A Brief Interlude

I have had a very busy few weeks, working close to full-time relief and visiting two new schools, bringing my total up to 23. I’ve also started writing my first proper merit-select applications for full-time/part-time employment in 2011, a very slow and painful process.

I recently received some wonderful feedback on A Relief Teacher’s Journey, which I have permission to share:

“I think it’s fabulous, and provides sound evidence of your growing professional knowledge and your capacity for self-reflection focused on improvement … You would be an asset to a school.”

Liz Healy
Manager, Professional Learning and Teacher Development
Professional Learning Institute
Department of Education, WA

“Wow!! Its amazing.  So very impressive.  I’m impressed with your detailed reflection, your actions, and your considered thoughts on your craft. 

This blog could be a fantastic tool for teachers to access.  Not only in terms of reading about your stories, thoughts, learning and outcomes, but also to know they’re not alone in their ventures.

Relief teaching, as well as normal classroom teaching, can at times, be very isolating.  Your honesty is refreshing and your willingness to share your learning and knowledge is just fabulous.”

Jill van de Ruit
Consultant Professional Learning
Department of Education, WA

I’ll be returning to my blogging endeavours shortly, and hope to complete my several thousand word treatise on effective classroom management in a few weeks.



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Queen Mary II in Fremantle Harbour, WA (March 14, 2010)

What is a “problem” or challenging behaviour?

A ‘problem’ behaviour is a particular behaviour, defined by its context, intensity, and frequency, which is expressed in an inappropriate social situation (Conway, 2005, p. 211).

While a student’s ‘problem’ behaviours may offend, annoy, or irritate their teachers and peers, they are rarely meant to be spiteful. Such behaviours are associated with poor social skills, and usually indicate an attempt to avoid work, seek attention, or communicate frustration (p. 211).

Is it fair to blame the ‘problem’ student for their behaviour?

Many teachers blame ‘problem’ behaviours on the student’s poor self-control and parenting, laziness, or their special needs ‘label’ (e.g. Autism, ADHD). Unfortunately, this attribution ignores the underlying causes and communicative purposeof the behaviour.

There are many factors which can contribute to ‘problem behaviours’, and very few lie with the student.

Causes/Triggers of Problem Behaviours

The Student

  • Frustration & anxiety – they may be unable to work independently, or may not understand the task.
  • Poor social skills
  • Underlying learning difficulties
  • Special needs (e.g. ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder)

The Home Environment

  • Unstable / dysfunctional family environment
  • Low socio-economic status
  • Family values and attitude to schooling
  • Lack of parental support
  • History of neglect or abuse
  • Culturally acceptable behaviours (e.g. attitudes towards women)

The Teacher

  • Negative attitude towards student’s behaviour
  • Inappropriate (unintentional) reinforcement of problem behaviours – providing negative attention, being drawn into power-struggles.
  • A classroom management style based on power and dominance, rather than relationships.

The School & Curriculum Environment

  • Boring and unstimulating classroom environment
  • Peer provocateurs (students who instigate / negatively respond to their peer’s problem behaviour)
  • Inappropriate level of curriculum difficulty
  • Lack of appropriate teaching and learning adjustments
  • Reliance on teacher-centred strategies – ‘chalk & talk’

(Conway, 2004, pp. 210-213)

Exploring the Purpose of a Student’s Challenging Behaviour

A student’s challenging behaviour is purposeful, and may fall into one/more of these categories – Power, Attention Seeking, Withdrawal (Assumed Disability), or Revenge/Anger.

When you understand the underlying purpose of the challenging behaviour, you are better able to respond to its underlying causes and incidence in the classroom/playground. This can prove invaluable knowledge.

For further information, I highly recommend reading the relevant chapter in Classroom Management: A Thinking & Caring Approach(Bennett, B. & Smilanich, P., 1994).

I also recommend the Quick Strategies notes on the Behaviour Needs websites, which provides a list of graduated responses to common misbehaviours (e.g. attention-seeking, confrontation, disruption). (http://www.behaviourneeds.com/quick-strategies/)


Summing Up:

Advice for Teachers on the Firing Line


As a relief or subsitute teacher, I know what is like to be on the ‘firing line’ – I’ve worked with a range of students exhibiting ‘problem’ or ‘challenging’ behaviours. I’ve been kicked, sworn at, received “attitude”, and dealt with my fair share of fights and runaways.

