Situational awareness

Behaviour Management

Situational awareness

a guide for classroom teachers and teacher aides

Observant teacher aide in a classroom.

This technique takes very little energy and is the ultimate preventative, proactive behaviour management strategy.

Situational awareness is more commonly associated with firefighters and other emergency, security or military forces than the classroom. It simply means actively observing everything going on around you, not just what is directly in front of you and being oblivious to everything else. Also commonly referred to as ‘with-it-ness’, situational awareness in the modern classroom requires the teacher to be alert to everything that is going on. This doesn’t mean being a stressed-out, hyper-aware maniac, however. You can relax and enjoy your lesson while still being aware of what your students are doing, thinking and feeling.

In fact, with not much practise at all, situational awareness becomes second nature. If there were one precursor to many of the other behaviour techniques in this book, this is it. This technique takes very little energy and is the ultimate preventative, proactive behaviour management strategy. In fact, situational awareness is really the most low-key of low-key responses – you don’t even need to move a muscle, twitch an eyebrow or wave a finger – many undesirable behaviours never see the light of day simply because the student is aware that their teacher is aware.

Hint: Situational awareness is not a new concept in education. With-it-ness was first coined in 1970 in the book ‘Discipline and Group Management in Classrooms’ by Jacob Kounin.

Situational awareness is related to and used in conjunction with other student behaviour management strategies such as positioning. So, what exactly should teachers look out for? The obvious answer is to observe, analyse and be aware of what each student is doing at all times. Do not turn your back on students unless you have to. If students have to be out of sight, ensure they know the rules, regularly check on them and listen out for anything strange. Actively use your peripheral vision to scan for tell-tale signs of off-task behaviour. With practise, this becomes second nature and happens automatically. A class working silently (such as reading) will be largely still and quiet. Any sudden or unusual movements will be very easy to spot. While more challenging, the same concept applies in busier activities such as pair and group work.

For more experienced teachers, be aware of changes in noise levels, class dynamics, group dynamics, students’ mood and interpersonal issues. You will eventually get a feel for whether your class is tired, stressed, overworked, annoyed, confused and so forth. Just as sports teams have bad days, so do classes. The momentum in a class can also swing from calm and predictable to volatile and unfriendly. You will feel it. Your job is to reverse the momentum. This can be achieved with curriculum amendments (sometimes it means making ‘the call’ to cancel a planned lesson and to do something completely different). Being aware of students’ moods will enable you to predict potential issues and to be proactive and risk averse.

Actively use your peripheral vision to scan for tell-tale signs of off-task behaviour. With practise, this becomes second nature and happens automatically.

Let’s look closely at an example. If a student enters your classroom and seems rather annoyed or agitated, you may decide to give him or her a special job to calm down. Alternatively, you may ask that student to wait outside for a few minutes so you can have a brief one-on-one conversation. This chat may prevent a potential escalation or even a public confrontation. This student may have been on the brink of exploding, however your vigilance alerts you to the fact that he or she is ‘out of sorts’ today. An amenable option might be to negotiate a revised learning goal for the lesson (less than usual provided the student is not distracting others). Regardless of your chosen course of action, situational awareness can allow you to professionally manage your student by avoiding potential calamities.

Don’t wait for the end of the lesson to learn that a student was confused.

Also, being aware of whether students are on-task, off-task, struggling, working fine or are becoming bored is important. Additionally, at any one time, you should know how students are progressing and where they are up to. This is achieved through a combination of knowing each student, the lesson’s content and observing how they are reacting and applying themselves. Don’t wait for the end of the lesson to learn that a student was confused (they will often tell you at the very end on the way out). Situational awareness allows you to keep students on track and motivated by achieving micro-goals, moving from one activity to another at ideal times, and so forth. Once a student falls behind, they often decide it’s simply too hard to catch up and you have lost them. This results in recurring task-avoidance behaviours. In other words, regardless of where in the class you are positioned, you should know (roughly speaking) where every student is up to (e.g. Noah is probably on Q10 while Ethan will still be at Q4).

Hint: Many inexperienced teachers mistakenly believe that class starts and ends with the bell. Actually, the class ‘starts’ as soon as you begin the march from your office (or staff room, car or wherever else). At this point, put on your ‘teacher’s hat’ and start mentally preparing for the lesson ahead while being aware of your surroundings. Children see you as a teacher and expect you to act as such, whether in or outside class.

Being aware of your students’ body language, general demeanour, emotional resilience (how they deal with not being able to do something) and past performance gives you a baseline of information to use for decision making. For example, how to best spend your time (and with whom), which teaching strategies to employ (more scaffolding or worked examples maybe?) and whether to switch activities, change the pace (slower, faster etc.) or simply keep on trekking in the same direction.

Hint: Situational awareness also involves identifying hazards in the immediate environment. In manual or practical classes where students use tools or sharp implements, being situationally aware is very important. First, scan the room when entering and note all potential hazards. Second, consider the risk (the probability of injury) and finally, implement controls to reduce the risk posed by the identified hazards. Then monitor ongoingly.

Situational awareness is even more pertinent on excursions and camps: unfamiliar and novel situations with plenty of distractions to overwhelm your senses present a particular danger in terms of personal safety and behaviour. If you take a class to the cinema as a reward – don’t simply sit back, relax, zone-out and watch the movie – keep one eye on what else is going on. For example, ensure students who go to the toilet during the movie come back within a few minutes – if they don’t return promptly, you may need to send another student (or 2) to ensure they are okay.

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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