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Teaching challenge

Ms Silva feels she can secure positive behaviour from most pupils most of the time. However, she occasionally finds a few pupils are not following her instructions or are being disruptive in subtle ways. For example, having whispered conversations during a silent task, or turning around to talk to others when she is not looking. Ms Silva worries that, over time, others will begin to follow suit. How can she address this low-level disruption?

Key idea

Tackling low-level disruption – both proactively and reactively – can improve learning and foster a positive classroom environment over time.

Evidence summary

Proactively addressing low-level disruption

Ms Silva has noticed occasional instances of low-level disruption. Research suggests there is a link between time on task and pupil learning (Muijs & Reynolds, 2010), so low-level disruption is a problem because it reduces time on task, making the learning environment less effective. Effective teaching can address this by proactively avoiding problem behaviours where possible and reacting to get learning back on track (IES, 2008).

In effective learning environments, pupils are clear about what they are expected to do (IES, 2008). Ms Silva has already considered how to convey clear behavioural expectations through routines, instructions and directing pupil attention. Fundamental to this is ensuring expectations are specific enough for pupils to know exactly what they are expected to do, without any confusion or ambiguity, making it less likely they’ll go off-task. For example, ”I expect everyone to be silent, with pens down and eyes on me” is more concrete than “I need your attention”, where it is not clear whether pupils are still allowed to talk, where they should be facing or what exactly they should be doing. In the second example confusion or ambiguity could lead to pupils going off-task. Alongside clear behavioural expectations it is also helpful if teachers explain the purpose and benefits of a task so pupils know both what they are expected to do and why.

She can also be proactive by positively reinforcing these expectations through acknowledgement, drawing attention to these behaviours. For example, once she has shared a concrete behaviour, she can say ”I can hear Sarah and Katie talking in partner voices about question 2.” She could also make links to shared values and classroom and school culture: “I can see Katie and Sarah are taking turns, which is respectful.” She should however avoid lavish praise unless expectations have been exceeded, as unwarranted praise lowers pupil motivation (Coe et al., 2014).

Reactive teacher reminders help pupils stay on task

Reminders are powerful reactive strategies to ensure pupils successfully stay on task once proactive strategies have been used. While clear and concise expectations help pupils understand what strategies are best applied to tasks, effective reminders can help pupils follow through with those strategies (IES, 2008). Many of the strategies that teachers employ to direct pupil attention are also useful for tackling low-level disruption.

For example:

  • Anonymous & positive framing: Picking out examples of expected behaviour without naming names. “I can see four people have already opened their exercise books.”
  • Targeting specific pupil behaviours: Naming and reminding particular pupils what they should be doing using concise language. “Edward: facing your partner.”
  • Private correction: If pupils need a further reminder or sanction, doing this privately, where possible, in a quick one to one conversation avoids class attention and saves face for the pupil. For example, quietly saying to an individual “That’s a first consequence. I should see you facing your partner discussing the work.”
  • Highlighting the benefits: Teachers can briefly remind pupils of the purpose of the task and how it might help them achieve their goals during the task. “Knowing your number bonds will help you solve numerical problems much faster.”

Taken together, such strategies can reduce low-level disruption and increase the likelihood that pupils successfully complete tasks. Effective learning environments are predictable (IES, 2008), so Ms Silva needs to be consistent with her reminders, for example by linking them to school rules and behavioural expectations.

Improving pupil-teacher relationships

Consistently addressing low-level disruption can also improve pupil-teacher relationships and pupil wellbeing. Pupils have positive perceptions of predictable and secure learning environments, where teachers effectively monitor and manage the class (Rathmann et al., 2018). In contrast, when teachers show low expectations of pupil success, this can lead to reduced pupil self-belief and motivation (Tsiplakies & Keramida, 2010). This can sometimes happen in an unspoken and unintentional way. For example, correcting minor transgressions by some pupils but not others can imply the teacher thinks some pupils are more likely to misbehave or less able to complete a task than others. This can have a knock-on effect on pupil motivation and learning, which can be particularly detrimental for low-attaining pupils (Gutman & Schoon, 2013). Teachers must be careful not to inadvertently communicate low expectations by permitting low-level disruption or being inconsistent. What we permit, we promote.

Nuances and caveats

Teachers do not need to respond in a subtle way to every instance of disruption. School behaviour policies often have rewards and sanctions and it is appropriate to use these, particularly to address significant disruption. But where possible, proactive, least intrusive and positive reinforcement of clear behavioural expectations are most effective (IES, 2008). Prevention is better than cure.

Negative pupil emotions can also lead to low-level disruption where pupils avoid learning. This can happen where pupils suspect they might fail at a task, especially when failure poses a threat to their positive self-image (Kluger & DeNisi 1996). In the longer-term, teachers can address this by developing pupils’ ability to self-regulate their emotions (EEF, 2017). Immediately, teachers can usually avoid this issue by ensuring clear expectations and reminders give pupils the best chance of being successful. Teachers can also make extra reminders and help private, to preserve pupil self-image in front of their peers and give pupils time to respond to the correction, to overcome possible emotional responses to having their behaviour corrected.

Key takeaways

Ms Silva can begin to address low-level disruption by understanding that:

  • addressing low-level disruption means supporting pupils to meet clear behavioural expectations that ensure the learning environment is effective and that pupils remain on task
  • this can be achieved through proactively communicating expectations and reactively reminding pupils in a way which is consistent, proportionate and reinforces wider school expectations
  • consistently addressing low-level disruption can improve pupil-teacher relationships and classroom culture

Further reading

EEF (2019) Improving behaviour in schools.


Coe, R., Aloisi, C., Higgins, S., & Major, L. E. (2014). What makes great teaching: Review of the underpinning research. Durham University.

EEF (2017). Metacognition and Self-regulated learning Guidance Report.

Gutman, L. & Schoon, L. (2013). The impact of non-cognitive skills on the outcomes of young people.

Kluger, A. N., & DeNisi, A. (1996). The effects of feedback interventions on performance: A historical review, a meta-analysis, and a preliminary feedback intervention theory. Psychological Bulletin, 119(2), 254–284.

Muijs, D. & Reynolds, D. (2010). Effective Teaching. London: SAGE Publications.

Rathmann K., Herke M., Hurrelmann K. & Richter M. (2018). Perceived class climate and school-aged children’s life satisfaction: The role of the learning environment in classrooms. PLOS ONE.

Tsiplakides, I. & Keramida, A. (2010). The relationship between teacher expectations and student achievement in the teaching of English as a foreign language. English Language Teaching