When does behaviour management start?

22 03 2017

Imagine being a teenager on the way to a science show and seeing these chairs as you entered the room. What has just been happening in this room? What standards of behaviour have previously been set and what standards of behaviour are going to be demanded of you?

Now look at these chairs. Ask yourself the same questions. 

Behavioural priming is a field of psychological research that isn’t without its critics but it makes sense to me that teenagers who see the second, neater room set up will assume higher behavioural expectations have been and are going to be set than those who see the first. 

Behaviour management doesn’t just start as you begin to speak. Wittingly or not your audience will be making assumptions about how they are going to be expected to behave from the moment they enter your space. 

I have written before about the value of controlling the fill and owning the room. By stopping children at the door, making them line up and wait for their teacher to arrive you are giving them a very powerful message – that you are in control and that you know what you are doing.

Children who are guided to enter a room calmly, who then see neat rows of chairs easy for them to file along, are always easier to speak to in my experience than those who have rushed uncontrolled into a messy space. 

Now what about the way you are dressed? I’m not exactly sure why the uniform of a science presenter has become a brightly coloured, embroidered polo shirt but I’d guess they are cheap, hard wearing and in a science centre environment make staff stand out and easy to spot whilst fitting into the centre’s overall branding. 

I personally don’t like this style of uniform but in a science centre I can see how it can be justified. I don’t think it helps members of those institutions who do outreach. 

In every school there is a dress code. Even if the children are not expected to wear a specific uniform there will be certain expectations. And this applies to the teachers as well. 

Imagine we are back in school and you are a teenager entering the room for your science show. What impressions are you going to form about the show you are about to see when the people presenting it are dressed more casually than your school’s maintenance and cleaning staff?

I’ve just searched google images for “teacher” and there isn’t a single image of someone in a brightly coloured polo shirt. But science centre outreach staff aren’t “teachers” I can hear some people shout. Yes, I know where you are coming from but “informal education” refers to the style of pedagogy not how people are dressed. 

The picture above is a random pic taken from google but it is representative of the way the presenters I saw last week really struggling to manage a tough teenage audience were dressed.

Those presenters weren’t from the Science Museum in London but they’d been sent out to perform to S1 and S2 (13-14 year olds) by their own centre looking very similar. In the end they just had to stop their show. The kids’ behaviour got so out of hand that the teachers had to step in and take the kids back to class. 

We know science centres. If you are reading this blog you have definitely visited one, you’ve probably even worked at one, so you unwittingly understand why science centre staff are dressed like that. Through your past experiences you have been primed to expect a certain style of performance but not everyone has the same experiences you have. 

Imagine you are a teenager who’s never been to a science centre, who’s never seen anyone in their school dressed like that. What image are you forming of this person and what expectations will you have of their show and the behaviour expected of you?

I’m not justifying the kids’ behaviour but I can’t help but feel their behaviour might have been different if they’d been faced with people dressed in a way that demanded more respect. 

I performed to the same S2 group and I knew they were going to be tough. I don’t wear a science centre polo I wear a slightly more relaxed version of what you might expect a teacher to wear (shirt, jacket and dressy dark denim jeans normally). To counter the troubling environment for that performance I changed my shoes from my comfy performing black trainers to a pair of leather brogues. When it comes to behaviour priming every little helps.

One last point is about the way you start to speak. If the first thing you do is shout to get the audience’s attention then you are priming that audience to not be quiet until you shout again. The first words that come out of your mouth – and more importantly the way you say them – will set the tone for the rest of your performance. If you want the children to listen quietly then you will have to get them quiet before you speak. Perhaps the details of this are best dealt with in a separate post. 

Performing to teenagers is hard, assuming your material is up to scratch and not the real issue, remember the importance of behavioural priming. Behaviour management starts long before you begin to speak. Think about the behaviour you want the kids to exhibit and ask yourself if your set up and what you are wearing is reinforcing or undermining that message. 



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