A guide to classroom management: a scientific look at education (Latham, 1997)

Within this series of blogs I will address a revolutionary paper in classroom management written by Latham (1997). The blogs will focus on whether his ideas on implementing behavioral psychology principles within education, are still as appropriate to teacher training programmes today as they were in 1997. It will also consider if such ideas are being currently taught to new teachers or whether aspects/all of his ideas have stagnated into obscurity and are being generally ignored by educators.

The motivation behind Latham’s (1997) Eight Skills was his yearning to create a concise guide for teachers on classroom and behavioral management. In his research, he compared how different professionals (engineers, physicians, lawyers and teachers) dealt with finding solutions to specific problems within their respective fields. He noted, as seen in Figure 1, that ‘Other Professions’ used guiding core principles from which they generated their solutions, whereas within teacher training programmes teachers were not given a robust skill set to deal with various classroom and behavioural management problems.

Screen Shot 2015-01-15 at 22.57.29Figure 1. (Latham, 1997)

Latham’s Skill 8 “The ability to manage behaviour ‘scientifically’ ” specifically calls for the need to manage behaviour “scientifically”. In order to make education more scientifically based he created a set of basic behavioural paradigms within education. Basic paradigms are needed for any subject, including education, to start to be treated scientifically (Kuhn, 1962). Latham’s (1997) initial paradimn is that behaviours within the classroom are modfiable. There is continous support for the concept of modifiable behaviour; Kelderman (2014) stated “all behaviour is modifiable unless there is neurolgoical defects”. To modify these behaviours Latham (1997) created a robust arsenal of behavioural management skills to deal with unwanted behaviours. These eight basic skills are shown below:

  1. The ability to teach expectations
  2. The ability to get and keep students on task
  3. The ability to maintain high rates of positive teaching to pupil interactions
  4. The ability to respond non-coercively to inappropriate behaviour that is consequential
  5. The ability to maintain a high rate of risk-free student response opportunities
  6. The ability to serve problem behaviour students in the primary learning environment (i.e. the classroom)
  7. The ability to avoid being trapped
  8. The ability to manage behaviour “scientifically”

Seventeen years after Latham’s paper, I wanted to observe if Latham’s ideas have been adhered to. I therefore reviewed the “PGCE Survival Guide” (Handley, 2010). Its thoughts on behavioural management were as follows, “You can (and should) read about as many different behaviour management techniques, but the real learning will come kinesthetically, through practice.” Such an approach is exactly what Latham warns about when he states that behavioural management shouldn’t be taught through experience, or indirect reading around teaching. He states, instead, behavioural managment should be taught as explicitly as any other aspect of teaching. To support this premise an OFSTED report (Ofsted, 2014) observed the following statistic, when asked if they had be trained to deal with behaviour: “Of the 418 teachers who responded, nearly a third of secondary teachers and a fifth of primary teachers who had experienced such training said it was not very useful … A third of the teachers surveyed said they had been given no training or professional development on dealing with behaviour.”

A current teacher (Didau, 2013), blogged about his first teaching experience: “my Post-graduate Certificate in Education… I felt hopelessly unprepared for my first teaching practice, but then I expect that’s true of most or many, but despite lots of classroom experience… my behaviour management was woeful and my ability to cope with the stresses and strains of the NQT year left me a shambling and ragged mess.” These two pieces of evidence support the view, some teacher training programmes in the UK do not include such elements or are not teaching key elements of behavioural management. These elements are essential for teaching, because they prepare teachers to meet the range of behavioural challenges that are sure to be encountered within the classroom environment.

Although this argument is very UK focused, research by Hayden, Thompson and Levy (2007) states that “There is no indication that the situation [in the US] differs …[to] other countries … as Australia, Germany and the Netherlands revealed very few courses explicitly referring to discipline… professional standards for teachers in the USA, the UK, Australia, Canada (Ontario) and the Netherlands include little about classroom management skills”.

