It starts with murmuring, somewhere near the back of the classroom. At first, it’s not immediately clear who’s talking, or even how many pupils are involved. But the noise is steadily getting worse.
The problem is, every time you interrupt your explanation to look over, you lose the thread of what you were saying. And now you can feel the whole class starting to get restless.
Moments of low-level disruption like this happen all the time in classrooms. To an outsider, these incidents may not seem like a big deal, but this behaviour can have a serious effect on teachers’ ability to do their job - and on the learning of the rest of the class.
In the Schools White Paper, published this March, the government recognised the role that effective behaviour management plays in the delivery of high-quality teaching. It pledged to provide more training, publish an annual behaviour survey and disseminate the expertise of behaviour hubs.
A few months prior, in January, it published a lengthy guidance document detailing the ways in which schools can maintain high standards of excellent behaviour.
But neither document specifically mentions low-level disruption, despite this being the problematic behaviour teachers face most often.
Low-level disruption:“Kryptonite to any lesson”
So, just how much of an issue is low-level disruption? Does it deserve more attention in education policy than it is currently getting?
Tom Bennett, the Department for Education’s lead behaviour adviser, describes low-level disruption as “kryptonite to any lesson”.
“[Low-level disruption] is one of the biggest problems for teachers because it is the most common and therefore, cumulatively, more corrosive than intermittent violence and chair chucking,” he says.
“Because it often seems like less of a big deal, teachers are frequently uncertain how to respond to it- or even if they should. Lots of teachers, having had little training in managing behaviour, think they should ignore it, or laugh it off, or hope it goes away.”
He isn’t the only one to recognise how serious the problem is. In It grinds you down, a report published in 2018, the think tank Policy Exchange called for low-level disruption to be taken more seriously by the government.
The report concludes that “teachers find dealing with low-level disruption and disorder time-consuming and exhausting. Teachers find being prevented from teaching to be a frustrating experience.”
For these reasons, the report adds, “low-level disruption is having an impact on teacher retention”.
The research revealed that 62 per cent of teachers were either currently considering, or had previously considered, leaving the profession because of bad behaviour, and 72 per cent knew a colleague who had left the profession because of it.
A study published in 2018 by developmental psychologist Dr Suzanne Cogswell paints a similar picture - not just for teachers, but for other members of staff, too. One teaching assistant Cogswell spoke to described low-level disruption as being constantly “tiring and draining”, while a teacher commenting on behaviour she faced said: “It was horrendous, it almost broke me.”
Ellie Russell, head of English at an all-boys school in Birmingham, agrees that dealing with ongoing low-level disruption can be demoralising.
“In every class where there are some students causing disruption, there are one or two students looking at you pleadingly, like ‘Please, can you just deal with this so I can learn?’ You feel like you’re letting them down,” she says.
The effect on learning is well-documented. In 2014, Ofsted found that 20 per cent of teachers identified low-level disruption in every lesson, accounting for up to an hour a day of lost learning time. This translates to 38 days of education a year, and 266 days over a child’s primary education - which is around one academic year.
The 2018 Policy Exchange report, however, found the situation to be much worse: it reported that low-level disruption is a daily occurrence for 80 per cent of teachers. More than half of the teachers surveyed agreed the quality of young people’s education is affected by disrupted lessons, and 44 per cent agreed that low-level disruption prevents effective teaching and learning.
Pupils, too, were asked about the effect. One student said: “Whenever I hear anyone, like just mumbling or giggling at the back, and when it’s constant as well, I feel like that’s all you can focus on when you’re trying to listen to the teacher.”
Another commented: “It affects the whole class, because if you’ve got a question that you want to ask the teacher, and the teacher’s attention is being taken by someone who’s being disruptive, then nobody can really learn from that.”
However, not all teachers and students will feel the effects in the same way, suggests Leslie Gutman, a professor of applied developmental and health psychology at University College London.
“Different teachers have different tolerances,” she says. “Some teachers want everyone to sit still, while other teachers are more flexible and allow children to stand or to use fidget toys.”
But while some might be more severely affected than others, it’s clear from the statistics that the majority of teachers would welcome more support in addressing this type of behaviour.
And when you factor in the potential impact on learning and retention, low-level disruption is an area that’s obviously worthy of more focus.
Low-level disruption: understanding the cause
How, though, should schools tackle it? After all, if it was an easy problem to fix, we wouldn’t still be talking about it.
Acknowledging the issue might just be the first step towards addressing it.
In its report, Ofsted listed 10 examples of low-level disruptive behaviour: swinging on a chair, fidgeting and fiddling with equipment, making noises to gain attention, talking and chatting, not getting on with work, calling out, answering back and disturbing other children.
We have specific examples of what low-level disruption looks like. But that doesn’t mean that solutions to the problem need to be uniquely geared towards these specific behaviours. Often, what works for behaviour more broadly will also help teachers to get on top of low-level issues.
Bennett stresses that a whole-school approach is vital when it comes to tackling this type of behaviour.
