Redirection as an Effective Behaviour Management Strategy for Teachers
One of the behaviour management strategies that a teacher has to know well, is the technique of redirection. Redirecting students back from off-task behaviours, returning to on-task learning and classroom compliance is an ever present reality of teaching in schools.
It’s probably the most frequently used behaviour management technique demonstrated by teachers and like anything else it can be executed with varying degrees of effectiveness.
If our classrooms are places for learning then we want them to be as free of distractions as possible. Therefore redirection is a vital skill to harness, that allows lessons to continue, without losing precious minutes dealing with off-task students to the detriment of the whole class.
A word on using voice
I previously wrote a whole post on this: 5 Tips for Using your Voice as an effective Behaviour Management tool, so I don’t simply want to regurgitate unnecessarily, however it’s important for teachers to recognise that when a student hears you, they will make up their mind quickly about what frame of mind you are in. It is vital that I point this out before discussing redirection, as for the most part, voice underpins this strategy.
Do you sound confident, at ease, professional, knowledgeable? Or do you sound anxious, nervous, amateurish and ignorant? Don’t wait until you get to the classroom to practice effective voice control. You can do this at home in front of a mirror or a family member. Having a selection of key correction phrases ready to use, means that you can concentrate on the delivery rather than worrying about the script.
Students pick up very quickly on confident controlled directions: they know you mean business. So don’t wing this as you go along, waiting until poor classroom behaviours erupt. Be ready and armed to defuse potential mayhem by becoming a learned practitioner in effective voice strategy.
So now that we have cleared that up, we can turn to…
There are several ways to redirect students back to classroom compliance, from the verbal to the nonverbal, from direct to indirect, from close range from distance; and an even greater variety of combinations. So let;s look a bit closer at these, with examples for illustration.
Indirect Redirection – Verbal
Indirect redirection is an excellent way to address off-task behaviours like chatting or improper conduct without directly talking to the culprit. This should be one of the first tricks you should use as it is non-threatening and does not challenge students head on. This means students are less likely to be confrontational and elevate their poor choices into even worse ones.
So for instance, your class is working on a task and you notice Peter is doing something else at his desk, mindlessly doodling on the cover of his notebook. Using indirect redirection, the teacher could say to the class (not to Peter directly)…
“It’s really great to see the majority of students on task and working hard.”
Something as simple and positive as this is a gentle reminder for those who are not on task to get on with some work. You can supplement phrases like these quite easily depending on the situation:
“It’s really great to see the majority of students on task and working hard. In fact, I have been so impressed by most of you that I think I will choose a few students to come up to the front of the room to share their work with the class in about ten minutes. Great work guys, keep going!”
That works a treat and I have used it time and time again to redirect a student without having to talk to him directly. As far as the student knows, you may or may not be on to him, and as a first step that is good. Give the student a few moments to get back on task before you try something else.
If you want to use something like this but want it to remain indirect but more obvious you can modify to…
“It’s really great to see the majority of students on task and working hard. In fact, I have been so impressed by most of you that I think I will choose a few students to come up to the front of the room to share their work with the class in anout ten minutes. So let’s see, to start with I’ll ask Mary, Vincent and Peter and perhaps one or two more. Great work guys, keep going!”
You don’t even need to make eye contact with these students. You might be roaming around the class as you are giving these directions. But it works for so many teachers that I couldn’t think of a reason why you shouldn’t have it in your teacher behaviour management toolbox.
Indirect Redirection – Proximal
Let’s imagine, the same classroom and same student scenario. As you move around the class, monitoring student work, you want to redirect Peter back on task.
One of the easiest way to do this is get yourself in the proximity of the student’s learning area. That alone can redirect a student back to work without having to do anything else.
However, what that doesn’t mean is standing in front of a student’s desk, staring at him with your arms crossed, smarting a frown complete with bulging eyeballs. Remember we are still on indirect redirection, so we should not be doing anything at this stage to initiate teacher – student dialogue.
The optimum proximity to the student is one where you are not standing directly over them yet you are quite obviously in their learning area. What works best for me, is a position that is slightly to the side and behind the student, perhaps a metre or so away from them. The important thing is, that the student knows you are there and is encouraged to get back on task.
