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10 common behaviour engagement mistakes teachers make

10 common behaviour engagement mistakes teachers make


Teaching is a complex social activity, and while teacher training prepares teachers well around content expertise and delivery, very little is done to skill teachers in behaviour engagement. Behaviour engagement/management, in what is already a high-stress profession, remains one of the most significant stressors for teachers, yet little has been done systematically to solve the problem. Much of the literature addresses teacher stress from a stress management perspective (treat the symptom). In this article, I plan to explore the 10 most significant mistakes teachers can make in managing student behaviour. 


Red Zones are very infectious mind states. The Red Zone competes with the Blue Zone for brain resources, reducing observation, situational awareness, goal setting, behavioural error-checking, empathy, confidence, creativity, complex problem-solving... Consider the cost of losing these rich behaviours! 

Students have over-developed Red Zones in comparison to their Blue Zones. Red Zones are more contagious, as are the emotional states from leaders (ie the teacher). The classroom is primed for the Red Zone, and teachers have the professional responsibility to be in the best mind state for learning: the Blue Zone.

The Red Zone is a state of vigilance; looking for things that are outside expectations, for threats, for challenges. The culture of education can cause teachers to become hyper-vigilant and over-sensitive to challenges to authority. The most outstanding teachers consistently see deviations to expected behaviour as just that, and respond with a calm, consistent, planned and fair approach to managing challenging behaviour. These teachers do not interpret such behaviour as a personal attack on them, the profession or their knowledge. They observe and manage from a calm 'situationally aware' space, from the Blue Zone.

If you walk into your classroom 'in the red', or even have a 'mid-class meltdown', you are making it so much harder to manage the behaviour of the whole class, while reducing the quality of the learning!

Read more about your Red and Blue Zones here.


Take a moment to reflect on how we tend to respond to behaviour in general. As parents and as teachers, the generality is to respond to unwanted behaviour with significant emotional energy (for example, yelling, strong facial emotions and aggressive body language), and we are often less energetic with wanted behaviour.

We have this the wrong way around. The attention appetite of students and children is such that, if they cannot get positive attention from you, negative will do. The higher your emotional energy in response, the higher the attention reward to the student. Responding vigorously to unwanted behaviour is very inefficient, and just ends up putting everyone back in the Red Zone. Keep your emotional budget for wanted behaviour, and discourage unwanted behaviour from a neutral, even distant position.

This links strongly to the number 1 mistake (not staying calm under pressure), and learning to stay cool , calm and collected allows you to be much more strategic in how you ‘spend’ your emotions.


In many ways, the era of the expert leader (or leader as expert) is over. There remains a strong role for experts in content and/or process, yet increasingly, leaders today are facilitators.


How many of you now consult a weather radar application or page on your smart phone or computer? How often do you or your friends ‘self- diagnose’ medical problems on the internet before seeing your doctor? Have you noticed that the dominance of the media in distributing news is waning and that social media is often first to report?

We are in a content rich world, and access to this content and knowledge is increasing exponentially each year. The time of the teacher (who is the leader in the classroom) as a content expert is over. Any teacher that attempts to demand respect because “I am the teacher, and I have the knowledge” will simply not engage students.

Such teachers (and indeed, leaders and parents) listen less to others: they have the content and need to be listened to. Students, however, would say “why should I listen to you if you won’t listen to me...”. This has been the recipe in education for a number of years, otherwise known as the behaviour management grind.

While content (i.e. curriculum) remains essential, the teachers who take the position “I have the content, how can I best help you access it?” are far more likely to engage students, and are likely to spend lots less time on behaviour management. These teachers are ‘modern mentors’ – hybrids of content/process experts and coach/facilitators. Teachers who remain in Education 2.0 as experts can move to Education 3.0 (as facilitators) by gaining some coaching training.


A common pitfall of the young and the new to teaching is to play the approval game. The behaviour that emerges with this need for approval is often over-friendliness to the students, wanting to appear to be ‘one of them’. The mistaken strategy here is make friends, form a relationship and it will all work out ok.

A key fallacy here is that engagement needs a relationship to exist. Conversely, relationships often emerge from engagement, and engagement can occur in minutes with no prior relationship. When students detect a listening, unconditionally respectful and encouraging teacher, engagement rises. When these elements are present with role clarity (i.e. role separation), clarity of expectation (i.e. rule clarity) and a calm approach to holding students accountable, then you see a high-performing classroom.

Friendly teachers rely on the strength of the commitment of students to the relationship manage behaviour. Often, when holding students accountable becomes necessary, the choice for the friendly teacher becomes lose the friendship or forget the discipline.

Seeking approval from students has another hidden down side. Strong engagement occurs when we detect another person's attention on us, for us. When you seek approval, your attention is on another person, but for you. Engagement falls when the attention 'spent' is for the giver, not the receiver.

So the answer here is to be genuinely interested, to care, to listen and to encourage. Be friendly, without seeking approval through friendship. 


Your brain is particularly ‘wired’ to present you with what you are expecting to see. It is wired for assumption: If you are about to buy a brand new red BMW, it is amazing how many red BMWs you see.

When you label students, when you give them what you think students need, when you ‘just know’ how the next class is going to be today, you are indulging in assumption and judgement. The point being made here is not about the accuracy of the assumption of judgement, but the usefulness of either.

Jarrod (for example) might often be a miscreant student (and, indeed, a pain in the backside), but the more efficient behaviour management position to take is to be prepared, take him as he is and present him with choices that drive to self-managed behaviour.

Alternatively, if you whinge to your colleague, over coffee break, that you have Jarrod again, and “Who knows what he will be up to today...”, all you are doing for you and your colleague is setting up your brains to be hyper-sensitive to Jarrod.

