From the Chalk Face
Comments 6

“You will always have students who will fail.”

I don’t agree.

I firmly believe that, as teachers, we have the power to ensure that students do not fail. We have that responsibility. I have seen many students’ behaviour change for the better from applying these principles. However, in each case it has either been in a controlled setting such as a special school setting, in a 1:1 intervention or in a school where the staff are of one accord and there are whole school measures available as well as effective CPD.

I have also taught in a school where the expectation was that teachers should manage the behaviour of their classes pretty much on their own. The dynamics of this approach were very apparent in the two classes I taught in addition to establishing a literacy intervention. I was given the task of teaching drama to the Year 7 and Year 8 ‘nurture groups’. I had never taught drama before, but I’ll happily give anything a go once.


The Year 7 class was a very positive experience – there were definitely some challenging students, but they had a nurture group teacher who was consistent and set very clear boundaries. My rules were similar, so we had continuity between us which gave the students clear expectations and security. I looked forward to my weekly class with them. The students would arrive at the end of break to carry my resources to the drama room, and compete with each other to carry them back to the Literacy Centre. It was also very rewarding to teach some of these students to catch up in their reading so that they were reading at the same level as their peers.

Conversely, the Year 8 class was a challenge, to say the least. Their nurture group teacher was quite inconsistent in setting out expectations and the class was, frankly, out of control. The students would openly ‘curse’ each other across the room – “I curse your mother! She is a %&^.” “No, I curse your sister!” But, hey – I knew techniques to manage kids like these. For the first lesson, the kids were seated on chairs in a horseshoe formation as I started to take the roll. The expectation was for the students to face the front, be silent and answer as their name was called. Simple. However, two students refused to comply with my request to face the front and instead completely ignored me, faced each other and very pointedly continued their animated conversation.

Circling Wagons

Rather than call attention to their behaviour I decided to use ‘tactical ignoring’. I asked the rest of the class to move their seats forward, thus cutting these two students out with the expectation that, as their behaviour wasn’t receiving any attention, they would choose to re-join the group and follow instructions. Oh, no. These dear boys stood up while holding their chairs to their butts and ran around circling us like a scene from a Wild West movie. Short of grabbing them and sitting on them, there wasn’t a lot I could do. You see, there was no school-wide behaviour management protocol. The mantra was – you just manage it on your own.

This is the only class that has ever reduced me to tears. Not during class – I would not succumb to that. But after teaching this class, most weeks, I would return to the Literacy Centre and quietly weep – out of the utter stress of it, the sense of powerlessness and the relief that it was over – well, until the following week.

Buffalo Bill poster

So I know what it is like to be caught in the middle, trying to move students forward but where school systems – or the lack of them – mean that students who push the normal boundaries destroy not only their own learning but the education of entire classes. It often leaves teachers feeling that they have nothing but the force of their own personalities to establish order in the classroom.

The most obvious point, which many other people have made, is that there have to be effective school-wide systems for backup. Where these are in operation, everything else runs better. At my next school, some students were predictably resistant to being assigned to literacy interventions, especially when their previous experience of reading help had been unsuccessful. Because there was effective backup from the senior team and my line manager, these problems were quickly resolved, students attended lessons, and once they started making progress, the resistance disappeared.

husky team

Teamwork is enjoyable!

But there were many subtle adjustments I made for students using the principles of Applied Behaviour Analysis to encourage and motivate students. I don’t mean the classic misrepresentations of stickers and lollipops – these are often executed in ways that are quite contrary to the findings of ABA scientists – but things like beginning lessons with something we knew the student would succeed in, not engaging with avoidance behaviours (like ‘chatting’ to stall for time), and giving clear visual feedback on progress. The list is very long. For another list see here, for example.

Thinking Reading could not have had the impact it has had if I had not been trained in scientifically developed principles of behaviour management. Far from the cold, manipulative straw man that I have seen presented in teacher training and university education courses, Applied Behaviour Analysis is about helping people to learn behaviours that will help them to improve their lives, and the lives of those around them. It has helped me to engage and motivate hundreds of students to grasp the challenge of reading.


Lastly, it’s important to remember that often what underlies poor behavior is poor literacy. The attention-seeking, disruption, refusal to work, and truancy from lessons are often (though not always) a result of students experiencing frustration and despair that they will never be able to succeed at school. It is a vicious cycle, of course: failure leads to avoidance which leads to more failure – what Keith Stanovich called Matthew Effects. To genuinely address behaviour problems, in addition to effective whole school systems and skilled one-to-one adjustments for students, we also need to ensure that we have provision in place to address literacy problems.

we can do it

At the beginning of this post I said that, as teachers, we have the power to ensure that students do not fail. I don’t say this lightly. I know it is not necessarily easy – I know what it has cost me. But I have also seen the impact of facing the challenges and accepting the responsibility, and I have seen students reap the rewards. I believe that the scientific knowledge and the professional experience to achieve this goal already exist. It is not the means, but the will, that is required to make it happen.

Find out more about Applied Behaviour Analysis here.

Visit our website.

You may also be interested in:

Schools, Character and Justice

Can’t Read, Won’t Read: Part One – The Matthew Effect

The Road Goes Ever On

A Question of Progress



  1. This is a very interesting post and a stance from someone who has been in the coalface of it all. I agree that any system needs to be backed up through the school. If schools find themselves constantly afraid of excluding the behaviour problems of many students rise. I have not heard of applied behaviour analysis but will be sure to check it out, especially to see what happens.

    However, I do think that something needs to shift lower down. We simply can not keep ignoring the behaviour we do in EYFS and KS1 – it’s as though people have forgotten how to manage the behaviour of young children altogether. They are allowed to get away with so much that as a KS2 teacher you are already up against behaviours that have been allowed to become ingrained over the previous 4 years (nursery to Year 2). I honestly think something needs to shift because instead of helping them, all the infantalising just keeps children emotionally immature and unable to cope.

    All children grow up in their own way I agree but treating children between the age of 4 – 8 as toddlers is not the way forward. In fact, the evidence shows that it is causing more problems, and has a huge impact on the rest of the class.

    As for nurture groups – the evidence is very dodgy. It is based on an anecdote and has never really been researched thoroughly. Neither is there any real critique out there – as though it has been accepted as fact. This has also contributed to the attitudes of primary school teachers. I think that having a one-to-one teacher in a small group setting is important for some children to start to establish boundaries. However, I have also seen them being run by people who are not emotionally mature enough and have developed quite unhealthy relationships with the children emotionally. This has led to problems both when integrating children who want to be part of the class and those who want to be back in nurture because they see it as an easy ride in terms of work and their behaviour. It is an intervention that needs to be more closely monitored and children/adults should be withdrawn if it is not working.


    • The link on Applied Behaviour Analysis in the blog takes you to the Professional Reading section of our website. Do have a look at the video links – they are very informative.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Reflections on Hidden Potential | thinkingreadingwritings

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