Clear instructions

Behaviour Management

Clear instructions

a guide for classroom teachers and teacher aides

Students actively learning in a classroom.

If you manage people, providing clear instructions is undoubtedly essential. It is a cornerstone skill of all managerial positions. Teachers are managers of people; teaching is (without doubt) a very people-oriented business. To be successful in this role, being able to clearly articulate your instructions so students can understand and follow them is obviously important. Providing clear instructions not only allows students to meet your expectations, it prevents many behavioural issues. In other words, providing clear expectations at the beginning of a lesson or activity is a proactive behaviour management strategy which reduces off-task behaviour (Owens et al., 2018).

Don’t be fooled into thinking that, ‘I’ll tell them what to do and they will do it because I am the teacher’. This is not best practice and doesn’t fit the realities of working with human beings: people zone in and out, they forget things, are distracted, have good days and bad days, get confused, don’t understand what you mean, miss important instructions due to your accent or a noise from their neighbour. You may have even zoned in and out while reading this paragraph!

If it takes 15 minutes out of a 60-minute lesson to deliver clear instructions – so be it – at least you will get 45 minutes of perfect practice as opposed to 59.5 minutes of issues and confusion.

Whether you are managing young children, teenagers or adults, best practice instructional skills include the following elements:

Ensure you have their undivided attention

Novice teachers may fall into the trap of giving instructions when most of the class are listening. This is a mistake, and typically results in ongoing issues for the rest of the lesson. There is no need to panic or rush when waiting for your class’ undivided attention – take your time and ‘train’ the class so they pay attention quicker next time. When (and only when) you have 100% of eyes on you, instructions should begin. A quick tip: ensuring that everyone is paying attention at this point of the lesson saves time later in the lesson because you won’t need to repeat yourself or deal with students who are confused and off-track.

Set aside sufficient time

Another rookie error is to assume instructions should only take 30 seconds or so. If it takes 15 minutes out of a 60-minute lesson to deliver clear instructions – so be it – at least you will get 45 minutes of perfect practice as opposed to 59.5 minutes of issues and confusion. 15 minutes seems like a lot (and it probably is) but it’s worth every second. The time it takes for instructions is also dependent on students’ characteristics (abilities, maturity, vocabulary, experience etc.), the difficulty and complexities of the topic, the safety concerns inherent in the task (think abseiling for example), and whether instructions are combined with modelling, scaffolding, worked examples, questions and other teaching and learning strategies.

Lay out instructions logically and clearly

Have a logical sequence for your instructions. Jumping back and forth to explain various aspects of the upcoming task is confusing. At the start, explain what students are going to be doing and your rationale – what is the goal for the lesson? Also explain why each instruction is important (for safety, to prevent damage etc.) and keep it simple. This may mean reducing your instructions into ‘3 important rules’ or ‘3 things to remember’. For example, if you are taking students to play a game in the playground, the 3 rules can be ‘remember it is only a game’, ‘keep the volume low’ and ‘no arguing with the referee’.

Providing clear expectations at the beginning of a lesson or activity is a proactive behaviour management strategy which reduces off-task behaviour (Owens et al., 2018).

Use a clear voice

Use short sentences, pauses, appropriate language and vocabulary, body language, props and demonstrations – try not to ramble or digress; these are the basic communication skills that all teachers need to master. Also think about and adjust your pace. This means purposefully speaking at varying speeds, adding pauses and so forth. Similarly, your tone and volume might change for various reasons. Be conscious of these aspects of your speech and control them tightly. Don’t forget to face your students where possible. Speak in their direction and remove any obstructions or barriers such as desks and chairs that lay between them and you. Move your head from side to side and try to make eye contact with each student. This shows respect, with-it-ness and attentiveness.

Provide verbal and non-verbal cues

A common tactic is to write the instructions, rules or other expectations on the board, or to display them around the room. This can make it much easier to refer back to in the future when a student needs a quick reminder. Students can also follow a step-by-step guide that is written on the board and easily accessible at any stage throughout the activity. For example, when packing up an art activity, the teacher may say ‘everyone remember to read the 3 reminders on the board so you know what to do – Lara did you read the board?’.

Check for understanding

Anyone who has worked in education will be familiar with this old-school, sage advice. Checking for understanding has several purposes. Firstly, it solidifies the message that you are trying to convey. Secondly, it encourages all students to think about your instructions. Finally, it lets the teacher know if the instructions were in fact understood. The teacher may target students who are known to be ‘off with the fairies’.

Teachers like to ask students ‘what is 1 thing you need to remember?’

There are several methods that teachers use to check for understanding. The simplest is to pose a question to the group such as ‘what do we do first?’ followed by a short wait time so all students can come up with an answer. Then choose a target or ask for volunteers to answer. Another option is to ask a volunteer to explain what they are going to do first. Another option yet again is to ask students to call out if they know the answer to each step, ‘step 1 is...excellent…and then we….and we must remember to…’. Teachers like to ask students ‘what is 1 thing you need to remember?’

Hint: Like many things in life, giving instructions is something that is best done properly the first time. Rushing through or skipping instructions altogether leads to ongoing issues, arguments between students, behavioural issues and a less productive lesson overall. Think of the process of giving instructions as like building an aeroplane: if it isn’t built correctly the first time, it might crash and burn.


Owens, J. S., Holdaway, A. S., Smith, J., Evans, S. W., Himawan, L. K., Coles, E. K., Girio-Herrera, E., Mixon, C. S., Egan, T.E., & Dawson, A. E. (2018). Rates of common classroom behavior management strategies and their associations with challenging student behavior in elementary school. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 26(3), 156-169.

About the author

Image of the managing director of ITAC.


Adam Green is an advisor to government, a registered teacher, an instructional designer and a #1 best selling author. He is completing a Doctor of Education and was previously head of department for one of the country’s largest SAER (students at educational risk) schools. Adam is managing director of ITAC, an accredited training provider for thousands of teacher aides every year.

Source: Behaviour Management Skills and Strategies for the Modern Classroom: 100+ research-based strategies for both novice and experienced practitioners.

Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to check his article for accuracy, information may be outdated, inaccurate or not relevant to you and your location/employer/contract. It is not intended as legal or professional advice. Users should seek expert advice such as by contacting the relevant education department, should make their own enquiries, and should not rely on any of the information provided.


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