How To Get Students To Do What You Want

How to get students to do what you want

We cannot control another person’s behaviour, but when we change what we do, we can increase the likelihood that students will do what we want.

Here are the top 11 mistakes teachers make with behaviour management:



1. Unclear expectations. John Holt in How Children Fail, wrote that the first time students find out about the teacher’s expectations, can be when they fail to meet them. Your students should know what you expect in terms of behaviour and academic performance and how to achieve that.

When you have clear expectations for your classroom, ideally negotiated with your students, you set the students up to win the game. You are giving them every opportunity to succeed in your class, because they know where the bar is set and they know how to achieve it. If I was going to give a new teacher just one piece of advice, it would be this: decide in advance how you want your students to behave and then explicitly teach them how to do that. For how to set up class expectations see here.


2. Not organised. When you are late to class, don’t have materials ready, you are flustered and unprepared, you set the class and yourself up for failure. You cannot do your best work when you are late and the students have been given extra time to be bored, niggle at each other and feel annoyed and angry at having to wait.


3. Don’t collaborate with colleagues. When you work with other teachers you can learn more about your students, learn different ways to manage behaviour, and gain a different perspective on particular students. You may find out information that could make the difference to how you view a student’s behaviour, and help you be more compassionate and understanding of their situation.


4. Undermine whole school approaches by not following agreed protocols or processes. Teachers who ‘white ant’ whole school policies are doing themselves and their colleagues and students a huge disservice. Consistency of practice is what helps a school run smoothly, reduces teacher stress and burnout and supports staff and students. When some teachers decide that they are not going to follow process, the results can be a toxic school environment where students know where they can push the boundaries and teachers don’t feel supported. For how to have a whole school approach to behaviour see here.

How To Get Students To Do What You Want quote

5. Fail to follow through. Once you have established your expectations with your students, follow through consistently with reinforcements and consequences. This is particularly important at the beginning of the school year or when you are first developing relationships with the students. When you follow through with what you say, you build credibility and trust with your students.

You give them certainty and assurance that you are reliable and dependable. You also reinforce their appropriate behaviour when you follow through and your consistency will determine the effectiveness of any intervention to change behaviour. While it may feel too hard sometimes, following through is what students remember, and it is what builds positive relationships with students, particularly for those students with behaviour issues.



6. Focus on the negative behaviours. 95% of the time, students are doing the right thing, but our focus is grabbed by the 5% because of our brain’s negative bias. By switching this tendency in the classroom and focusing on what is going well including giving attention to appropriate behaviour, you will increase the intensity and frequency of positive behaviour because

1) we are looking for it, and

2) we are giving students the clues they need to demonstrate the behaviour.

For why you need to focus on the positive see here.


7. Ignore too much inappropriate behaviour. Now this may sound like a contradiction to the #6 however this means not dealing with inappropriate behaviour, letting kids get away with behaviour you know is unacceptable. While using what Christine Richmond calls ‘selective attending’ by distracting, diverting, changing lesson focus, proximity and redirection are valid behaviour tools, some behaviours require action. This may mean speaking with a student after class, or privately during class. It may mean giving students a choice about where and when they complete the work, or it could mean you need to reteach your class expectations for behaviour.


8. Expect that students will just behave. Effective teachers have a plan for what they will do when a student does not follow class rules (because it will happen!). Carefully plan your approach so that you use low key strategies to redirect, remind students of expectations, distract and offer assistance to prevent behaviour escalations. For ways to prevent disruptive behaviour see here.


9. Expect students to respect them just because. I met a young teacher at one of our workshops who felt that students should show respect for her because that is what she did when she was at school. While I understand her frustration and bewilderment, it is not just a given that students will respect their teachers. However, they will show respect for teachers who they feel care about and respect them and it is part of our job to teach our students what it means to be respectful and model it for them.


10. Yell, nag, plead, hope and pray, use sarcasm. All these behaviours sound like stress and lack of control over yourself and your situation. They are not behaviour strategies, though I have heard teachers say that these are tools they use. If this is what is in your toolkit, teaching will be very exhausting!


11. Use punishment to change behaviour. Threats work for 75-80% of the population. The other 25% need to be explicitly taught how to behave, positively reinforced, provided with supports such as reminders, cues, pre-correction and calm, considered responses when they don’t follow expectations. For more on why punishment doesn’t work see here.