“Why should a teacher be forced to reinvent the wheel by themselves? Every school should have a clear behaviour policy that describes in some detail what a teacher should do when confronted by [low-level disruption] - not just what sanctions to issue but also interpersonal skills, taught routines and whole-school expectations of how to behave,” he says.
“After that, the school must provide the teacher with a mechanism for escalation if the student can’t or won’t respond to in-class mechanisms.”
If a school demands that teachers deal with all behaviour entirely by themselves, he adds, they’ve abandoned the teacher to their circumstances, and that is a dereliction of duty.
A whole-school approach is clearly important. However, to really get to grips with the behaviour of individual students, both Gutman and Cogswell agree that it’s important to first understand the root causes.
Gutman notes that children may have learning, behavioural or emotional difficulties, or there may be environmental and contextual issues happening inside or outside of school.
“These kinds of things can be happening at the same time: they can also be dynamic, interactive and cascading. A child may have an issue at home which spills over into the classroom,” she says.
Cogswell says that a typical mainstream class may include pupils “with a broad range of additional needs, including behavioural, emotional and social difficulties”, which can result in this type of behaviour.
Her research suggests that other factors may also be at play. She investigated a range of possible influences on behaviour, including “pastimes such as screen use and extra-curricular activity; home-life factors, such as chaos; the children’s weekly sleep; and socioeconomic status”.
“Character factors, such as executive functions, proneness to experience boredom, self-perception of what was appropriate behaviour and self-esteem” were also included.
One of the key findings was around screen time: the more a child had, the more low-level classroom disruption they tended to display.
But, Cogswell stresses, there are many more areas still to look at.
“The list of influences on low-level classroom disruption from outside of the school is inexhaustible, but the need to start unpicking these influences is paramount to the solution,” she says.
“Why should a teacher be forced to reinvent the wheel by themselves? Every school should have a clear behaviour policy”
The Ofsted report recognises that sometimes, students do not even realise, or believe, they are in the wrong. However, says Russell, some students know exactly what they’re doing, and deliberately want to cause distress.
“I had a conversation with a student recently who was talking over me repeatedly. When I questioned them about it after the lesson, they told me it was a punishment for me because I’d wrongly accused them of talking last lesson,” she says.
Not every child will be so open, though: the reasons behind behaviour can be difficult for teachers to interpret - and there are many factors that will be completely out of teachers’ control.
For this reason, some behaviour specialists advocate taking a blanket approach to classroom management, which treats all instances of low-level disruption in the same way, regardless of the cause.
Sam Strickland is the principal of the Duston School in Northampton, and earlier this year, he wrote for Tes about the importance of planning for whole-class positive behaviour.
The key to this, he suggests, is to establish strong classroom routines. When executed well and applied consistently, these can ensure the behaviour of the whole class stays on track, says Strickland. He gives handing out equipment as an example.
“There’s a lot of opportunity for pupils to misbehave when you’re handing something out very slowly,” he says. “Instead, have all the equipment on desks, ready to go, before they even enter the classroom.”
It’s really important, Strickland adds, that you use the same routines for behaviour across all of your classes, to maintain consistency- here, he adds, teachers mustredirect and correct behaviour when it doesn’t adhere to these routines.
“You have to have sky-high expectations about your routines that apply to all your classes,” he says. “If you start to dampen them for different groups of pupils, you’re actually lowering the bar of expectation.”
Gutman, however, disagrees with blanket approaches; while there may be some strategies that work for all children, she reiterates the importance of addressing underlying issues.
“A child gets excluded from the classroom, but actually, that punishment doesn’t address the reasons behind the behaviour, and actually, could make it worse,” she says.
“Take the time to ask yourself: what’s really going on? What’s the influence on that behaviour? And then consider intervention strategies which will respond to that, rather than focusing on the behaviour itself.”
Cogswell and Gutman both believe that teachers need more training in how to do this, especially when working with neurodivergent children. Others think so, too: a petition sent to parliament in March to make SEND training mandatory for all teaching staff gained 27,405 signatures.
The SEND Green Paper does partially address this: it includes proposals to change “the culture and practice in mainstream education to be more inclusive and better at identifying and supporting needs, including through earlier intervention and improved targeted support” as well as improve “workforce training through the introduction of a new Sendco NPQ for school Sendcos and increasing the number of staff with an accredited level 3 qualification in early years settings”.
What works in classroom practice?
However, these changes will take some time to come to fruition. In the meantime, teachers will need to use their own intuition and existing resources.
There’s one programme, in particular, with a strong evidence base in primary schools: the Incredible Years Teacher Classroom Management Course.
A recent evaluation by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) was published last week. However, the trial was affected by partial school closures, and researchers concluded that due to the cancellation of Sats it wasn’t possible to get a measure of impact.Some evidence did suggest that when teachers attended at least four out of six training sessions, the intervention had a small positive impact on pupils’ behaviour.
