Students find it hard to misbehave when they are busy. As the saying goes, ‘the devil finds work for idle hands’. It should be no surprise that students who have nothing to do (or very little to do) will quickly find something to do – it’s not a difficult task in a classroom full of potential distractions. Students should therefore be kept as engaged as possible in learning activities. Active engagement results in fewer behavioural issues (Sutherland et al., 2003) and highly structured lessons are more productive (Cartledge et al., 2008; Conroy et al., 2008; Simonsen et al., 2008).
Unfortunately, a large percentage of students find school work to be boring and uninteresting. While not always attributable to poor lesson design decisions, boredom often is the root cause of behavioural issues. Many detentions, suspensions and expulsions are the result of poor curriculum decisions and ineffectual planning – boring lessons that lack structure are recipes for disaster. Why then are so many lessons still so boring? One of the culprits is a lack of short-sharp activities, pace and momentum. Pace in particular has long been understood to be an effective method for increasing on-task behaviour (Carnine, 1976; Sutherland et al., 2003). There are multiple opportunities for students to participate in a fast-paced, exciting lesson. Students get to answer more questions and receive more praise. This increased number of interactions has a positive effect on student learning (Sutherland et al., 2003).
Hint: When planning a lesson, consider what effect the activity has on students’ behaviour. Are you setting them up for success or failure? Some activities encourage undesirable behaviour, while others prevent it. Research suggests teachers should provide choice, give students an outlet for their energy, and consider using visual supports and whole-group response systems. (Nagro et al., 2019).
These 3 important concepts (short-sharp activities, pace and momentum) are actually instructional design principles that are more likely to apply in a teaching strategies book than a behaviour book. So why are they included here? The answer is quite simple – high-performing teachers recognise the link between curriculum design and behaviour management. Instructional design is a core proactive strategy that all teachers need to master. Effective instructional design means linking and sequencing activities correctly, adjusting for preferred learning styles, developing and importing resources, using technologies such as interactive whiteboards, and a multitude of other well-known best practice instructional design concepts and strategies.
Many detentions, suspensions and expulsions are the result of poor curriculum decisions and ineffectual planning – boring lessons that lack structure are recipes for disaster.
In a typical classroom, a version of explicit instruction is still the teaching strategy norm for the majority of schools across the globe (with the exception of early childhood and alternative schools). Briefly speaking, explicit instruction refers to a highly structured teaching approach that incorporates elements such as concept linking, modelling, worked examples, individual practice, pair or small group work, a whole-of-class activity, a game or quiz if time allows, and a lesson consolidation or review at the end. Explicit teaching is the most common format used by teachers even though it’s rarely taught to trainee teachers. It is effective, simple, rather universal and can even be used in conjunction with more trendy strategies such as discovery learning.
However, explicit teaching can be incredibly boring if not executed correctly. This is where pace, momentum and short-sharp activities come into play. These 3 concepts are a teacher’s number 1 defence against boredom. First, when designing any learning activity, slice and dice it into a series of short-sharp activities. You may not even need to do this on paper – it can be done with a bit of experience on the fly. Short-sharp activities range from 60 seconds to 5 minutes. The point is not to set tasks that take 30-40 minutes to complete. If this latter approach is employed, students will work fine for a short period and then gradually drift off to more exciting pursuits such as talking with friends. The teacher then spends most of the activity running around the room trying to keep everyone on task.
Compare that unstructured approach to a short-sharp and high-paced lesson. Take (for example) a maths lesson where students are learning how to draw cubes. The teacher first demonstrates on the board while asking several questions (3-4 minutes of worked examples and modelling). Several students are selected to finish the teacher’s half-completed cubes on the board (2 minutes of guided and shared learning). Then the class draws 2 cubes each of different sizes on a piece of paper (45 seconds of individual practice for each).
Students then show the teacher their page by holding it up in the air (1 minute of positive praise, formative assessment and feedback).
Next, the teacher has students draw 10 cubes as quickly as they can – students fold their arms when done and the teacher awards prizes to several students (4 minutes of games and more deliberate practice). Now the class draws a cube and labels each side from 1-6 in random order – the teacher checks every student is ready for the next step (4 minutes). They swap their drawings with their neighbour. The teacher instructs the class to redraw the cube, this time flipping it upside down and rotating it clockwise one turn. Students then include the same numbers as if the 2 drawings were the same cube but from a different point of view (5 minutes for instructions and 2 x demos on the board). A Rubik’s cube is used to demonstrate the concept. Students then have 3 minutes to complete the task (a countdown). At the exact mark of 180 seconds, they swap with their neighbour who checks their work (3 minutes – this is actually a difficult task for many, so it may take longer).
High-performing teachers recognise the link between curriculum design and behaviour management.
