Low-key responses

Behaviour Management

Low-key responses

a guide for classroom teachers and teacher aides

Classroom support worker assisting students working at a table.

Many teachers owe their sanity to this turn of phrase. The term ‘low-key responses’ was popularised by Bennett and Smilanich (1994) in their influential book ‘Classroom Management: A Thinking & Caring Approach’. While the book was published a few decades ago, several of their behaviour management techniques are in widespread use today.

A low-key response is a simple, short and minimal action with the intention of stopping minor undesirable behaviours with minimal necessary force and ideally with zero lost learning time. The term ‘low-key’ means the teacher’s actions go under the radar – only the student who is subject to the technique is cognisant of its implementation (ideally speaking). Effective low-key responses enable a teacher to continue to teach with minimal interruption. This means for example that the teacher continues to write on the board, explain the workings to a maths problem or help an individual student with a spelling issue – all while responding in a low-key way to another student’s behaviour.

It would not be unusual for a teacher to use several hundred low-key responses in a standard day.

Imagine a teacher reading a paragraph from a textbook to the class. Students answer questions posed by the teacher as he or she casually circulates around the room. As the teacher moves from location to location actively teaching, students who are off-task are redirected with one or more low-key responses. A quick head shake and a hand signal (pointing to the textbook) keeps everyone on task. The teacher takes up a position near 2 students who are known to enjoy the occasional yarn when they should be listening. The teacher doesn’t even make eye contact with the target students, nor does he or she skip a beat in terms of delivering the lesson’s content. A tap on the shoulder lets the offender know that they are off task and need to get back on task.

In the example above, the teacher could have selected from a number of workable options. Pointing is simple and common. Raised eyebrows work well for most situations but requires eye contact. A nod of the head is unmistakably clear. The real genius of low-key techniques (and why they have caught on) is that they fit well with the principle of minimum necessary force. Teachers can influence behaviour with minimum effort: sometimes just taking a few steps in the direction of the student (with no facial gesture, eye contact or hand movement whatsoever) solves the issue easily and quickly.

Hint: The term ‘low-key responses’ is the umbrella term for the dozens of little techniques that teachers rely on to combat minor issues (levels’ 1-3). It would not be unusual for a teacher to use several hundred low-key responses in a standard day.

Within the category of low-key responses, there are a range of options from least intrusive (on teaching and learning) to most intrusive. Eventually low-key responses give way to other techniques such as ‘squaring-off’ and ‘the chat’. When this happens, active teaching ceases and the student is addressed directly (the response has escalated to direct contact). Let’s examine the least intrusive (and therefore ideal) low-key responses first. Take a student who taps their pen. This behaviour is annoying but there is nothing sinister in it – the student probably doesn’t even realise that they’re doing it. If the teacher is nearby, an option is to signal to them to drop the pen – a simple ‘drop it’ signal with a finger will do. The teacher may even gently take the pen and place it on the desk. If the teacher is further away and wants to stop the tapping, he or she will first need to get the attention of the student, such as by saying their name. If the student’s neighbour is looking at the teacher, a gesture that says, ‘tell your friend I am watching and want him or her to stop’ will be passed on very quickly (e.g. the teacher points at the offending student and then makes a ‘shhh’ gesture).

There is no aggression in this interaction or any sense of punishment. The teacher recognises that the student might be anxious or high on sugar, and probably unaware that their behaviour is annoying. Stopping the class to speak with the student is unwarranted and could cause embarrassment. A second low-key response may be needed from time to time such as strong eye contact (known as ‘the look’) and a short pause from teaching, other facial expressions, moving in the ‘offending’ student’s direction, and finally a ‘minimal verbal’.

A minimal verbal is simply a word (or a few words) that directs the student to curb their undesirable behaviour. It could be a name, a stern ‘please’ or ‘thank-you’, another single-word instruction such as ‘stop’ or a brief sentence such as ‘wait for my instructions please’. Minimal verbals are usually accompanied by other low-key responses such as eye contact, a hand signal and/or a clear facial expression showing your dissatisfaction. Should the student continue to cause problems, the low-key approach has failed. Bennett and Smilanich advise escalating the response at this point and to ‘square off’ (stop teaching, pause, face the student directly and provide a short instruction). To be clear, squaring off is not a low-key response – it is the next step in the escalation process. Teachers cannot square off and teach at the same time.

There are several reasons for why teachers adore low-key responses:

  • They are ridiculously easy to practise and perfect – nothing fancy is needed.
  • They take almost no energy to implement.
  • They keep teachers’ stress levels down.
  • They help to maintain the student-teacher relationship.
  • They prevent unnecessary escalations by removing the invitation to argue.
  • There is practically no disruption to other students’ learning.
  • They can be repeated if necessary and as often as needed.
  • They can be used to address almost all types of behaviour (at least initially).

Low-key responses are used to stop low-level behavioural issues. Because the behaviour is minimal in terms of its effect on learning, there is no real need for consequences. Consequences arise in situations of higher-level behavioural issues such as incessant talking out of turn (e.g. while the teacher is talking). These behaviours are typically not remediated with a low-key response alone, and a consequence is used to persuade the student that the result of the behaviour outweighs the benefits. Consequences should always be fair, consistent (while accounting for differences in student needs and reoffending levels), and ‘natural’. Natural consequences are ones which relate to the ‘crime’; for example, incessantly talking naturally results in the student being isolated or relocated to where communication is more difficult or impossible.

Hint: Technically speaking, low-key responses do actually have consequences: teacher attention and the sense that the teacher disapproves is a consequence. However, the term ‘consequence’ in the classroom management context is usually reserved to describe students being required to do something undesirable (e.g. sit alone) or when something is removed from them (e.g. a reward is taken away).

Natural consequences are ones which relate to the ‘crime’; for example, incessantly talking naturally results in the student being isolated or relocated to where communication is more difficult or impossible.

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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