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Top Tips for Teachers: Improving Focus and On-task Behaviour

The following tips will be useful for all pupils. They will be especially helpful for children who tend to be more distractible, impulsive and active.


As teachers, we want to motivate our pupils to do their best: to listen carefully, to concentrate, to cooperate, to become independent learners, to be considerate. We know that these are the skills and habits and values that will help our pupils to achieve their academic potential and to grow in confidence, self-reliance and resilience. Also, when children are focused and on-task, there’s more time and more opportunity for fun!

We have all experienced how tempting it is to become frustrated and annoyed when the opposite is happening in our classrooms. It is all too easy to drift into the habits of repeating and reminding, lecturing and telling off. Unfortunately, these reactions don’t bring out the best in our pupils. Sadly, neither do vague superlatives: ‘Well done! Brilliant!’ etc.

However, we can motivate pupils to want to do their best by remembering to notice and mention whenever they are doing the right thing—or nearly the right thing. This technique is called Descriptive Praise because we focus on describing exactly what the pupil is doing that we want to see more of.

Descriptive Praise is a powerful motivator for most pupils because it is very specific and because it highlights small steps in the right direction. Descriptive Praise helps pupils to see themselves in a new, more positive light. Descriptive Praise helps pupils to re-invent themselves.

Descriptive Praises will improve behaviour and learning far more quickly than correcting and reminding will. You can use Descriptive Praise to improve:

  • Cooperation, respect, politeness:
    • ‘You did what I told you to do straightaway.’
    • ‘I gave the class a job to do with three steps to it. When I look around the room, I see that everyone has done the first step, and this table is already on step two.’
    • ‘You stopped complaining.’
  • Following rules and routines, remembering the right thing to do and doing it without having to be told (this is often called self-reliance, responsibility, common sense, mature attitude):
    • ‘Several of you looked up when you heard the fire engine go by, but you didn’t get out of your seats. You kept on working.’
    • ‘You told yourself the right thing to do, and then you did it. That shows maturity.’
    • ‘You followed our routine without any reminders.’
    • ‘The rule is to write in silence, and that is exactly what I hear – complete silence.’

With pupils who are especially impulsive, reluctant or rebellious, there will be times at first when you will need to use a metaphorical magnifying glass to notice the tiny steps in the right direction! Do persevere—the results are well worth the effort.

Getting the Attention of the Whole Class

Before you give even a brief instruction to your class, be willing to wait calmly until all the pupils are silent and still and looking at you. Descriptively Praise the pupils who have completely stopped what they are doing and are looking at you and listening. This will help your pupils to respect that what you are about to say is important.

Giving Clear Instructions

Whenever you want your pupils to do something or to stop doing something, use language that makes it very clear that this is an instruction: ‘I need you to…’ or ‘This is what you should do’ or ‘Do this now please’, etc.

Unfortunately, instructions often sound like suggestions or recommendations: ‘I’d like you to…’ or ‘It would be a good idea to...’ or ‘Don’t you think….’

Most pupils have the maturity to realise that the above are actually instructions, even though they are phrased as requests or suggestions. However, in every classroom there will be some pupils who will take advantage of any lack of clarity. If it seems to them as if they have a choice about whether to comply or not, they may do whatever they feel like doing in the moment.

Following Through

Require any instruction you give (either to an individual pupil or to the class) to be followed to the letter. Otherwise some pupils won’t believe that this instruction really applies to them; it will seem as if it is a suggestion they can ignore if they don’t feel like doing it the way you said.

When a pupil argues or pleads for a special exception, do not explain or justify your instruction. He isn’t listening to you! Instead, wait calmly for a few seconds until the pupil runs out of steam. Then Descriptively Praise him for stopping arguing or coming up with excuses, and ask him to tell you what he needs to do and why he needs to do it. This increases respect and will help your pupils to take you more seriously.

There may be times when you don’t feel that you have the time to wait a few seconds or when you feel so frustrated that you don’t want to do this. However, I’m asking you to think of this technique as an investment that will pay dividends quite quickly. Even quite recalcitrant pupils will soon start to take what you say more seriously if you don’t feed their immature misbehaviour with attention.

Improving Learning Habits

Do daily one-minute think-throughs to address each of the habits that you want your pupils to improve. This strategy is based on neuroscience. A think-through is all about asking, rather than telling.

When we tell a pupil what he should do or how or why, often he is not really listening. Pupils have heard it all before, many times, so it sounds to them like ‘Blah, blah, blah’. But when the pupil has to tell us exactly what, when, where, how, why, etc, his brain automatically pays attention to what he himself is saying.

Quite quickly think-throughs have the effect of lodging the correct habit more and more firmly in a pupil’s long-term memory, which will soon influence him to do the right thing without even having to give it much thought; the good behaviour will start to become a habit. In my insets and in my books I explain about think-throughs in detail.

Dealing with Low-level Misbehaviour

Every pupil needs to do an Action Replay for every bit of misbehaviour, whether minor or major. In an Action Replay the pupil first says what he should have done differently, and then he practises doing it correctly, with you watching. This technique helps to cement in good habits. (Major misbehaviour may require an additional consequence of course.) In my books and my teacher-training sessions I explain exactly how to do Action Replays.

Noël Janis-Norton © 2007

Descriptive Praise free ebook

If you don’t yet have your copy of my free ebook that explains this foundation strategy in detail, and that gives you lots of helpful examples, you can get instant access by adding your details here.

You may like these ideas but be unsure how to put them into practice. Would you like some advice about how to make all this happen? To find out how the ‘Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting and Teaching’ resources and services can help you and your family, please browse our website or email us:

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Please get in touch for more information. Noël and her team welcome enquiries from parents and educators.

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