Promoting Behaviour For Learning in the Classroom: The Importance of Positivity

The Elton Report (DES 1989) commented that “in some schools a pupil can only get attention in one or other of two ways – by working well or behaving badly”. This statement is rather brazen, with a very clearly defined black and white explanation of behaviour being defined only into two categories. What the statement fails to conceive, however, is that behaviour is not always as easily defined as the report suggests. Consider the notion of a pupil who projects rather prevalent low-level disruption throughout the course of a lesson, whilst still producing work on a much higher level than their fellow pupils. The pupil is clearly disrupting both teacher and peers, reducing the fluency of the lesson and the absorption of important information. The pupil will then receive the deserved sanction for the low-level disruption. To some teachers, this could be dismissal from the room, adherence to the levelling system, verbal and written warnings and so on. A focus on the teachers part then shifts entirely onto the negativity displayed by the pupil, rewarding negativity with negativity, but as a result takes little consideration to the good this pupil has achieved throughout the lesson. As adults it can undeniably be difficult to shift our cognition into the mind of an adolescent, however, consider for one moment the thought process that is initiated within the pupil as a result of negativity.

If I were to relate this to personal teaching experience, a pupil of whom I will for the intent of this blog refer to as Pupil A, would demonstrate a varying degree of low-level disruption in a Key Stage Three keyboard skills music lesson. Said disruption meant that a verbal warning transgressed into a Level 2 (thirty minute after school session) and an undeniably overwhelming sense of frustration. Pupil A was producing quite wonderful independent work throughout the course of the practical keyboard activity away from teacher led discussion, but this was clouded by the negativity of the behaviour. As a result, Pupil A’s behaviour did not improve at all, and a kind word of advice wrote the word ‘positivity’ on a post-it note on my desk.

Dorman, Aldridge and Fraser (2006, p. 12) state “a positive environment is one in which students feel a sense of belonging, trust others, and feel encouraged to tackle challenges”. Relating this to classroom practice, if we reward negative behaviour with negativity, and justifiably so, the precedent set within the room drops down substantially. If we praise the positive, the environment shifts upwards and following as a result from this so do the behaviours and attitudes within the classroom. Relating back to personal experience with Pupil A, the heavy focus on the negative behaviour caused the need to act quickly. The word ‘positivity’ almost seemed something of a myth, but it was persevered with. “Pupil A, awesome work! How about you show the class how you achieved this?” was a quote from myself during a class demonstration. Suddenly, Pupil A is no longer being ostracised for negative behaviour, they’re being praised for strong independent work. On the resume of the teacher-led explanation and discussion, the low-level disruption that had been prominent throughout weeks of music lessons suddenly stopped.

Morgan and Ellis (2000, pp. 20) state that “by being positive, you will affect and change the children’s outlook within the class in an empathetic and forward-looking manner”. This shift in outlook within the class begins to then focus around a desire to complete the work and to do well, much like my personal scenario with Pupil A discussed above. Specifically with music, a large part of my personal teaching style revolves around the ‘doing’ aspect of the music curriculum. Music is a predominantly practical subject with end goals often being in the form of a performance. As a teacher it is sometimes easy to forget that the pupils we are teaching are quite possibly terrified at the prospect of performance. To us, standing in front of a class of 30 pupils and delivering a lesson is our daily routine, the norm. To a young adult, this, most likely, is not the case. The fear of making a mistake in front of their peers and more specifically you as a figure of authority will no doubt cloud the attitudes towards performance on some of the pupils in your class. It is important to note that this relates to the curriculum as a whole, not specifically music. Presentations, role-plays, answering questions and giving speeches all fall within this in-built fear of ‘getting it wrong’. A praising, positive atmosphere regardless of a pupils performance in a task is something teachers can adapt to, which will help shift pupils into this “empathetic and forward looking manner”. Regarding performance within my music classroom, the “one positive, one target” comment is something made every time. Starting with “one positive” automatically sets the tone of praise, which ultimately leads to a positive atmosphere. The target is then set as help, in the positive atmosphere initially created. As a result, my Year Eight class of very shy pupils now fight over who wants to perform next.

To conclude, the use of positivity within the classroom has been proven in my own practice to be highly beneficial to the behaviour for learning within the classroom. Behaviour is not as clear-cut as positive behaviour, negative behaviour or a poor attitude to learning. A pupil who is causing both low and high level disruption to the flow of your class could be executing phenomenal work, unnoticed by the shroud of negativity regarding their behaviour. The consistent positivity even in the most difficult of pupils and circumstances could help to raise motivation and behaviour levels within your classroom, regardless of where in the curriculum it lies.


Cooke, Evans, Philpott and Spruce (2016) Learning to Teach Music in the Secondary School: A Companion to School Experience. 3rd Edition. Routledge: New York. Pp. 18-22, 207-216.

Dorman, Aldridge and Fraser (2006, p. 6) in Young, J (2014) Encouragement in Classroom: How Do I Help Students Stay Positive and Focused? USA: ACSD. Pp. 12-16

Reid, K, Morgan, N. (2000) A Kit Bag for Promoting Positive Behaviour in the Classroom. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers. Pp. 20-28

Further Reading:

Beadle, P, Muphy, J. (2013) Why are you shouting at us? London: Bloomsbury

Nelsen, J, Lott, L, Glenn, S. (2011) Positive Discipline in the Classroom: Developing Mutual Respect, Cooperation and Responsibility in Your Classroom. Revised 3rd Ed. California: Roseville

Rodgers, B. (2015) A Practical Guide to Effective Teaching, Behaviour Management and Colleague Support. London: SAGE Publications.

Harrop, A, Swinson, J. (2012) Positive Psychology for Teachers. London: Routledge.


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