But say perhaps that you want to strengthen your effectiveness with a combination of indirect verbal redirection and proximal encouragement. As complicated as that sounds, it’s probably the simplest behaviour management redirection to use.
This is where you place yourself in the proximity of the offending student, encouraging them to comply with teacher, simply by your presence, whilst you address the class for his particular benefit.
So standing close by, but not over the student, you say…
“Looking around the class, I’m encouraged to see the vast majority of you, working hard and getting on with things.”
It’s as simple as that, but you can modify this and support it with voice control if you feel the need. For example, without altering script, individual word emphasis highlights to the student that you are on to him, without at this stage dealing one on one. Simply accentuate the voice pitch of one or two words and or pause for effect…
“Looking around the class, (pause for effect) I’m encouraged to see the (altered pitch) vast majority of you, working hard and getting on with things.”
It’s important to stress here that altering the pitch used, does not imply altering the tone. Pitch here refers to a change of voice that subtly heightens for emphasis rather than loading the words with a particular tone of anger, exasperation or irritation. Tonal modification can be effective in some situations but in this scenario it is unnecessary in the first instance.
I say altered pitch, not heightened pitch. This is important to recognise. Depending on your delivery and the circumstances of the learning environment, a lowered pitch might be more effective.
Instinctively you will know this and the majority of teachers probably heighten rather than lower pitch, but you should be aware of the opportunities that a range of voice techniques can offer and how these can assist your practice according to the students you have in front of you.
In short, behaviour redirection through proximal strategies work, so make use of them.
Direct Redirection – Verbal Discreet
Having covered the indirect techniques above, we can now turn to more instructional-like redirection. I mentioned above that indirect direction might be the best move to make when first dealing with an off-task behaviour. However there are possible exceptions where direct redirection should be employed immediately.
Obvious scenarios that spring to mind involve students doing dangerous things or behaving improperly…
“Peter, turn that gas off immediately!”
“Peter, do not use that bad language towards Mary.”
These are quite obvious and need to be addressed immediately. In other cases, your weighing up of the situation will determine whether to use indirect or direct redirection.
For example, having already given a student the opportunity to comply by indirect prompts, it would probably be inappropriate and ineffective for you to continue with this approach.
Other students will get distracted, wondering who is the target of your pointers whilst the non-compliant student may get emboldened by your reticence to approach him directly.
One way to initiate direct redirection is to approach the student and get down on his level. I often crouch by the student’s desk so that I am at the same height as him, facing him slightly side on, showing I am interested in his work. I might start by saying…
“Peter, show me where you are up to on this task mate. How are we going to move this forward?”
Or adopting the same stance I might say quietly…
“Peter, I’ve noticed you’re a bit distracted. Let’s focus and work through this task. Is there anything I can help you with?”
This is non-confrontational and as it is played out on a one on one level, the student is more likely to respond positively to the request, without feeling the need to respond to an audience or dig his heels in for show.
Once you try a direct redirection like this, give the student some take-up time. Student’s respond well when they feel that they are been given a choice or some breathing space before they comply. Move away and discreetly monitor remotely.
There are times that, despite your best efforts, a student will fail to respond to these steps. That does happen and you should be prepared for it. Your next step is to approach again but to remind him of his learning responsibilities and the classroom rules and expectations.
This should not be done when the class has all eyes on you. Wait until you have instructed the class to go ahead with a task and then approach the student. Getting down to the level of the student again, you might continue with…
“Now Peter, I’ve asked you to get back on track. You don’t seem to be making any effort to do this. What’s wrong?”
Again you are giving the student a chance to comply and explain himself. You may get a variety of responses: “Sorry Sir, I’ll do that now” or “I can’t concentrate Sir, my mum’s sick.” or “I don’t understand this.” or “I hate this stuff, why do we have to know this anyway?”
Intuitively, as an adult with some life experience under your belt, you will know how to react depending on the genuineness of the student response.
If there are no mitigating circumstances for the poor behaviours, then you must deal with it according to the school behaviour management plan. However it’s worth stating up front, that sometimes the best strategy is to do nothing.
Obviously that depends on whether the student is bothering anyone else. But if he isn’t and you can see he is in a volatile explosive mood, then it can be more conducive to quietly say to him…
“Listen Peter, I can see you’ve got some things on your mind: that’s okay. Do what you can and we can have a chat after class.”
