Be under no illusions: when it comes to behaviour management, your first day back after the Christmas break is crucially important. In fact, it’s the second most important day of the whole year. The only day that’s more important is the first day back after the summer holiday.
Of course, what these two days have in common is that they both represent the start of the year – calendar and academic. That’s why they’re important.
A new year means a fresh start. Best foot forward. Clean slate. An opportunity for new leaves to be turned over. Your first day back is the day that your students are most keen to make a success of the forthcoming year (especially if the previous year didn’t go too well) and most primed to do things the way you want them done. It’s a day, therefore, that deserves some extra attention from you. So, here are ten top tips to make sure that your first day back sets the foundation for all the days that follow.
1. Be prepared
Have your lesson planned, your equipment checked and working, and your materials organised and at hand. Make sure, too, that you’ve planned for how you get from one activity to the next. You want your transitions to be efficient, quick and fuss-free. That way you’ll maximise teaching and learning time, while at the same minimising opportunities for student misbehaviour.
Being prepared shows students that you care: care about your profession, care about your lessons, care about their learning. And if you care, then it communicates to your students that they should care, too. Not only that, being prepared means you’ll exude calmness and control while at the same time freeing up mental space to deal effectively with any eventuality.
2. Use a seating plan
I am sure (ahem) that you used a seating plan last year. If you didn’t, this is your opportunity to make amends. Sit girls next to boys, factoring in relationships that are likely to cause behavioural issues. Display your seating plan so that students can take their seats quickly and without fuss.
If you did use a seating plan last year (good!), you’ll still need to display it. There’s been a break and students might have forgotten. Anyway, it nips any potential arguments in the bud.
Make sure you stick to your seating plan throughout the year. If you have to change it, you change it to serve teaching and learning needs, never friendship requests.
3. Meet and greet
Meet and greet your students at your classroom door. Stand astride the doorway, with one leg in the classroom and the other in the corridor. Odd, I know, but it gives you influence in both spaces.
If your school’s corridor policy allows it, line the students up and then let them into your lesson one at a time. Say hello to each student as they enter. Hold back any student who is not ready to enter (e.g. noisy or has a uniform issue) – starting your high expectations in the corridor means that students will bring those high expectations into the classroom with them. As the students enter, tell them to take a seat (according to your seating plan) and start the ‘Do Now’ activity that is waiting for them.
4. Do Now
A Do Now activity is an in-silence writing activity that students complete at the start of the lesson. It is not a starter activity, but rather an activity that settles the students, underlines your dominance and reinforces your high expectations. It is a behavioural way of telling your students that this classroom is a place where learning takes place and where every second of the lesson is valued.
Display the Do Now clearly on the whiteboard with easy to understand instructions. If you have to explain the task verbally, then you have not done a good enough job of making your instructions clear. The task can be a review of some aspect of last year’s work or a foretaste of work to come. Three to five minutes are enough. End with a 3–2–1 countdown or some other crisp closure.
5. The 3–2–1 countdown
The 3-2-1 countdown is used to bring activities to a close. Slowly, with a bit of drama and volume, count down from 3 to 1. Your expectation is that on ‘1’ the students will be silent with eyes fixed on you. If one or two students are not silent, do not begin talking until they are, but instead just look at the talkers. When they are silent, hold your look for just a moment more, and then move neatly into the next part of the lesson.
6. Include some ‘shush’
A ‘shush’ is a short in-silence activity. It can be a thinking or writing activity, or a combination of the two. A shush activity is useful because it:
a) provides students with uninterrupted thinking
b) means all students are working
c) injects momentum (particularly if you use a timer)
d) allows for easy transition (to and from the activity)
Here’s an example of a shush activity:
“Pens ready. Here’s the question. What reasons are given for the scientific method being a reliable way of finding out about the world? I will be looking for evidence of deep thinking in your answer. You have two minutes. As always, there is no talking. Your two minutes starts … now!”
As with all activities, end crisply (e.g. the 3-2-1 countdown).
7. Revisit your rules
At some point during your lesson, though earlier is better than later, revisit your classroom rules. If you want a copy of the activity that I use to do this, just reply to this email.
For reference, here are the rules that I use in my own classroom:
1. We are quiet when the teacher is talking
2. We follow instructions right away
3. We let others get on with their work
4. We respect each other
8. Be dominant
Being dominant doesn’t mean that you have to be terrifying, shouty or stern (counterproductive and unethical in equal measure), but you do have to demonstrate your dominance. In fact, students prefer teachers who are in charge. They rate them as more likeable and better at their job.
So, find your inner boss and let him or her come to the fore. Work on how you hold yourself, what you say and how you say it. Speak with the expectation that what you say will be followed. Be surprised if it’s not, and let that surprise show on your face. Also, train yourself to avoid saying ‘please’. Instead say ‘thank you’. So, not ‘pens down please’ or worse ‘please put your pens down’, but instead ‘pens down, thank you’. Or, simply ‘pens down’.
9. Don’t over praise
I understand why you might want to: win them over, start on a good footing, have an upbeat start to the year. But if you over praise, you will be harming, not helping your classroom behaviour management. You see, you’ll be lowering the bar of your expectations, when actually you should be raising it. You’ll be communicating that doing the everyday and the commonplace is noteworthy of extra and special attention, when it’s not. What’s worthy of extra and special attention is extra and special behaviour. Sure, a polite ‘thank you’ or non-verbal acknowledgement for students doing the right thing is fine, but anything beyond that is counterproductive – and a bit needy.
10. Be a decent human being
Be respectful, understanding and kind. Be interested in your students as learners. That’s where and how you show that you care about them. Let them know, too, that you want them to succeed and that you know they can succeed – in fact, that you expect them to succeed. And don’t forget to start each day with a clean slate. No grudges. No residual irritations. No lowered expectations. Smiling helps, too, as does a little fun and laughter – just never at the expense of the learning.
One other thing. There’s no reason why your first day back shouldn’t also resemble your second day back and your third day back – and every day that follows. In fact, it should. High expectations – of the students and of yourself – should be the default. Here’s the thing with expectations: behaviour moves in the direction of that expectation, so the higher the better. There’s no upper limit.