Tackling low level disruption

This article was written for SecEd Magazine

My work necessitates a lot of travel. Before you conjure images of me in a smoking jacket sipping martinis in the first-class cabin of a transatlantic flight, let me describe a recent journey…

Imagine, if you will, an intercity train from the 1970s. You know the type: a rust-bucket with well-worn seats in brown-and-orange hues. Now imagine that same train rattling through the Pennines half a century later, coughing diesel fumes.

Recently, I travelled on that train to visit a school. I was fortunate to find a seat and managed to squeeze my laptop onto the pull-down table and settled to work.

My productivity was short-lived. At the next station, two party-goers boarded. I shall call these passengers Sharon and Steve, for those were their names; monikers they repeatedly hollered at each other.

Sharon and Steve were three sheets to the wind and on their way to a karaoke bar. They made good use of their time aboard the Venga Train to practise their singing (a term I use quite loosely).

They were harmless, just drunk and happy and loud. Truth be told, I was more jealous than annoyed. But they did break my concentration.

Try as I might, Sharon and Steve’s raucous behaviour made it impossible for me work and so I stared at my screen for the next hour, not a single word written or read.

Which brings me to the subject of low-level disruption in the classroom. How many of our pupils are prevented from learning by the behaviour of their fellow class-mates? How many are unable to concentrate because the kid in the corner is acting the class-clown again? And, more importantly, what can we, as teachers, do about it?

Culture eats strategy…

Behaviour management is not solely in the domain of a classroom teacher. Rather, it is for senior leaders to establish a whole-school culture of high expectations; a code of conduct that promotes good behaviour and condones bad.

Such a culture is built of routines, repeatedly reinforced. And such a culture is built of effective systems and structures, including for the provision of rewards and sanctions.

A whole-school culture works best when it is the result of a wide-ranging consultation, particularly with regards to agreeing a set of social norms – the rules and routines you expect every pupil (and indeed every member of staff) to follow every day. And that culture works best when it is effectively communicated to all and is upheld by all consistently.

But, assuming such a culture has already been established, what can individual teachers do to tackle low-level disruption in their own classrooms?

Learning environment

The Great Teaching Toolkit from Evidence Based Education (see further information) says that effective teachers create a supportive learning environment. Such an environment, they say, is characterised by “relationships of trust and respect between students and teachers, and among students. It is one in which students are motivated, supported and challenged and have a positive attitude towards their learning”.

This is achieved in four ways:

  1. Promoting interactions and relationships with all students that are based on mutual respect, care, empathy, and warmth; avoiding negative emotions in interactions with students; being sensitive to the individual needs, emotions, culture, and beliefs of students.
  2. Promoting a positive climate of student-to-student relationships, characterised by respect, trust, cooperation and care.
  3. Promoting learner motivation through feelings of competence, autonomy, and relatedness.
  4. Creating a climate of high expectations, with high challenge and high trust, so learners feel it is okay to have a go; encouraging learners to attribute their success or failure to things they can change.

Effective teachers also maximise opportunities to learn. “Managing the behaviour and activities of a class of students is what teachers do,” says the toolkit. The toolkit offers three methods for maximising opportunities to learn.

  • Managing time and resources efficiently in the classroom to maximise productivity and minimise wasted time (e.g., starts, transitions); giving clear instructions so students understand what they should be doing; using (and explicitly teaching) routines to make transitions smooth.
  • Ensuring that rules, expectations, and consequences for behaviour are explicit, clear, and consistently applied.
  • Preventing, anticipating and responding to potentially disruptive incidents; reinforcing positive student behaviours; signalling awareness of what is happening in the classroom and responding appropriately.

Checklist manifesto

The behaviour checklists produced by Charlie Taylor for the DfE (2011) offer further practical advice for teachers when it comes to managing low-level disruption.

Mr Taylor states: “Where there is inconsistency, children are more likely to push the boundaries. If a pupil thinks there is a chance that (a teacher) will forget about the detention he has been given, then he is unlikely to bother to turn up. If he gets away with it, the threat of detention will be no deterrent in the future.

“Often it is doing the simple things that can make a difference with behaviour. For example, the teacher who takes the time to meet and greet pupils at the door will find they come in happier and ready to learn.”

Teachers who follow these guidelines find there is more consistency of approach to managing behaviour. When children know that teachers will stick to the behaviour policy and class routines, they feel safer and happy, and behaviour improves.

Mr Taylor’s advice for teachers is as follows:


  • Know the names and roles of any adults in class.
  • Meet and greet pupils when they come into the classroom.
  • Display rules in the class and ensure that the pupils and staff know what they are.
  • Display the tariff of sanctions in class.
  • Have a system in place to follow through with all sanctions.
  • Display the tariff of rewards in class.
  • Have a system in place to follow through with all rewards.
  • Have a visual timetable on the wall.
  • Follow the school behaviour policy.