Again this is non-confrontational, the lesson continues, no learning time is lost for the class, whilst Peter knows he has to face the music afterwards.
Sometimes however, the student is just being obstinate, disobedient and downright rude. In these instances you move on to reminding him of the classroom rules and consequences for non-compliance.
You can do this at his level or you can remove him from the room and speak to him one on one outside, out of earshot of his peers…
“Peter, just step outside for a minute mate, so I can have a quick word.”
This seems to work best when you instruct the student then walk away, going back to work with the class, giving him some take-up time to comply. I often leave them standing outside for a minute or so, allowing them time to cool down and appreciate the situation they have gotten themselves in to.
Having directed the class to work on a task, I will go outside, keeping my class in sight and address the student…
“Okay Peter, I’ve given you a couple of opportunities to get back on task, and you can see I’m trying my best to be fair with you. But now you are taking up my teaching time from the other students which is not right. Now I know you are fully aware of the behaviour expectations in my classes, so remind me of what I can expect to see when I allow you to return to your desk? (Student response) … Good Peter. Now give yourself a second or two to compose yourself. Come back in when you see me reach my desk. I expect to see you making up for lost time as soon as you get back to your seat.”
It’s important not to frog-march the student back in, humiliating them and creating an explosive situation. The reality is, after a student has been taken through this and the preceding steps, 99% of them will comply.
In those rarer cases, leaving the student outside or removing them to the Office is the next step. You simply cannot allow one student to destroy the learning of the rest of the class.
Direct Redirection – Verbal Overt
Now there will be times when your lesson is fully instructional and the students are observing you for lengthy periods. On those occasions, your opportunities for discreet one on one redirection with students are fewer. So after trying indirect verbal redirection you might address the student directly.
Just remember to weigh up, prior to taking this step, whether it is easier to leave him until later to deal with. This might be the case if the non-compliance is not distracting other students and is low-key.
Having decided that direct redirection is necessary you can start as follows…
“Peter, can you put the pencil down, stop scribbling and pay attention? You are distracting the students around you. Thank you.”
Like before, deliver the request and continue on as before. Here you will notice, that I have still instructed by using a question. Give him a chance to comply. Most students will get back on task at this stage, especially because they know it’s a public request.
If the student fails to comply, having given them some take-up time, but the off-task behaviour continues to be a distraction, then you can return to it as follows…
“Peter, I have politely requested you to stop scribbling and pay attention. Now, sit up and pay attention, we are losing valuable learning time.”
Having addressed the student a second time, return to your instruction. He should come on board with the rest at this stage. The time for take-up time is probably over and should continued defiance continue, for the sake of the lesson, it is time remove the student. Remember that you should only do this if the student is a distraction to his peers.
“Okay Peter, there seems to be an obstacle to you respecting the class rules this morning. Wait outside for me please.”
The time for negotiation is over. I would not allow the student to stay in the class at this stage when I had asked him to leave, even if he looked as if he was going to comply now, with your initial requests.
The reason being, there is a possibility that he will redress to his poor behaviours and you will end up going back and forwards, effectually destroying your lesson. The lesson here is: when you act, act decisively.
Once the student is outside, continue with your instruction until you have time to speak one on one, again after setting the class work to do. Sometimes it’s best to exclude them from the rest of the lesson, depending on the poor behaviours shown.
If the student fails to comply with your request to leave, it’s best at this time to send a student to the Office for assistance or phone for help. You simply cannot have a student wilfully destroy your lesson without a solution that will be fair to the rest of the class. Sometimes that means, sending them out of class and delivering consequences afterwards.
Note that as we moved through these steps, we allowed the student time for compliance. However we remained resolute on maintaining a disciplined classroom and took the firm but fair approach. And that means fair to all, not just to the offender.
One further point before we move on. If the student is a repeat offender, you will have to address this through other strategies. It’s no use having a pantomime with this student every time he comes to class.
Strategies like the teacher buddy system work effectively and it’s one of a number of things you can choose from. I’ve written about buddying in this article: FAQ: How do I get my classroom under control?