The above example would take about 45-55 minutes (as activities never get done as fast as planned) – just enough time for a quick summary and final questions (or even an advanced challenge question for homework). Compare that super-structured, fast-paced, but somewhat fun style to simply giving students a quick explanation and a worksheet to complete for the rest of the lesson (let’s call that the ‘set-and-circulate model’). Which instructional approach is going to have the greatest number of issues? In the short-sharp example, students don’t have time to scratch themselves, let alone play up.
This short-sharp style of teaching can be taxing, particularly for teachers who are used to the set-and-circulate model. However, in classes where there are behavioural challenges and boisterous students, short-sharp activities can actually be easier to manage than the set-and-circulate model. This is because students are swept up in the fast-paced momentum of the lesson. They have no time to look around the room, chat with friends and ponder the myriad of creative ways to annoy their teacher. Provided students are kept in the lesson and don’t fall behind or get too frustrated, they are unlikely to fight the lesson’s momentum.
The teacher feels less stress and anxiety because they spend most of the lesson teaching instead of dealing with behavioural issues.
Fighting the social pressure applied by this instructional method is difficult and takes significant resistance; like a rip current pulling them out to sea, there is no real option but to go with the flow. This is the power of short-sharp activities – they bring unstoppable momentum. Students also feel the natural glow and sense of achievement by hitting multiple goals, contributing to the lesson by answering questions, and getting regular positive praise to boost their confidence – a little dopamine hit every few minutes that keeps them wanting more.
Not only does that positive feeling come from a sense of personal achievement, but also from being part of something bigger – students feel like they are part of the team (which can be reinforced by the teacher in the way they speak). For some students, this may be the first time in a long time that they have felt that gratifying sense of inclusion. The result is hopefully an improved classroom dynamic and dramatic drop in behavioural issues as well as the corresponding number of teacher responses. The teacher feels less stress and anxiety because they spend the majority of the lesson teaching instead of dealing with behavioural issues. Even the most resistant student will show glimpses of improvement. This is a stepping-stone to better times ahead – add in positive praise, a sense of being included in the group, improved rapport, and public acknowledgement of achieving micro-goals, and the sky is the limit.
Short-sharp activities enable lesson pace and momentum to be tightly controlled: for example, a lesson can start with students being given a small problem or task to complete on their own, in pairs, in groups, and eventually as a whole-of-class activity. Students spend less than 5 minutes doing the first activity. The teacher then calls for volunteers who provide model answers and workings. This process is repeated for the second activity, and a third, and so forth. The teacher moves students along quickly – the pace is fast but not frantic. The teacher emphasises ‘having a go’, that the process is more important than the right answer, partial answers are fine, and that failure is to be celebrated. As time is of the essence, students’ attention and output cannot be anywhere but on-task – there is simply no time for idle chit-chat. Each short-sharp activity is delivered with a pace that is exciting yet achievable – the momentum sweeps students from one activity to the next. In no time at all, the lesson is over – where did the time go?
Hint: These 3 concepts (short-sharp activities, pace and momentum) apply to all educational environments. Whether you are working with a single student in a remedial class or delivering a presentation to 600 professionals, think about how you can implement short-sharp and fast-paced activities for maximum engagement and a fluid natural momentum.
Sutherland, K. S., Alder, N., & Gunter, P. L. (2003). The effect of varying rates of opportunities to respond to academic requests on the classroom behavior of students with EBD. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 11(4), 239–248. https://doi.org/10.1177/10634266030110040501
Cartledge, G., Singh, A., & Gibson, L. (2008). Practical behavior-management techniques to close the accessibility gap for students who are culturally and linguistically diverse. Preventing School Failure, 52(3), 29-38. https://doi:10.3200/psfl.52.3.29-38
Conroy, M. A., Sutherland, K. S., Snyder, A. L., & Marsh, S. (2008). Classwide interventions: Effective instruction makes a difference. TEACHING Exceptional Children, 40(6), 24-30. https://doi:10.1177/004005990804000603
Simonsen, B., Fairbanks, S., Briesch, A., Myers, D., & Sugai, G. (2008). Evidence-based practices in classroom management: Considerations for research to practice. Education & Treatment of Children, 31(3), 351–380. https://doi.org/10.1353/etc.0.0007
Carnine, D. W. (1976). Effects of two teacher-presentation rates on off-task behavior, answering correctly, and participation. Journal of applied behavior analysis, 9(2), 199–206. https://doi.org/10.1901/jaba.1976.9-199
Nagro, S. A., Fraser, D. W., & Hooks, S. D. (2019). Lesson planning with engagement in mind: Proactive classroom management strategies for curriculum instruction. Intervention in School and Clinic, 54(3), 131-140. https://doi.org/10.1177/1053451218767905
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.
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