Making ‘Behaving’ Automatic (How To Get Kids To Concentrate On Their Work)

Energy: “The strength and vitality required for sustained physical or mental activity.”

Energy is something that diminishes – quite rapidly in some cases. When energy reserves are depleted you’re not going to get anyone to concentrate on the task at hand until they’re replenished and the harder you have to focus on something, the faster you deplete your reserves. When we have to consciously work on something, we’re relying on willpower (mental energy) or physical strength/skill to complete our task – both of which use up our energy supplies. However, when you do something unconsciously (something that’s second nature), there’s little depletion. For example, brushing your teeth doesn’t require enormous amounts of willpower, because it’s part of our normal, everyday routine. At least, I hope it is. We’re not really having to concentrate hard on what we’re doing because we’ve done it so many times, it’s now automatic to us. That frees us up to daydream about various cat videos we saw on YouTube.

On the other hand, planning a lesson is going to take some effort and concentration. It’s less automatic. At the end of a long day of teaching, it’s also going to require some willpower for you to sit down and dedicate the time needed to it – all of which is going to use up your energy reserves.

So what’s the logical step? Make things as automatic as possible so that they don’t require you to dedicate much thinking time or willpower to them to get them done, which leaves your energy reserves intact for you to direct them to other/bigger/newer/harder/more important things.

So what’s this got to do with behaviour? As I said, the more routine something is, the less willpower it requires. So this is more a post focused on what routines you’ve got in place that are so automatic that they allow students to do them pretty much without thinking, so that you can get them to concentrate on tasks that will stretch and challenge them.

There are things that will happen every single time, which you can build routines around. Once you’ve spent some time explicitly teaching your students the routines of your classroom, you will free yourself from having to fire-fight lesson to lesson, week to week, reminding and establishing them. It does take energy and willpower in the beginning, but the more automatic they become, the less energy and time you’ll have to spend on them in future. The more routine something is in the eyes of your students, the less they will challenge it. They might not like it, but it’s happened so many times now that it’s just the way it is in your classroom, so they go along with it (and expect it and prepare themselves for it).

So here’s a list of the things you should build routines around (either by following the school procedures for such things, or making them up yourself).
1. How do students enter your class? Do they line up outside or come straight in? Do they walk in talking or in silence?
2. What do students do once they enter your class? Is there a seating plan? Do they sit straight down or wait for you? Is there an activity for them to do? Is there stuff to be given out straight away? Who does that?
3. How do you want students to answer questions? Hands up? Calling out? You picking people?
4. What happens if a student hasn’t got a piece of equipment? Do they have to ask you? Can they just get it from the front? Is there a ‘sign out sheet’ they sign and just take it?
5. When do you do the register? Is it at the same time, every time (e.g. first 10mins, or during the starter activity, or as they’re taking equipment out)?
6. How do students pack away? Do certain people have jobs? Where do things go? Is it the same place each time? Done by the same people each time? What happens if someone’s away?
7. How do you expect students to ask you to go to the toilet? Can they do that? What about for getting out of their seat? For getting scissors or glue?
8. How do you want them to work in pairs and/or groups? Do people have roles? Are there pre-planned structures for paired/group work that can be shared?
9. How do you want students to tackle exam questions? What routines do you have in place for conducting assessments? Are there certain times of the lesson/week/term they happen – and have these been shared in advance?
10. How does feedback and work improvement happen? Is there a procedure they can follow?
11. Is there a way you want work presented? E.g. titles and dates underlined; the use of pencils.
12. When is homework checked? How is it checked?
13. When is homework set? How is it set? What procedure should students follow to record it?
14. Are there certain ways off-task behaviour is dealt with? Are there cues you use each time?
15. How do students exit the class? At what point do you wrap up and pack up? What is the precise routine for doing so?

When a student knows with mundane predictability how each of these things happen, they won’t deplete their mental energy, which means they have more of it to concentrate on new learning (which by definition of it being new means they will have to dedicate their willpower to it in order to process/understand it). They can only do that if the every-day things above have become so second nature that it’s like background noise to them. Predictability and routine are your fundamental foundation for good behaviour management and if you spend time thinking about the answers to the above list; sharing those answers with your students; and teaching them the routines you’ve set, you’ll have a much easier time.


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