Direct Redirection – Non-Verbal
There are times when direct non-verbal redirection is the appropriate choice. You have a variety of techniques to choose from which can immediately bring a student back on-task without the need to use your voice at all.
Again, consider what circumstances you are in. If the class is working away on a task, then it might be best to take a one on one verbal approach. You will know how best to respond at the time: the circumstances will lend themselves naturally to what to do best.
In my experience, the direct non-verbal redirection is usually appropriate when you are instructing the whole class and a student is off-task and distracting others.
Obvious prolonged pause
In the middle of instruction, should a student be off-task, pausing for effect and waiting for compliance, can be a quick and effective redirection.
“So class, as we have seen, the best way to think about planning an essay… (teacher notices Peter scribbling and pauses until Peter notices and gets back on task) … is to break it down into an introduction, main body and conclusion.”
This can work very well. The teacher doesn’t necessarily need to look at the student at this point: he might look at his own feet whilst rocking on his heels if that works. But some teachers effectively combine prolonged pauses with…
This is often misconceived as a threatening strategy by some educators. However, I have stared with success more times than not. In the scenario above, depending on the seriousness of the off-task behaviour a teacher can moderate his facial expressions to suit.
That can range from staring with a smile to a frown, from a knitted brow to open-eyed expectation or even a completely nonplussed countenance. Remember that a smile can disarm and a frown can arrest: the situation will tell you which one to use at the time.
However, try not to take a one size fits all strategy with this. Pausing and smiling as Peter carves up his desk with his scissors is likely to get you a reputation as some sort of lunatic.
Clearing your throat
Really? Yes; this is, in many cultures, a recognised non-verbal signal, intended to grab someone’s attention. It is often used with those who are doing something untoward. Again, it can be combined with a number of other non-verbal techniques like a raised eyebrow, or clearing your throat with a pause then a smile.
The point is, you are mixing up your verbal and nonverbal armoury to keep your behaviour management fresh and vibrant.
Unfortunately the world we live in now, views even the most innocuous tap on the shoulder, as assault, battery, physical harm etc. Alas, some parents will demand an immediate summary execution with your entrails made into sausages, if you as so much brush past their child.
Once upon a time, you might walk past a student, lightly tap his arm, smile and ask him to get back to work. Nowadays, teachers have been suspended and even charged over such things, so as a rule I would always a caution teachers to avoid physical contact.
Although it is really out of the scope of this article, I might add though, that it is common sense, (though check with your employer first) to restrain students from self harm or from endangering themselves or others. Remember your duty of care.
So the little guy who wants to climb out of the window, three stories up, might be best redirected gently to his seat. I would always work on the basis of no contact first, but if necessary only then use minimum force: no judo moves or half-nelsons please!
Same applies to using your voice with students. Screaming in their ears or in their face is likely to result in at least a complaint, but you might fall foul of the law too. Be sensible.
Your particular teaching conditions will dictate what is common accepted practice about physical contact with students. If you are a Preparatory Teacher, a Physical Education or a Special Needs teacher, you’re more likely to have physical contact than a Grade 12 History Teacher.
Through a range of direct and indirect, verbal and nonverbal techniques, we have considered the range of options that are available to the classroom teacher.
Throughout this article I hope you noted that teacher remained positive and avoided resorting to threats or using negative language.
Just remember that your goal is to facilitate fertile learning conditions for your students through student compliance. It’s not about power struggles or getting the last word: we don’t have time for that.
Behaviour is largely emotional and so behaviour management is about managing emotions: no easy task. Emotion and reason often don’t walk hand in hand.
However by taking a sensible, professional and consistent attitude towards behaviour; when your students see you both as firm and fair, your whole teaching experience will take a turn for the better, and so will your classroom results.
I’ve mentioned elsewhere that as a professional practitioner you can do worse than to draw upon the work of experts in this field. You might find them in your school: if not, why not make a commitment to be the expert?
Read up on behaviour management: use your University Library or as I have said before, invest in some proven resources like Bill Rogers‘ bestselling Classroom Behaviour, now in its 4th Edition, here at Amazon or here at the Book Depository. I’ve read Bill and I have no qualms about recommending him.
Finally, this article is not exhaustive and it’s difficult to go through every scenario, but hopefully there is enough here for most teachers to take something away and start trialling it in their classes.