Keep these close at hand to quell lab behaviour management issues before they arise 

A teacher demonstrates safety goggles to a group of puzzled looking students

Source: © Adam Larkum via IllustrationX

Keep your students focused in the lab to steer clear of behaviour management challenges and enjoy successful practicals

Managing behaviour in science lessons can be one of the trickiest things to master as a new teacher. Recommendation 3 from the EEF Improving behaviour in schools guidance report looks at the use of classroom management strategies to support good classroom behaviour. This becomes even more critical when we introduce hazardous substances and procedures into the classroom mix. As I discussed in a recent article on risk assessment, students’ behaviour is one of the most significant hazards during chemistry practical work.

A cartoon of a bunsen burner heating a flask on a tripod

Challenging behaviour, pupil disengagement, bullying and aggression are all aspects of student behaviour that can make practical work high risk. As such, teachers need to have clear strategies close at hand, and students must be trained in how to work in labs. We need to support our students in developing their skills and knowing how to respond when things don’t go as expected.

Central to effective behaviour management is a school culture that students buy into, so they are, ultimately, meeting our expectations. Consistency of reward and sanction helps embed this culture. Whole-school systems help to ensure this consistency, and free up teacher time so they can focus on teaching and learning.

1. Support the right kind of motivation

Whole school rewards systems are an efficient way of reinforcing appropriate behaviour. However, be aware that students catch on to the ‘game’ of the rewards system quickly. Well-behaved, hard-working students can sometimes be under-rewarded by these systems. We can tend to have higher expectations of them, and so it’s harder for them to excel and earn the rewards. And when poorly behaved students have a good lesson, they’re often rewarded for showing improvement. This can lead to a perverse inverse relationship between overall effort and behaviour, and rewards. Essentially, over time, we want our students’ locus of motivation to move more towards an intrinsic motivation, and away from external rewards and sanctions.

2. Set the example

A teacher showing his safety goggles

There are extra expectations on students in practical lessons. The behaviours and norms in a lab will be different to in an English classroom. These additional requirements need to be explicitly articulated and modelled for students. For example, if we expect students to wear eye protection at all times during a chemistry practical, we should be doing the same. Have a clearly defined set of rules as a starting point, such as the CLEAPSS Lab rules poster. In my school, we have these displayed in all labs as a useful touchstone for everyone entering the department.

3. Introduce classroom drills

It’s important to train students in the why and how of appropriate behaviour in the lab. I don’t shy away from the idea that they need to be trained. Drilling classes at the start of the year, or when first meeting a new class, is often critical. Regardless of the year group, we practise the moves required to get ready for practical work (eg move stools under, clear benches and floor, ensure uniform and hair is appropriate, put eye protection on). Positive reinforcement for those getting the moves right works well, and getting the students to peer assess speeds up the compliance. A useful rule of thumb is to highlight four positive behaviours for every one negative.

4. Manage movement

Students looking puzzled and pleased

The mass movement of students around the lab is a potential source of poor behaviour. Minimise bottle necks, carefully distribute resources around the lab, and orchestrate when and where students move. Microscale chemistry practicals can help when all equipment and materials can be distributed to groups in a separate tray. Use a visualiser to demonstrate techniques and expected outcomes to prime students before they carry out the practical for themselves. Consider how much you want to achieve in a particular practical. Breaking larger practicals up into smaller tasks over multiple lessons can reduce the chance of students’ working memories getting overloaded, which can lead to disengagement.

Students looking puzzled

5. Ensure equal access

Be cautious about using practical work as a reward, or removing practical work as a punishment. Practical work is a fundamental part of learning chemistry, and all students should have equal access to this part of their education. Sometimes, though, you must pause or completely stop practical work if the students’ behaviour would lead to the risk being too high. At this point, use the external support from department heads and colleagues. Sometimes, having a second member of staff in the room can be helpful. On occasions, you may need to remove a student from the classroom so the majority can carry out the practical work. Follow your department and school rules, and ensure you follow up with the student and tutors/parents afterwards.

Want some more?

Then read Kristy Turner’s humorous take on managing behaviour in the chemistry lab, take a leaf out of Niki Kaiser’s book to improve outcomes by getting to know your pupils better, and ingest Andy Chandler-Grevatt’s four solid strategies on how to set the scene for good behaviour in your lab. Or your could read Adam Boxer’s ideas on using simple behaviour management strategies as part of your normal routine.