ask “What should you be doing?” Asking Glasser’s question can have a positive effect as it helps redirect the student back to positive behaviour.

  • Give verbal reprimands. Directly asking or telling the student to cease a certain behaviour and get back on task.

  • Look, pause. Stopping mid-way in a sentence, pausing or looking in the direction of the student is often enough to resolve the difficulty without interrupting the lesson.

  • Comment. This can involve naming the student, asking a question, requesting attention, sharing a joke or restating expectations.