Are behaviour management skills needed in higher education?

My reply to this question is yes, in readiness for unanticipated behaviours. Knowledge of behaviour management approaches and skills in reinforcing positive behaviour are valuable additions to the competencies of university teaching practitioners, not only school teachers. This conclusion is based on my experience of assisting a department at a British university that was faced with student behavioural issues. Read on for the full story…

While working as an educational developer in a Centre for Learning and Teaching, I made an intervention at the behest of the university’s International Foundation Programme (IFP).

The IFP at that university is a well-established alternative route onto degree programmes. In recent times, however, lecturers on the programme had reported an increase in behavioural issues amongst students. The IFP leadership team contacted my Centre for assistance. Since I had previous experience in the secondary education sector, in which classroom behaviour management (CBM) has a long heritage, I was the educational developer nominated to provide support.

My first step was to familiarise with the IFP itself. These are its characteristics:

  • It provides a pathway to undergraduate degree courses for students without GCE A Levels;
  • the 1-year programme includes subject studies, academic English, statistics and study skills;
  • students are globally recruited
  • lecturers are mostly drawn from relevant faculties; and,
  • it is often students’ first experience of living away from home.

I met programme managers to negotiate the objectives of my support and a way forward that was agreeable to them. We also discussed their initial ideas on the severity of the issue and probable causes. This was speculative though, so better data was needed. Together we worked out a process by which managers could identify the types and seriousness of problems, I could inform the teaching team of alternatives in behaviour management, and a concerted and consistent way forward could be devised and implemented that would align with relevant university policies.

This is the process that was agreed upon:

  1. Workshop 1: Approaches to classroom behaviour management
  2. Needs analysis: Staff survey of behavioural issues and their perceived relative severity
  3. Workshop 2: Interactive demonstration of behaviour management techniques
  4. Compilation and distribution of university regulations and a CBM reading list
  5. Workshop 3: Long term planning
  6. Consolidation and review

The intended outcome of Workshop 1 was for IFP colleagues to be able to articulate the various established approaches to CBM according to educational literature. For Workshop 2, it was for IFP colleagues to evaluate and select reactive techniques to modify student behaviour “live” during lectures and seminars. For Workshop 3, it was for the whole IFC team to identify and plan preventative longer-term measures in an integrated, consensual approach.

In Workshop 1, I presented four CBM approaches: systemic, psychodynamic, behavioural and humanistic (Hart, 2010).

One of the managers created a staff survey on types of problematic behaviour and their perceived relative seriousness. This survey was administered between Workshops 1 and 2 with a very high response rate. The results are presented in the chart below.

To achieve the main aim of Workshop 2, I made use of my network across the university to invite a guest presenter, a professor from the faculty of education. She has expertise in CBM and agreed to demonstrate a selection of techniques that may be employed when students transgress classroom rules. This was performed as a role play with IFC lecturers performing the parts of students who displayed problematic behaviours. It was a memorable, hilarious experience with a serious point, and evaluative discussion on the techniques following the role play was lively and interesting.

I also summarised University policies on student conduct and supplied links to reference documents and key readings on behaviour management.

Workshop 3 was the culmination of my intervention. It was a longer session using group discussion and flipcharts to negotiate and generate a set of preventative measures, standards and guidelines, aligned to institutional policy, that would be administered consistently by all teaching staff in future.

Consolidation after Workshop 3 was undertaken by the IFC leadership team. They compiled the decisions and presented everything formally in time for implementation in the next academic year. The new CBM approach and strategies would be evaluated later.

I will next provide a rationale for addressing the IFP’s request for assistance in the manner that I did.

Educational developers perform a range of roles. One of them is to respond to ad hoc requests for support such as the one from IFP that I have described. In this kind of situation, I believe it is important to offer a bespoke service that meets needs in that specific learning-teaching environment.

Conducting learning needs diagnoses was already embedded in my practice during my earlier career as a teacher of English for Academic Purposes and as an educational consultant in the secondary sector. It has carried over into my work as an educational developer. I am aware of a range of ways to gather information prior to interventions or facilitations. In the case of IFP, it was through a meeting with the management team and a staff survey.

The first workshop was an opportunity to show IFP lecturers that there is a body of work on the topic of behaviour management. The fact that there are several approaches and a range of strategies available reassured them to some extent. It was also an opportunity for me to learn their current responses to perceived behaviour issues, which it transpired were diverse and not consistent between staff members.

Knowing that the final outcomes of the intervention would only start to bear fruit in the following academic year, I considered it important to introduce a range of classroom techniques to the lecturers to help them reinforce appropriate behaviours in the short term. Such techniques are reactive in nature and do not address underlying causes of the behaviours. However, they could enable teachers to partially re-establish more productive learning environments to the benefit of those students who were eager to study and who were being distracted by less cooperative learners. To this end, Workshop 2 demonstrated those techniques and invited IFP lecturers to select those techniques that they thought were viable for use.

Workshop 3 only took place after IFP staff had had ample time to read and absorb the provided policy documents, academic readings and staff survey results.  Thus informed, there was an efficiency about the final session and in a short time, planning documents were created that summarised the intended direction and the measures to be taken in readiness for behaviour management of the next cohort.

In hindsight, it seems that my intervention had a significant limitation. I was focused more on staff perspectives rather than students’. A more comprehensive approach on my part would have included investigation into the reasons for, or causes of, learners’ conduct during lessons. There may have been many factors affecting their behaviours related to, e.g., programme quality, lecturers’ demeanours, cultural backgrounds, personal external factors, homesickness, etc. Saying this, it is feasible that students joining the IFP in the following academic year would have dissimilar behaviours and influences on behaviour. Any conclusions drawn by asking current learners may not have been that applicable to future learners. Still, I think it was an omission, and I encouraged IFP managers to pay close attention not only to student feedback on the quality of course provision, but also to conduct confidential interviews to gain insight into learners’ attitudes and circumstances.

Below is the list of references that I recommended to IFP lecturers and managers:

Bennet, T. (2010). The behaviour guru: behaviour management solutions for teachers. Continuum.

Brown, S., Armstrong, S. & Thompson, G. (1998). Motivating students. Kogan Page.

Canter, L. (2010). Assertive discipline: Positive behaviour management for today’s classroom. Solution Tree Press.

Cowley, S. (2010). Getting the buggers to behave. Continuum.

Cox, S. & Heames, R. (1999). Managing the pressures in teaching. Falmer Press.

Department for Education and Science [DfES] (1989). Discipline in schools. The Elton report. London: HMSO.

Hart, R. (2010). Classroom behaviour management: educational psychologists’ views on effective practice. Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties, Vol. 15, No. 4, 353-371.

Rogers, B. (2011). Classroom behaviour: A practical guide to effective teaching, behaviour management and colleague support. Sage.

Secrets of the teenage brain: A psychologist’s guide for teachers

Sprick, R.S. (2013). Discipline in the secondary classroom: A positive approach to behaviour management. John Wiley & Sons.

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