Managing low-level disruption

Author: Aly Spencer
Published: 21/10/2019

Students on phones while in lesson

“I’m struggling to manage the low-level chatting and disruption in my classroom. I know I need to take better control… I just don’t know how.”

David, Science trainee teacher

The features of low-level disruption

One of the most energy-draining, patience-sapping challenges for a novice teacher is getting your audience ready to listen and learn. Entry routines, seating plans, classroom rules and high expectations should all have been core topics of study in your teacher training year, but some classes can present more challenges than others because of their dynamics.

In September 2014, Ofsted published a report entitled Below the Radar: Low-level Disruption in the Country’s Classrooms (Ofsted, 2014).

The report summarised the ‘typical features’ of low-level disruption as:

  • talking unnecessarily or chatting
  • calling out without permission
  • being slow to start work or follow instructions
  • showing a lack of respect for each other and staff
  • not bringing the right equipment
  • using mobile devices inappropriately.

If you are experiencing some, or all, of these features on your placement, then it may feel as though you’re simply herding sheep. Getting students to listen and behave in a way that is conducive to learning becomes the primary objective. You are firefighting, as opposed to teaching students and meeting the learning objectives you’ve carefully planned. It’s exhausting and, if left for too long, can get to the point of no return.

How to manage low-level disruption – individuals

Since 2014, lots of schools have adopted policies that mean phones are much less of a problem and it shouldn’t be something you’re contending with. If it is, then talk to your mentor and see if they can help.

With regards to the other common features of low-level disruption, don’t dismay. There are some things you can do to try to eliminate them happening in your classroom if you create the right climate over time.

The key is to know your audience.

  • Be tactical.
  • Be strategic.
  • Be positive.

Sometimes low-level disruption can be caused by one or two key individuals in the room. You could probably think of a few key players who make a real difference to the dynamic.

See if you recognise either of the students I’ve profiled here.

The star of the show

This student might arrive late to get extra attention or to distract the others from your starter activity. They will ‘perform’ for the benefit of the class and draw attention away from the activity you invested hours of your time planning. Students need attention, and when they aren’t getting it from their primary carers at home or their peers, then they may try tactics like this.

Dishing out a C1 as your response simply feeds that attention negatively and makes your relationship more fractured. It certainly doesn’t help your mood either if it’s your first behaviour-related ‘act’. It sets a sour tone.

How else can you give students attention to enhance the level of engagement in the class?

Why not try giving them a role or responsibility in the room? Give them a special title and a list of clear responsibilities that you mutually agree with them. Always lead with reward, respect and responsibility. It will make you a happier teacher. If you have a few stars of the show, then why not write three or four class job descriptions and get them to apply! Distributed leadership will empower your young people and may deter them from playing up.

The constant questioner

This type of student is not technically doing anything wrong. They might ask lots of relevant questions, so it doesn’t warrant a C1, but it does slow you down. How can you stop them shouting out without ruining your relationship with them?

A good strategy is to thank the student for their contributions and to give them a certain number of post-it notes as they arrive at the door. Explain this is just for them as you are keen to hear their thoughts, but you want it to be at the right time. If they have questions or comments, then they should write each one on an individual note. If their behaviour is positive throughout the lesson, then they get five minutes before the plenary to stand up and share them with everyone. This satisfies their need to be heard but on your terms.

How to manage low-level disruption – groups

Sometimes low-level disruption can come from groups of students. It’s harder to distinguish and target key players when there’s a general hum in the room and you’re struggling to be heard.

In this scenario, you have a few options based on operant conditioning approaches.

1. Establish non-verbal attention grabbers

I have seen some skilful teachers use their body language to bring a class back to the front. Tactical positioning, raising a hand and waiting for silence, or writing names on the board are a few that can work. However, students will need training to respond to this. These techniques can take years to perfect.

My advice is to experiment. Trial something new but tell students you’re doing it and why you’re doing it. Align it with the school’s behaviour policy and expectations, and see how it goes. Self-regulation will not happen overnight, especially for students who don’t have regular structure and routine outside of school, so you will need to be patient.

2. Use sounds or music

Lots of my trainees have found the use of sounds and music to be very effective in managing behaviour. Younger children respond well to call backs and responsive clapping or bells. In one lesson I watched recently, the teacher had an agreement that they could listen to a song quietly in the background if they all stayed on task. This will depend on the ethos in your school and whether this sort of approach is acceptable, but it might be worth a try. Lots of research has been conducted into the effects of listening to music, including the infamous ‘Mozart effect’ (a term coined in 1991, which claimed that young children can become more intelligent if they listen to classical music). Just make sure it doesn’t distract you; do your research first.

3. Timers

You may already embed timers into your PowerPoints to monitor the use of time spent on activities throughout a lesson. This is good for demonstrating Standard 4. But how else could you use timers? Maybe if your class struggles to listen when you’re giving verbal instructions, you could explain that you will be spending the next three minutes explaining what they’re doing today. Set the timer. It’s a visual indicator for them to focus on and lets them know that you are expecting undivided attention for that length of time.

4. Whole-class incentives

Most schools have house point systems or achievement points. At the start of a class, put a number on the board and explain that if the class maintain the rules and work hard during the lesson as a team, then every member of the team will walk away with that number of points. Every time someone breaks the rules or disrupts the learning, then a point is deducted, but they can earn them back if they work together to create the environment you want. This is easy to establish, it doesn’t rely on technology, and it praises the positive behaviour you’re looking for.

5. Raffle tickets

I always have three things in my pockets during a lesson: post-it notes, a whiteboard pen and a book of raffle tickets. Raffle tickets are the most versatile tool a teacher can use to manage behaviour.

Here’s one way you could use them.

  • Decide which lesson of the week will be the prize draw (choose the day/session when students are most disruptive).
  • Decide which positive behaviours will warrant raffle tickets (tailored to each class, based on what they struggle with).
  • Award raffle tickets in each lesson to students when they demonstrate positive behaviours for learning (about five each lesson).
  • When awarded, glue the raffle ticket in the student’s book. The student writes what they got the ticket for next to the ticket.
  • Decide on that week’s prize as a class team.
  • Do the draw.

This requires good organisation on your part, but if you’re consistent then it will work.


Ofsted (2014) ‘Below the radar: low-level disruption in the country’s classrooms’.

Aly Spencer

Aly Spencer is Head of ITT for the Fylde Coast SCITT and teaching schools, and co-chair of a network of ITT providers across Lancashire. She has a special interest in the progress and wellbeing of early career teachers.