  • Know the names of children.
  • Have a plan for children who are likely to misbehave.
  • Ensure other adults in the class know the plan.
  • Understand pupils’ special needs.


  • Ensure that all resources are prepared in advance.
  • Praise the behaviour you want to see more of.
  • Praise children doing the right thing more than criticising those who are doing the wrong thing (parallel praise).
  • Differentiate.
  • Stay calm.
  • Have clear routines for transitions and for stopping the class.
  • Teach children the class routines.

Increasingly independent

One way to ensure pupils learn from their mistakes and behave more appropriately in future is to explicitly teach metacognitive strategies so that they become more self-regulated as learners (see Bromley, 2018 and SecEd, 2021).

Metacognition is what pupils know about learning, whereas self-regulation is what pupils do about learning. Self-regulation describes how pupils monitor and control their cognitive processes – which, I would argue, includes their behaviour.

Put another way, self-regulated pupils are aware of their strengths and weaknesses and can motivate themselves to engage in and improve their learning. This applies to how they conduct themselves in the classroom and how they respond when they feel under threat or when they are bored or stuck.

One way to teach pupils how to become more self-regulated is to model the thinking processes of a self-regulated person by thinking aloud and making explicit how we, as teachers and adults, monitor and control our responses to threatening situations.

For example, we could model how we deal with our “fight or flight” response which is a battle between our limbic system (the primitive part of our brain that responds intuitively and emotionally to situations) and our frontal lobe (which helps us to think-through situations rationally, predicting possible outcomes and making informed decisions).

It is important we remember this internal battle when tackling low-level disruption and when understanding why a pupil has disrupted the class. To help pupils, we can teach them to actively acknowledge this battle and make it a habit, when conflict arises, to pause before responding to our limbic system (there is a reason we are counselled to “count to 10” whenever we are irritated).

We can also teach pupils through modelling to apologise when their limbic system gets the better of them – as it sometimes will because they are human and fallible – and acknowledge the way they responded was inappropriate and unhelpful, then seek to learn from it.

Seven top tips

To conclude, here are seven more tips to help teachers prevent or handle low-level disruption:

Lead by example: At the start of the lesson, stand at the door smiling in order to show the class you are enthusiastic about teaching them and that your classroom is a happy, friendly place to learn. Greet each pupil with a smile and a friendly “hello” as they enter. This not only shows your class that you enjoy teaching them and will treat each pupil as an individual, but it also models the way we expect pupils to behave.

Stay positive: Avoid using negative words or body language and remember that you are not there to judge pupils. When you need to discipline a pupil, try to distinguish between their behaviour and them as a person – it is the behaviour that was inappropriate, not the pupil. By staying positive, you are modelling the types of behaviours you expect and that you expect them to stay in control of their emotions. Try to remain polite, saying “please” and “thank you” to pupils and ensuring every pupil (even the quiet one) is acknowledged for their contributions.

Treat every day as a clean slate: Ensure that incidents are dealt with and, where possible, resolved by the end of the day. The next day should be a fresh start for everyone: make clear through our choice of words and body language that those pupils who misbehaved yesterday are starting today with a clean slate. Begin the day with high expectations of every pupil.

Ensure all the adults in the classroom work together: If you have another adult working with you, such as a teaching assistant, make sure you have agreed with them in advance how you will tackle behaviour matters. Ensure you both speak with one voice and are certain the other will support and mirror your actions and decisions. If the adults in the room have different ways of approaching behaviour and are seen to disagree, it sends mixed signals and paves the way for pupils to argue with us.

Reward the right behaviours: Give oxygen to those who deserve it most. Often, the best way of dealing with inappropriate behaviour is through the positive reinforcement of good behaviours. Not only does rewarding good behaviour ensure that those pupils who behave well and work hard receive recognition, it also models for those pupils who misbehave exactly what is expected of them. Praise for good behaviour and good work should be sincere and appropriate to the age and ability of the pupil.

Divert low-level disruptions: If poor behaviour becomes disruptive to the learning, try to divert it in an unobtrusive manner, such as by using eye-contact or questions to distract pupils who are misbehaving and to make them aware that we have noticed their misbehaviour and now want them to refocus on the lesson. If poor behaviour continues, try to find a way to prevent it, such as changing your seating plan or altering the way in which your classroom is set up. If necessary, talk to the pupil about their behaviour and make clear that it falls below the standard we expect of them and, crucially, that their behaviour falls below the standard we know they are capable of producing. We still need to be firm and make sure that the pupil understands they have been warned and know the consequences of any further disruption

Use sanctions when appropriate: Always follow your school’s policy for managing behaviour, including in our use of rewards and sanctions. When sanctions have been used, make sure the pupil is later afforded the time and opportunity to rectify their mistakes and to make choices about their future behaviour. Try to catch them doing the right thing and give them positive feedback for it. When you apply the sanction, do so with empathy and patience, show you care about the pupil and are disappointed that you have been left no option but to punish them.

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