The Scourge of Classroom Disruption

Health officials suggest that we’re on the verge of eradicating polio once and for all, joining smallpox and rinderpest on the list of diseases that have been consigned to history.

In education we’ve consigned our own evils to the dustbin of history.  Before 1870 it was mainly rich kids and religious kids who received a formal education.  The Education Act paved the way for public education for all.  More recently we’ve eradicated the evil of corporal punishment in schools.

Yet the scourge of classroom disruption continues to plague our schools.  A recent YouGov survey suggests that we lose 38 school days per year to poor behaviour, with one in five teachers admitting that they selectively ignore it.  A 2014 ATL study claimed that 40% of teachers have considered leaving the profession because of the poor behaviour of students.   In the same year an NASUWT survey concluded that 69% of teachers think that the problem of poor behaviour is widespread.

disruption free.jpg

As a Teach First participant in 2003 I didn’t receive a huge amount of formal training, but much of what we did get was spent discussing how to get kids to behave.  One ruddy-cheeked chap I trained with, who I haven’t seen since, suggested that all we had to do was leave our desk and walk around the classroom every now and then.

But even if we weren’t explicitly discussing how to manage behaviour, we were mindful of the need to keep our kids engaged by using a range of activities, by making lessons relevant and by keeping our lessons pacy (lest kids should have time to remember that they’re in a classroom where they’re entitled to do whatever they want?).

Thirteen years on I worry that plenty of teachers still plan their lessons with a question in their heads of ‘will this keep the kids engaged?’ rather than ‘will this help them learn what they need to know?’  The former question leads to activities such as creating a Facebook page for Henry VIII, or writing a Twitter argument between a Montague and a Capulet, whereas the latter question might lead to proper analysis of Henry VIII’s manipulation of his image, or a structured response to Shakespeare’s use of imagery to reveal the discord between the warring families (‘where civil blood makes civil hands unclean’).

Classroom disruption appears to be a global menace, not just an English problem.  In Sweden, 38% of students reported that there is noise and disorder in most or every lesson (compared to the OECD average of 32%).  Research in the US suggests that poor kids particularly suffer from classroom disruption: ‘high-poverty claBehavioru.jpgssrooms have four times the concentrations of academic, attention, and behaviour problems as low-poverty classrooms’ (Our Kids, Robert Putnam).

Where classroom disruption exists in a school I think there’s a strong case for a headteacher and her leadership team to resist doing much else until it is tackled.  From what we know about what makes good teaching, and what makes good learning, I see no excuse for classroom disruption.

Removing disruption from our classrooms allows our teachers to teach and our students to learn.  Earlier in the year a teacher at Swindon Academy told me that their behaviour system had ‘changed her life’ as it eliminated the daily stress that teachers face if they can’t be sure of calm, orderly classrooms.  Conversely, at a wedding this summer I met a teacher who left the state sector to work in a private school so that she could actually teach.

The good news about expunging disruptive behaviour is that we know how to do this:

  • Communicate expectations with absolute clarity, creating a shared understanding of the behaviours required for the school to function effectively, particularly in the classroom. Teach these explicitly and give students a chance to practice these expected behaviours.
  • Reinforce expectations relentlessly, for example through a withdrawal system which means that students are removed from lessons after a single warning.
  • Repeat the above until classrooms are free from disruption, and ensure that these steps occur within a culture of love, respect and kindness.

Of course there’s a bit more to it.  We’ll need to explain to pupils and parents why we’re taking this approach; our withdrawal room will take a hit for the first week or two; a small proportion of kids will really struggle with the new expectations and will need additional support; our teachers might need reassurance that they can still fill their rooms with love and personality.  But none of these obstacles are insurmountable, and they are insignificant compared to the prize that awaits: a calm, orderly, purposeful learning environment in all of our classrooms, no matter which teacher stands before our kids.

In addition to leading to better academic outcomes, especially for poor kids who are more likely to experience poor behaviour, eliminating classroom disruption would do wonders for the recruitment, retention, workload and well-being of our teachers.  It might also help us win the grammar school debate.  When parents express a preference for grammar schools they’re often expressing a preference for schools with good behaviour and orderly classrooms; schools in which they feel their children will be safe.

There’s nothing stopping us creating these conditions in all of our schools.


The ‘disruption free lessons’ poster is from a school I work with in Sussex: Seahaven Academy.

For anyone interested in improving behaviour in schools, I recommend With All Due Respect by Ronald G Morrish.  If you want some more details about eliminating disruption from classrooms you could read my earlier blog HERE or contact me on twitter and I will send you some stuff. 

5 thoughts on “The Scourge of Classroom Disruption

  1. One of the contradictions I find in education is the fact that we know that children need boundaries to feel safe, yet it is deemed cruel to enforce boundaries even though that is equally cruel as we know they will feel unsafe. Glad to hear that your system is reducing classroom disruption and supporting children who are struggling.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Couldn’t agree more with this, particularly the last point about grammar schools being a cipher for parents wanting better behaviour. I’m new to teaching and one of the things I am finding most frustrating is the behaviour at my school. This is the number one issue in education at the moment as far as I’m concerned.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Tips from someone teaching for 20 years
    1. Have a plan of work for the academic year.
    2. Give the class ownership of it.
    3. Reward the class when you’re ahead of schedule.
    4. Take the roll call during class when you’ve got everyone working.
    5. The whiteboard is a great tool for controlling class. Disruption = more notes on it. It’s not a punishment but students cop on to what you’re doing fairly quickly.
    6. Be passionate about what you teach.
    7. If you’ve got your own classroom be there before them.
    8. Earn their respect. Be in every day. Keep promises you make etc
    9. If you have a plan and you remove a student it’s because you cannot reach the class goal on the plan. It’s nothing personal.
    10. Show an interest in your students and what they are doing outside school.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s