Behaviour management: what can we learn from Darth Vader and Yoda?

The WHT deep field galaxy view

Last night, as part of the SETI@home project, my computer picked up and decoded the following signal which, so my laptop says, is approximately 2,753,000 years old and emanated from somewhere in the vicinity of the Sombrero galaxy. As luck would have it, the signal appears to consist of notes for an article on behaviour management with young learners, so I’m including it here in case it is of interest to you. My Mac seems to have done quite a good job of translating the notes into English, too, which is especially pleasing as the notes were transmitted in no language known to humanity.

An Unsuccessful Lesson

Captured by the Sand People: an unsuccessful lesson.

It is 12:35pm Galactic Standard Time and I’m standing in a cave on the planet Dagobah, home to Master Yoda and a surprising variety of snakes. As I wait for him to finish a late breakfast of gnarltree roots and hassling, I am struck by a great sense of trepidation. The Death Star hovering in the sky above us is not going to stay forever: it will, after all, shortly be readying its laser to annihilate this world (and good riddance to the snakes, I say); while a large fleet of Rebel fighters secretly prepares to attack it. More to the point, the satellite link connecting Yoda and I to the Death Star has begun beeping alarmingly as its battery slowly expires, and I’m concerned that our scheduled interview on behaviour management will have to be postponed yet again.

Yoda seems not to mind. The revered Master sips a noxious-smelling juice, apparently squeezed straight from the swamp that surrounds us, while I consult my chronometer meaningfully. We are two minutes late! As Yoda finishes his breakfast, I think back to the moment I first realised the importance of behaviour management in class. There we were: a room full of excitable and indisciplined jawa and me, C-3P0, standing largely ineffectually in their midst, wondering what had happened to the idea of sweetly attentive learners, and to my clever lesson plan for teaching the use of auxiliary verbs in past simple question forms. My attempts at imposing order on that occasion were not entirely successful, at least insofar as my teaching assistant, R2-D2, and I were imprisoned by our pupils for quite some time, and eventually sold as robot slaves.

Yoda interrupts my reminiscence with a sharp rap on my metal arm, and I wonder again at the wisdom of seeking advice on classroom control from a being who wields his cane so readily. But he does have over 800 years of teaching experience, so I adjust the link-up screen while the mask of Darth Vader stares back at us expressionlessly.


C-3P0: "largely ineffectual"

“Master Yoda”, I begin, “Lord Vader: what, for you, is the secret of successful behaviour management?” At that exact moment, a large, red laser beam pierces the crust of our planet. “Is that your answer?” I cry but, just as I ask this, the rebel ships burst from their cover to attack, and my question is lost in the accompanying roar. Then my link-up’s battery dies. Cursing my luck as much as my metal body, I run with Yoda to a waiting spacecraft and leave Dagobah forever. Fortunately, I was later able to pose my questions in a series of faxed exchanges with the Imperial Command Centre near the Galactic Core, and by interviewing Master Yoda in person. This is what they told me.

“Know your enemy and you can bend them to your will” – Darth Vader

These are wise words which, typically of Lord Vader’s advice, really grab the issue by the throat and squeeze. By learning what makes your young learners tick, and by providing what they need in order to learn successfully, you set up the conditions for them to flourish under your command. But what do children typically need from their teachers and their learning environment? Here is what the two Jedi Masters said:

  1. “Size matters not… Look at me. Judge me by size, do you?” – Yoda
  2. As Yoda implies, respect is the oil that smoothes the engine of a well-run classroom. This has several facets –

    • Respect your learners
    • You can show this by encouraging the development of your students’ interests (it’s amazing how much vocabulary can be learnt by setting homework tasks based around what your students would like to read about or listen to anyway, and how happy a class can be when working on tasks they all enjoy and see value in completing). You can also show this by rewarding your young learners’ good behaviour or successful completion of tasks in class, by making any admonishments short and clear, then getting on with the lesson, and by making it a rule never to humiliate a student in front of their peers, no matter what.

    • Encourage your learners to respect each other
    • This is actually another way of showing respect to each student individually: by encouraging them to act respectfully to each other, you help them all to learn better, faster, and in a more enjoyable way. Again, a good way to achieve this is by rewarding respectful behaviour towards others, and by not tolerating its opposite. Disrespectful behaviour might include:

      • talking while the teacher is talking, or when another learner is saying something;
      • saying something rude in class to or about a classmate or the teacher;
      • clicking pens during a quiet task;
      • making persistent eye-contact with other students during quiet tasks;
      • drumming fingers on the desktop during a listening activity;
      • not doing homework;
      • rocking in their chair;
      • turning up late;
      • turning up without a pen or paper;

      and so on.