There are, however, four other randomised controlled trials, which weren’t impacted by school closures, which show strong evidence of an effect on behavioural outcomes, including two from the UK.
Tamsin Ford, a professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Cambridge, led one of these trials in 2019: the Supporting Teachers and Children in Schools (STARS) study. It took place in 80 primary schools in Devon, Plymouth and Torbay over five years.
The study found evidence of “reduced disruptive behaviour across all 30 months of follow-up”, and also that there was “evidence that [the Incredible Years Teacher Classroom Management Course] reduces the percentage of children who are classified as struggling…and reduces the inattention/overactivity scores across the full 30-month follow-up”.
Teachers said it made a big difference to behaviour and reported that relationships with their pupils were much more positive. Researchers also found that pupils who were taught in the first year by a teacher who went through the programme were rated as less disruptive by their next teacher.
Ford explains that one of the main tenets of the approach is that classroom disruption should be ignored, while teachers praise those pupils behaving in the desired way.
“Comment on those who are behaving well. Saying, ‘Look at Angela, isn’t she sitting nicely’ or ‘Look at Susan, she’s working very hard’ generates peer pressure - students want to get that same attention and praise,” she says.
It’s a tough ask of teachers to ignore disruptive behaviour, she admits. But the key principle is about consciously redirecting your attention to those who are listening and working.
To measure how good you are at this, Ford suggests going into each class with a pack of marbles in one pocket. Each time you praise someone for behaving positively, move a marble to the other pocket. You’ll be surprised, she says, at how few marbles you’ve moved across: often we think positive things about people, but don’t express them.
“I don’t give them the airtime: the more time you dedicate in that lesson to their disruption, the more they’re winning, the more you’re feeding it”
The programme is aimed at those teaching 3- to 8-year-olds, so doesn’t necessarily tell us about how best to deal with low-level disruption in older children.
For Bennett, the first thing any secondary teacher should do is to make their expectations clear in advance.
“Be unambiguous, so the student is aware of the expectations. Like punctuality: what does late mean? What will happen if they are [late]? What are the extenuating circumstances?” he says.
“The teacher should respond the way they said they would, and provide students with the reassurance that they mean what they say, and that order, not chaos, reigns in the classroom,” he continues.
Bennett adds that, no matter what, teachers should never enter into an argument with students, and instead apply the stated policy in a kind, but assertive tone.
“If they object, let them know that they are making the outcome worse, and advise them to back down. If they persist in their disruption, then the student should be taken from the classroom to a place where their disruption has less impact on others,” he explains.
Gutman encourages secondary teachers to see themselves as experts and lean on their own experience of what works in their classrooms.
Having a “toolbox” of strategies can help, she adds. In the absence of specific training, she recommends the EEF’s ‘Improving Behaviour in Schools’ guidance report, published in 2019, which advocates six approaches (see box, below).
Russell, meanwhile, has curated her own toolbox in her secondary classroom. One strategy is to search for the “catalyst” of the disruption in each lesson and deal with them first. This, she says, can help to stamp out the behaviour of others.
Consistency is key, she adds; she always lets students firmly know that she’s witnessed the behaviour, and will follow up on it later.
“They know that I’m investing the time into phoning home to see if there’s an external issue, or sitting down with them at lunchtime to talk through it,” she says. “I don’t give them the airtime then and there: the more time you dedicate in that lesson to their disruption, the more they’re winning, the more you’re feeding it.”
Some of the most powerful words in the classroom, she adds, are “thank you”. Using a phrase like “I need you to get on with your work now, thank you” when a child is misbehaving can catch them off-guard, and encourage them to do better.
But the best weapon against low-level disruption, she says, is a really well-planned and paced lesson.
“If you give them no opportunities for disruption, it’s easy to manage the ones that are doing it consciously. Even the best of students will start joining in when there’s a lull in the lesson, and if it gets a bit noisy,” she says.
Not all teachers will agree with this; indeed, Bennett says that while a well-planned lesson helps behaviour, in comparison to a poorly planned one, it’s not enough to motivate a child to behave well.
“It’s like saying a well-designed neighbourhood won’t have any burglaries. Kids will be kids. You can have dancing bears and holograms and 25-part lessons with differentiation up the yin-yang and it won’t make a difference to some kids,” he says.
Techniques for managing behaviour will always differ from teacher to teacher, and evidence-based programmes like Incredible Years can provide a boost on top of those tried-and-tested techniques. Trying to understand the root causes of behaviour may also shed some light on the best approaches to take with individual students.
But the reality is that there is no silver bullet here. Addressing low-level disruption is an ongoing process - one that usually only gets easier with experience.
One thing is certain, though: low-level disruption is something the majority of teachers are struggling with. It might not result in suspensions or exclusions, but day in, day out, it undermines teaching, damages teachers’ wellbeing, and slows down learning.
So, if the government is serious about supporting schools to tackle misbehaviour, a spotlight, with some funding and resources attached, on low-level classroom disruption would certainly not go amiss.