I’ve made my mistakes, but gee, I’ve learnt some fundamental lessons along the way.


To work effectively with challenging students, teachers need:

  1. To try and understand the causes, environmental triggers, and underlying purpose of the problem behaviour(s). (This is easier said than done)
  2. To identify appropriate proactive and reactive behaviour management strategies for the individual student.
    • Proactive strategies target the underlying causes of the ‘problem’ behaviour & promote social inclusion (e.g. high expectations, teaching social skills, dealing with peer provocateurs)
    • Reactive strategies guide the teacher’s graduated responses to the incidence of the problem behaviour (e.g. Time Out, Buddy Class, Loss of Reward Time)
  1. A commitment to building a positive teacher-student relationship; building trust and mutual respect, and working to engage the student in their learning. This may involve the formulation of an IEP / Behaviour Plan.

These fundamental lessons, drawn from university research and relief teaching experience, form the basis of my “Three Keys to Working with Challenging Students”, as outlined in my previous post.



Conway, R. (2005). ‘Encouraging positive interactions’. In P. Foreman (Ed.). Inclusion in Action, Melbourne: Thomson, [Chapter 6: pp. 210-251].

Keen D and Knox M. ‘Approach to challenging behaviour : a family affair’. [online]. Journal of Intellectual and Developmental Disability;.29(1), pp.52-64. Retrieved March 25, 2008, from http://search.informit.com.au/

Challenging Students: Dealing with Student Anger, Defiance, Aggression, and Violence

As a relief teacher, I meet and work with challenging students on a regular basis; and it is fair to say that my 2008 school experience and 2009 relief teaching experience in a TRIBES school have defined my attitude and management approach towards these students.

My experiences, observations, and professional learning in these schools underpin my ongoing efforts as a relief teacher to win-over and build effective relationships with my most challenging students. They have also contributed to some of my major success stories working with students that some dread to teach.

Common Characteristics of Challenging Students

  • Their behaviour disrupts the learning process, verbally or physically harms others, frustrates their teachers, and often results in office withdrawal or school suspension. 
  • They are usually male, ranging in age from 7-12 years old (K-7). I have also worked with some challenging female students, but they are usually found in upper primary. 
  • They can be socially-isolated, or associate themselves with students with similar background experiences. 
  • Their behaviour is directly linked to the emotional / social baggage they bring to school, and is motivated and purposeful.
  • They generally can’t cope with changes in classroom routines, and are more likely to negatively respond to relief teachers. 
  • The attitude and management approach of the classroom teacher, and school staff, are CRITICAL to a successful intervention with a challenging students

 The Three Keys to Working with Challenging Students

  1. Focus on Building Positive Relationships
  2. Focus on the Classroom Learning Environment
  3. Focus on the Teacher’s Attitude, Professional Knowledge, and Management Approach

I will be discussing these “Three Keys” in the context of Rod Plevin’s (2009) eBook: MAGIC Classroom Management: How to get the most from the worst kids in school (www.classroom-management.org), as his approach mirrors the lessons I have learnt over the past few years.

Dealing with Challenging Behaviour (Belize Teacher Training)

The “Theory of Bumps” Explained

This is a summary of the key ideas & strategies I learnt to employ while applying the ‘Theory of Bumps’ framework in my relief (substitute) teaching practice.

For detailed explanations and descriptions of the framework and management strategies, I recommend obtaining a copy of Classroom Management: A Thinking & Caring Approach (Bennett, B. & Smilanich, P, 1994)


Bump 1: Low-Key Responses

Purpose:  To clearly communicate that the teacher is aware of what is happening in their classroom by managing classroom routines, and swiftly and quietly dealing with student misbehaviour before it becomes a problem.