      Many behaviours on the above list will seem so minor as not to be worth admonishing. However, even a clicking pen can turn into a major distraction, especially if other students join in. There’s also the danger that, having become distracted, your learners will become more disruptive, and the lesson can collapse into chaos, at least for a few minutes. It’s usually best to try and gently correct low-level disruptive behaviour like most of the examples above, though with two caveats: ignore low-level disruptive behaviour if, by drawing attention to it, you’re likely to cause a far bigger disruption (say, if you’re leading a focussing exercise, and two learners are fidgeting or staring out of the window); and remember that, if your class largely seems distracted, this might be because they are bored – in which case, correct the behaviour, but also perhaps change the task, and find out what they didn’t like about it (maybe you’ve set just too many solo exercises in a row, or perhaps they are bored by what they’re reading about – either way, you’ll know for next time).

      A good way to correct low-level disruptive behaviour is simply to draw your students’ attention back to the task they are supposed to be doing (if they don’t like it, either change activities or set a short time limit for its completion before moving on to something else). It’s generally best to be gentle when re-focussing your students’ attention, and never shout.

    • Encourage respect of the learning environment
    • This is also likely to foster a positive atmosphere. It includes simple things like making sure your learners put their chairs back at the end of a lesson, or requiring them not to draw on their desks in class (which is in any case a sign of distraction). It can also involve improving the appearance of the classroom with your students’ help, for example by adding their own posters, drawings and stories to the walls, or by re-arranging the desks into a design both you and they approve of (again, make sure you help them put the desks back before they leave!).

    • Make sure your learners respect you
    • Just as you respect your students, they need to respect you. This is essential: for your students to feel safe, they need to know you are enforcing the rules for their benefit and that you are in control.

      It’s good to dress the part of a slightly strict teacher, at least for the first few months of your class, as this will affect how your students perceive you. Also, watch out for the signals you send out through your body language and your actions: try always to be early for your class, set up and ready to teach before your students arrive; make eye contact with them as they come to your door; use short, small gestures and use them sparingly; don’t fidget when addressing your learners; and so on. A good model to copy might be Darth Vader (though perhaps without the death grip): straight-backed, never afraid to look his Admirals in the eye or admonish them for their mistakes, and certainly not one to make way for his storm troopers to run past (no, they have to make way for him!). Yoda would be another good model, with his deliberate, economical gestures and habit of remaining aloof from his pupils even as he helps them (though again, I disapprove of his use of the stick).

      Darth Vader

      Darth Vader: always well-respected by his pupils.

      By acting the part of a leader, you’ll find that you become a leader; and above all, remember that your students don’t want you to be their friend, but to help them and sometimes tell them what to do, so they can learn.

  3. “You are unwise to lower your defences.” – Darth Vader
  4. What Lord Vader is stressing here, of course, is the importance of consistency. Again, this is essential to running a happy and well-motivated class: one of your roles as a teacher is enforcer of school rules, or upkeeper of school guidelines, and your learners will feel safer if you encourage them to follow these rules or guidelines, because they know what is and isn’t acceptable, and what will and will not be allowed.

    If your school has no set rules, or if you don’t know what these are (perhaps you only visit the planet once a week to teach a language class), it’s usually a good idea to come to your first lesson with a set you’ve prepared, along with a system of rewards and punishments for following or breaking the rules. Make sure these are written out both in simple English (translator’s licence – Simon) and in your students’ first language, and that your students stick a copy of these rules in the first page of their exercise books or files. Go through the rules with your students, ensuring they not only understand them and what will happen if they follow or break them, but also why these are the rules: how they can help students feel safe in class; how they can help learning; and that they are not arbitrary.

    Have a look at the following list of possible rules. How do they relate to the list of disruptive behaviours above? What sort of behaviours might be admonished according to the third rule, about respect?

    • Students must always bring to class a pen or pencil, their coursebook and some paper to write on.
    • If your teacher is speaking, listen. If another student is speaking, listen.
    • Always respect the other students in your class, the classroom and your teacher.
    • Always do your homework on time.

    Again, make sure your learners understand there are rewards for sticking to the class rules or guidelines, and punishments for breaking them. A good sanction is one where the cost of misbehaving outweighs its benefits, yet does not belittle or humiliate the learner. For example, if the cost of not doing your homework was to endure a five-minute rant from your teacher, or a sarcastic comment, not only might you lose respect for the teacher during their rant or for “punching down” with their sarcasm (for they are the teacher, and you’re not allowed to reply), but you might also think it’s worth enduring for the extra hour or so you get to spend racing sand sloths, or chatting to your friends.

    Darth Vader: Death Grip

    One of Vader's officers realising the cost of not doing his homework terminally outweighs the benefits.

