How Can You Stop Off-Task Behaviour?

Off-task behaviour. Let’s call this kind of student behaviour, ‘party breakers’ there’s always at least one in each class. A party breaker is a student who cannot or in most cases will not follow the rules, who is rebellious or lacks attention from his/her own family. There is of course at least one in each class who is trying his best to entertain the rest of the students and challenge them to act the same way. No matter how much we insist on nurturing diversity, we have to agree that it represents a huge problem for most teachers.

Do not take it personally

The ultimate mistake that young teachers and beginners make is that they take it all personally. It can really ruin their self-esteem in the classroom as sometimes even in real life.

So, the first lesson for us all should be, not to take children’s mischief and non-compliance subjectively. It is not about us. A student that is misbehaving is having some sort of issue and it doesn`t really concern us and our personality. We are the adults, we have more experience and knowledge and we have to handle the situation in an objective manner.

Student off task Student off task

 The moment you lose your temper and start yelling at the class you have lost your integrity and every chance to improve the teaching process. No, no, I haven’t read it in some book on pedagogy! I have yelled and it never accomplishes anything. So now, I try as much as possible not to lose control. Think about other students who will feel bad and unsafe watching you lose control while you are the one who should manage the class. Remember we cannot change others but we sure can make changes in our own behaviour and attitude.

What should I do with that boy/girl?

The well-known question we all ask when we enter the staffroom after we’ve had a class where a misbehaving student who doesn’t want to listen to our instructions has undermined all our efforts to stop off-task behaviour.

Yes, we have read all those books on pedagogy and went to all those teacher’s meetings where we discussed how to establish and maintain discipline in class, but the theory is often too broad that we cannot apply it in the classroom, neither can we  remember all those tips and tricks from the experts in the field of pedagogy and children`s development.

The truth is that we cannot rely too much on the theory since there are many variables in each class. Both children and teachers are unique as well as their environment and the current mood. The thing we can do is to try to collect as many experiences as possible from our own practice and the stories of our colleagues. So, in this spirit, I will share with you a story that might help you in your work.

True presence and the eye contact

But before I get to the story I have to tell you about the emotional state of a teacher that affects the whole classroom. You will do yourself and your students a favour if you enter the classroom as you enter your car. Forget about your personal problems and dilemmas and focus solely on students and the teaching process. Try to be 100% present all the time and you will see the difference. Children will feel and see your dedication. It’s a `two-way street` like in every relationship and ‘relationship’ is key.

Make eye contact with your students           Make eye contact with your students

Something that always gives results no matter how big a problem with the discipline of a specific student, is eye contact. When you look them in the eyes with no judgment but the question or a request they react by changing their behaviour for the better. Also, when you listen to them truly and what they have to say it impacts on them to reconsider their actions. They all need a human touch. What you give, you get.

Unfortunately, you will have a few students in your career that will not react to anything. It is not nice to say but there are some students who genuinely enjoy torturing teachers, other students and everyone around them. It is a very rare phenomenon but it happens. No matter what you or someone else does, if they will not change, you shouldn’t blame yourself for that. Just do the most you can to create a good relationship between you and each student in your care.

A Strategy to stop off-task behaviour

I once had a student so eager for attention that he made every lesson a joke. At first, I tried to ignore him but it produced the opposite effect, he became worst. He was laughing, talking non-stop and throwing things, while I tried to keep the illusion of having control while talking to other students who were also very distracted.

One day, I decided to give him a string of 20 beads. Every time he interrupted without following the rules I would ask for a bead. I had previously explained that if he lost all his beads he would not be able to ask any questions of me or his classmates for the rest of the day.

A string of beads did the trick                                                             
A string of beads did the trick

He got through 15 beads within the first lesson! NO surprise there, you’re probably saying to yourself; BUT next lesson he could see he only had 5 beads left. He started to blurt out again and I silently extended my hand for a bead. He stopped talking immediately but then tried to start again but stopped as he fingered the bead. Then thought better of it and stopped talking while holding the next bead between his fingers and thumb obviously debating with himself as to the prospect of not be allowed to even ask questions or offer answers for the rest of the day. Did it stop off-task behaviour?

What I forgot to mention is that the beads were also points, that accrued to class shop dollars. So, he was in a quandary about it each time after that. You could see he was aching to speak out but he didn’t want to lose those beads. Gradually we worked down to just 5 beads per day. Amazing how such a small thing could bring about such a great change.

There are numerous ways teachers have devised over the years to stop off-task behaviour. Marie Amaro presents a few in her article ‘5 ways to reduce off task behaviour‘. Many times we do not know why a certain approach gives results, but the important thing is that we are trying and paying attention. Paying attention besides patience is probably the most important thing in our work with kids

Spread the word . . .  .

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I am a K-12 Australian Teacher, with 25+ years of teaching experience. My Honours research investigated how teachers succeed in teaching English in a TEFL context. Originally from the UK, I lived and worked for 15 years in the Pacific Islands. During that time I was Principal of a school for 5 years, training teachers, teaching a class, and building a school from the ground up.