This difference here is clear. Instead of (e.g.) “Jarrod! You are a very disruptive student” best-practice teachers say “Jarrod, you are making some poor decisions at the moment”. An observation, not a judgement or label.


Not knowing much about the brain and how learning is expressed in the brain is very much like trying to navigate without understanding your map. We’ve been educating systematically now since the early 1800s, yet only in recent years has the call to understand the brain, as it learns, gathered any momentum.

The most significant impacts on the student brain are:

  • Resources: nutrition, fitness and sleep in particular
  • Social: being accepted, listened to and respected
  • Emotional & Cognitive: safety, clarity, autonomy, relatedness and fairness1
  • Situational: reflection and feedback to form new connections from established patterns

So what can you do as a teacher? Read widely:

  • The Brain That Changes Itself – Norman Doidge
  • The Decisive Moment – Jonah Lehrer
  • The Success Zone/Success Zone Classrooms – Mowat, Corrigan & Long
  • A User’s Guide to the Brain – John Ratey
  • Your Brain At Work – David Rock

The manual to teaching manual to The Success Zone, Success Zone Classrooms, has a section on teaching to the student brain. 



When I originally wrote this article (2011), recent major floods had ravaged Queensland and Brisbane (Australia). In terms of the response from authorities and government, three key phases were apparent in seeing the emergency unfold: preparation, the flooding itself and the recovery. In each of these phases observation, communication and action were present, providing clarity and autonomy in particular.

Imagine the impact of the disaster if this level or organization was absent. No communication, people not knowing what to do or where to go, assistance not being targeted to those who needed it most.

Your classroom can be its own disaster zone. Using the floods as an analogy, behaviour events in your classroom fall into the same three phases: preparation, the event and recovery. Poor teachers respond simply in the moment, without strategy and without plan. The inefficiency of this approach leads to frustration (for all) and rising Red Zones.

Outstanding teachers use observation (as opposed to assumption and judgement), communication and action in the following way:


  • A behaviour management plan that allows the teacher to stay calm under pressure, and allows students to make choices around behaviour

  • Development of the pan with, and communication of the plan to students

Unwanted behaviour (the event):

  • Calm and fair application of the behaviour management plan

  • Adaptability to unexpected outcomes


  • A facilitative approach to (re)engaging the student into the classroom

  • Identification of special or extra support for the student

  • Reflection, feedback and adaptation of the plan

Just as any high performing professional will do, outstanding teachers seek to take a learning and development approach to their behaviour management plan. 

There are a number of good behaviour engagement structures around, and while I have been long a fan of Dr Bill Rogers work, the brain-based SCARF framework can be a hugely useful test for whether the strategy you use will work. See more about SCARF here.

9. BEING A PROUD PROFESSIONAL (or seeking punishment over behavioural learning)

The ‘proud professional’ might experience an angry student swearing at them. The mind state of this persona interprets the misbehavior as a personal attack, and responds strongly from the Red Zone. Often, this sort of teacher will seek punishment and retribution applied from middle or senior school leadership. In other words, the outcomes sought are meeting the needs of the teacher. In some ways, this type of teacher is displaying as much self-management as the swearing student.

A professionally humble, or situationally aware teacher (aware of self, others and environment) will respond more to the student themselves, not the behaviour. If the behaviour is public, this teacher will seek to manage the environment first. Next, this teacher will address the emotional state of student, seeking first to mitigate any Red Zones before coaching the student around the behaviour. This sort of teacher is nearly always calm in the face of verbal abuse, and has not interpreted the behaviour as a personal affront. Outcomes sought are those that meet the needs of the student. School leadership, in contrast to the ‘proud’ teacher, is involved as a last resort, not the first.

The message here is again related to being calm under pressure: stay calm, observe rather than judge, act with clarity and fairness. 

One of the best brain-complimentary behaviour engagement frameworks is the Restorative Practice, one of the core  frameworks in play at the Australian International School in Singapore. Restorative Practice is repairing through learning over punishment, and requires strong Blue Zone leadership.


In comparison to other professions, teachers have been historically slow to change and adapt. Professional development, in widespread use only in the last 30-40 years, has tended to be after hours of off site. Teachers have come to see that where I learn professionally is outside of the classroom, and where I teach is in the classroom.

Hence, systems have been struggling with PD efficiency for years. Very little of teacher professional development makes its way into practice, simply because teaching is a highly task and socially intensive activity. There is so little time, space, ability reflect or to experiment – all needed for lasting change to occur.

Research suggests that once the early learning curve of classroom practice flattens off, teachers learn vey little in situ, despite a strong desire and belief that they can.

The most outstanding teachers consistently treat the classroom as a professional learning opportunity. Every class, every day. They do this by reflecting with peers, with students, with a coach. They seek informal and formal feedback, make adjustments to practice, and seek more feedback. They are continuously oscillating between reflection and action. Stuck teachers are either doing lots of reflection with no action (i.e. experimentation), or more commonly, they continue with the same practice with no reflection.

Treating the classroom as a ‘place where I learn’ is often the ‘X-factor’ difference between motivated teachers, and those grinding in a rut.

Group 8 Education, led by John Corrigan and based in Melbourne, has a long heritage of helping schools and school leadership engage staff towards building a learning culture. Interestingly, one of the key reasons I enjoy life at the Australian International School, here in Singapore, is the strong teacher learning culture.


A final observation here: all 10 mistakes above apply, in the context here, to teachers. The principles of each point discussed apply equally to school principals, to business leaders, and to parents.

More strategies, skills and techniques around brain-aware, coaching- based behaviour management, check out our new manual, the Success Zone Classrooms Manual, very soon to be posted here on Mind Food.

The original book on Blue and Red Zones – The Success Zone – can be found at good book stores, online here, and several other online bookstores. 

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