    At the school I used to work in (IH Tatooine), young learners could get stars or stickers for lessons in which they behaved well – ten stars or stickers meant a certificate (and there were six levels of certificate to aim for, as well!). Teenagers, meanwhile, could earn stamped cards for behaving well throughout a class, and ten of these could be exchanged for a “no homework” pass. There was also a four-step system of sanctions covering most misdemeanours: (1) a verbal warning; (2) the offending student has to move to a different seat; (3) the offender has to speak with the teacher after class; and (4) the misbehaving student has to speak to the Director of Studies, who will also call their parents or guardians. I think this is generally an excellent system, though remember that serious misbehaviour (for example, throwing a chair, or fighting) should be dealt with more severely than merely clicking a pen, and would usually involve the highest sanction you have. Remember also not to reward bad behaviour by focussing on it in class, thereby giving the culprit an audience of their peers – simply apply whatever the sanction is for breaking the rules and move on with your lesson. And don’t forget to praise good behaviour, which is hard at first because, by its very nature, you often won’t notice it.

    One of the most difficult things is to consistently enforce class rules or guidelines over a long period of time. It’s easy to sink into despair as you find yourself repeating the same sanctions again and again, seemingly to little overall effect. However, if you keep at it, you will notice behavioural improvement, though this can take quite a while, particularly if you only see a group of students once or twice a week. And if you stop sanctioning bad behaviour, you’ll almost inevitably find your class slipping into chaos extremely quickly.

    Star Wars: Vader Inspecting Storm Troopers

    Vader's stormtroopers: always so well-behaved when he inspects them. It can take months of consistently enforcing class rules to achieve this.

    Another difficulty is consistently enforcing the rules in any single class. If you don’t do this, your students will learn that they can sometimes (or often) get away with breaking them, and so are very likely to try and break them more regularly; they may also learn that some students are more likely to get sanctioned than others, which would probably lead to discord and rancour.

    So the advice from Darth Vader here (though less gnomically expressed) is this: have a system of rules or guidelines; make sure your students understand what these are, why they exist, and what the rewards and punishments are for (non-)compliance; and consistently enforce or uphold them, both in individual lessons and over the course.

  5. Luke: I can’t believe it. Yoda: That is why you fail.”
  6. Of course, education is not just about developing your knowledge, but about personal development as well. Young Master Luke’s confidence really grew under Yoda, until he felt able even to overthrow the Empire, and it was a pleasure to watch his self-belief come on in leaps and bounds as he slowly mastered the Jedi art. Happily, encouraging your students to develop a positive self-image joins neatly with my topic of behaviour management: students who are happy to be in your class, and who not only succeed in challenging tasks but feel that they’ve succeeded, are also more inclined to good behaviour. How can you help your students in this respect? Here are three ideas:

    • Set high expectations for your learners, and share these with the class
    • It’s important to challenge your students, but also not to set them a task that really would be impossible for them at their level of development. The formula “language +1” is useful here: set, and encourage your students to succeed at, linguistic tasks which are just beyond the familiar, or what they are comfortable doing; and let them know that you believe they can succeed.

      Yoda instructs Luke Skywalker on Dagobah

      "Encourage your students to attempt challenging tasks": Luke levitating boxes while standing on his head, supervised by Yoda.

    • Notice and praise good behaviour
    • Darth Vader has already introduced the idea of stickers, stars, and certificates for good behaviour. Yet simply praising good behaviour reinforces it: your student feels good about themselves for receiving the praise, and learns that they are praised when they make the effort to behave well. Generally, good behaviour here means that your student is on-task, focussed on its completion, and successfully co-operating with other students in their group or the class as a whole.

    • Deal with the behaviour, not the person
    • Again, this links to Lord Vader’s point, above, about not having favourite pupils. If you focus on behavioural actions in class, not the personalities behind them, you’ll find that these latter will take care of themselves, and the class atmosphere as a whole becomes more positive.

    It’s well-known that Darth Vader rules his Empire through fear and intimidation, while Yoda prefers a more nurturing and hands-on approach. Yet, as a humble droid, what’s remarkable to me is the similarity of their advice on behaviour management in class, despite their very different methodologies: by fostering respect in class (for self, for other learners, for the place of study and for the teacher), by explaining and enforcing a fair and consistent set of rules or guidelines, and by encouraging success, you will make your class a happier one, with more productive and better-behaved young learners. Perhaps it’s worth remembering here that these two Jedi Masters represent different sides of the same Force, and that the same power that destroys planets also gives life to all things.

    Yoda Portrait

    Yoda: a more nurturing approach (but be careful of that stick!)

My thanks to Yoda and Darth Vader for their help in preparing these notes, and for their great patience despite the repeated, enforced postponements of our interview. Any errors contained within these modest scribblings are, of course, entirely my own.
C-3P0, Sector Arkanis, Galactic Standard Year 5,243,800

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