Key Characteristics

  • Winning Over – Meet students at the door, take a genuine interest in their lives, develop positive relationships
  • Explicitly teach & reinforce signals for gaining attention and procedures for lesson transitions – Specify the WHEN, WHAT and WHO of the transition. Practice (repeatedly) and give explicit feedback on students performance. (This is an art)
  • Vary your position in the class. Be a moving target. Don’t be afraid to move in amongst students to ensure compliance, especially when seeking their attention prior to issuing instructions
  • Facilitate interesting learning experiences – use instructional learning strategies
  • Non-verbal/Minimal Verbal Responses – active scan, use of proximity, “the look”, use of student’s name, dramatic pause, hand gestures, assertive body language, planned ignore (of attention-seeking behaviour)
  • Demonstrated respect & polite attitude towards ALL students, particularly those who are misbehaving
  • Be careful using proximity / touch – beware of & respect students’ personal space & cultural differences. Seek to avoid ‘standing over’ or ‘backing students into a corner’.
  • Your allies, those students who are actually demonstrating their best behaviour, are an asset. Reinforce their positive behaviours, and try to avoid collective punishment
  • Focus on the behaviour, not the student. This communicates to the student that they are accepted in the classroom, but their negative behaviours are not.

Bump 2: Squaring Off

The teacher bumps up to ‘squaring off’ when the use of several low-key management strategies have failed to stop the misbehaviour.

Key Characteristics

  • You pause (and stop talking)
  • You turn to towards the student (square off)
  • You give a minimum verbal request to stop
  • Finish with a “thankyou”
  • Resume the lesson

Bump 3: Either/Or Choice

Stop, make eye contact with the student, and offer them a either/or choice. Use an assertive, unemotional voice. For example: “You have a choice – you can choose to behave, or you can choose to go to buddy class. What do you want to do?” Wait for response, and end with a “Thankyou”.

This process doesn’t have conducted in public. Students hate to be shamed or humiliated, and a public reprimand is not always the best approach. In some cases, it is very important to remove the audience. Taking misbehaving students aside for a quiet chat, or keeping them behind for a few minutes at Recess can prove extremely effective, particularly if you are dealing with an angry / attention seeking student. Waving an Office Referral slip under their nose can also be surprisingly effective.

Bump 3 makes the student responsible for their own behaviour, and the consequences they will face if they choose to continue their misbehaviour.


Bump 4: Implied Choice

If the student continues to misbehave, follow through with the consequence from Bump 3. “You’ve made your choice, please …”


Bump 5: Power

If a student tries to draw you in a power struggle, you need to recognise and circumvent it. This is NOT easy, but essential if you wish to maintain your sanity in complex behaviour situations. I will go into more detail about this in an upcoming post about aggressive/ violent/at-risk children.

If the student moves to power, it is often best to take a step back from the situation, ignore or calmly describe the behaviour, or ask the student to leave the classroom due to severity.

If you are faced with a situation where the student has lost control of their anger (e.g. throwing chairs), it is important to remove the audience (either the class or the student) to avoid shaming them, and to allow them to calm down. This also allows the teacher time to consider an appropriate course of action.


Bump 6: Informal Behaviour Contracts

This usually involves formal/informal agreements between the teacher and the student. It may also involve the formulation of Individual Behaviour Plans, in consultation with parents, specialists, etc.

Bennett, B & Smilanich, P. (1994). Classroom Management: Thinking and Caring Approach. Bookstation Inc. Toronto, Ontario

Department of Education and Training (WA): Behaviour Standards and Wellbeing Directorate (2007). Classroom Management Strategies Awareness Workshop Notes.

Julien-Schultz, L. (2008-2009). Preventing and Responding to Misbehaviour through Low-Key Responses. Nipissing University: Faculty of Education. Accessed (2/8/2010) from: http://www.nipissingu.ca/faculty/ronjc/EDUC4454Management/powerpoints/class4_bump1.ppt

The “Theory of Bumps”

The “Theory of Bumps” (Bennett & Smilanich, 1994) is a framework which guides teachers’ responses to student misbehaviour along a continuum of severity.

The Key Principles of the “Theory of Bumps”

  • An effective teacher expects and plans for student misbehaviour as a natural part of the learning process. They aim to prevent or reduce the severity of student misbehaviour, minimising its’ impact on the learning process.
  • Student misbehaviour is purposeful, falling into one or several categories – attention seeking, power seeking, revenge, assumed failure (the “I can’t” syndrome
  • Student misbehaviour is designed to provoke particular teacher responses, which often escalate/reinforce the negative behaviours
  • Teachers have no influence over the emotional baggage their students bring to school. The only thing they CAN control is their response to students’ misbehaviour


Trust Me, This Works

I can personally attest to the practical effectiveness of the “Theory of Bumps”, as it underpins and influences my proactive classroom management approach, as articulated in previous postings.