“We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them.” Epictetus
A short journey through the remarkable life of the philosopher Epictetus can begin to justify why his words open a chapter on the mystery that is effective behaviour management. Born around 50 A.D he arrived in Rome without family as the property of the rich and powerful Epaphroditus, a man who liked nothing more than to torture his own slaves. This lovely chap was particularly cruel to Epictetus, twisting his leg until it broke and leaving him lame. There was a glimmer of hope as Epictetus was later set free from captivity, although this joy was short lived when he was banished from Rome by the ruthless Emperor Domiltian. Not to be deterred by his evident lack of good fortune, he went on to form a popular stoical school of thought in philosophy. Today he is widely regarded as one of the finest philosophers.
One of the central principles of his philosophy is the capacity to remain calm in the face of adversity and control our emotions, no matter what the provocation (qualities of character that to this day are referred to as ‘being stoical’). As Alan De Botton highlights in ‘The Consolations of Philosophy’ stoicism is not a “recipe for passivity and quietude”, but rather about our priorities and focussing on what we ourselves can control and influence. Epictetus himself provides an apt summary: “It is not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” Here we have the perfect encapsulation of a path to calm and consistent behaviour management.
Low Level Disruption
There is no debating the importance of effective management of behaviour in the classroom. Like all of us, I am very aware of the utter frustration that comes from ruined teaching experiences due to poor behaviour. We have all seen how low level disruption has the infuriating impact of derailing learning for our students. There is no quick fix, no speedy top ten strategies to instantly employ to guarantee passive compliance and ‘outstanding behaviour’. In fact, many examples of further escalating poor behaviour are the consequence of reacting too quickly, from emotional impulses that are the product of the heart rather than the serene thinking of the head. Instead, as Paul Dix highlights in his excellent ‘What Adults Change, Everything Changes: Seismic Changes in School Behaviour:’
“In behaviour management, culture eats strategy for breakfast. Getting the culture right is pivotal. With the right culture the strategies that are used become less important. The culture is set by the way that the adults behave.”
Quick fix impulse reactions will not ‘solve’ behaviour in our classrooms, rather it is a complex amalgamation of a range of factors that will assist us in securing classrooms in which learning, not behaviour, takes central stage.
Perhaps one of the most important steps we can take in the management of our classrooms is to see behaviour management as, in part, a deeply interpersonal and emotional process. It is founded on our ability to manage not just our own emotions, but the fluctuating hormones of thirty adolescents. In order to secure calm and clarity in the classroom, we need to tap into what Vincent Van Gogh called ‘The little emotions that are the great captains of our lives.’
Despite our utopian fantasies, thirty adolescents are not going to meekly comply with our every request (nor would we ideally want them to!). A small proportion of them are likely to want to do anything but comply. Unless we have the capacity to control and take ownership of our reactions and emotions to these external events then we are going to find difficulties at every turn.
While students will respond with behaviour that doesn’t confirm with our expectations, our character should ideally radiate constancy, clarity and calm. There is so much about working with young people that will be beyond our control, focussing instead on what we do have ownership over will help us to begin to manage behaviour proactively.
What do we have power over: to make sure the content of the lesson is interesting and challenging; to demonstrate real ownership of our classrooms and that we are clear on a suitable seating plan; to streamline our communication in regards to behaviour and ensure it is clear and assertive; to be relentlessly consistent in our applications of rules and structures in our classrooms; to make sure we are working hard to build positive and meaningful relationships. We do this while remembering that we are all part of a wider whole school system that needs to be slowly and meticulously adhered to, in order to build a school that can provide a calm and safe environment for young people.