To reverse this current problem within educational training, there appears to be some government/university agendas within the UK, which are trying to amend this problem, as shown in a paper produced by the (National College for Teaching, & Department for Education, 2012), which stated, “Trainees should know about scientific research and developments, and how these can be applied to understanding, managing and changing children’s behaviour.” This is a very positive initiative working towards what Latham (1997) suggested and I feel, if it is adopted, it will lead to a better level of understanding of behavioural management within the UK. Therefore Latham’s (1997) suggestion of the need for including a basic understanding of behavioural management across all teacher training programmes, and understanding the importance behavioural managements within teaching are as invaluable today as they were when Latham developed the Eight Skills in 1997.

Latham (1997) wanted to create a basic standard of education so that new and inexperienced teachers could deal with behavioural problems scientifically (Latham’s Skill 8 “The ability to manage behaviour ‘scientifically’ ”). Below are six reasons why I feel teaching behavioral management scientifically is useful for teachers:

  1. It allows new teachers to have a basic understanding of classroom management; so they go into each new class better prepared.
  2. It results in a decrease in poor practice amongst new teachers. According to Allen (2010) malpractice is often caused by new teachers trying to find a solution to a problem within the initial classes, as they do not have a set of specific rules/guidelines to follow. Their often well- meaning/innovative solutions are often not always the best solution to the problem.
  3. Giving a scientific knowledge basis to teaching practice allows for teachers to become wiser faster. In a previous blog I observed the progression of learning (psuf10, 2014). According to Wheeler (2013) you need a sufficient knowledge base before becoming appropriately wise and creative in a given area.
  4. If new teachers are able to control their classes more effectively at an earlier point of their teaching career, educational standards should increase.
  5. By having an appropriate ‘tool kit’, new teachers will feel more empowered in how to deal with students within a classroom environment; morale will improve as attrition will decrease.
  6. It allows educational research to progress faster. Creating proper paradigms within behavioural education allows for these paradigms to be disputed which leads to progression of any scientific field (Kuhn, 1962).

An example of how to treat behaviour scientifically is the best way to explain the brilliance behind Latham’s ideals as seen below.

For example, if a student has not handed in homework.

First Step – Set Expectations:

State what your expectations are about homework (Latham’s Skill 1 “The ability to teach expectations”). These should include:

  • When during the class it should be handed in.
  • What happens if you haven’t done the homework, but do have a valid excuse.
  • Clear and concise consequences should be set, which will occur if a student doesn’t hand in a homework assignment.

As a consequence of the above the student understands the expectations behind the homework set. This means they should understand what the incorrect behaviour is, and what the consequences of committing an incorrect behaviour are.

Secondly Step – Homework is not handed in, but a valid excuse is given:

Ask the student why the homework assignment was not handed in.

  • If a student had a valid excuse and you do not ask, the student may perceive you as cruel which can affect the coercive environment of the classroom (Latham’s Skill 3 “The ability to maintain high rates of positive teaching to pupil interactions”).
  • Asking why the assignment was not handed in shows “care”, which is part of MUSIC model that is a curial part of education (this will be mentioned in a later blog) as well, it presents a positive learning environment (Latham’s Skill 3 “The ability to maintain high rates of positive teaching to pupil interactions”) because it shows the students you are reasonable.
  • The difficulty comes when students are breaking expectations with a valid excuse e.g. they did not come in before the class to tell the teacher that the homework assignment was not completed due to for example, another more pressing school/family commitment. The expectations about homework should always be followed through and a teacher must avoid compromising their expectations (Latham’s Skill 1 “The ability to teach expectations”). Compromising can lead to more students not doing their homework, however, as mentioned earlier student may become resentful if you never can compromise. This is something you have to judge depending on the situation.

Third Step – Homework is not handed and no valid excuse is given:

  • Commend the student for the previous times they have handed in their homework, this positively reinforces the correct behaviour; which maintains a positive teacher to pupil interaction (Latham’s Skill 3 “The ability to maintain high rates of positive teaching to pupil interactions”).
  • When punishing the student, the punishment should be negative. A negative punishment is the removal of stimulus e.g. detention is the removal of their free time. It should never be a positive punishment e.g. a verbal or physical A positive punishment is when you add a stimulus to reduce the behavior. In this context positive does not mean “a desirable or constructive quality or attribute” (Oxford English Dictionary 3rd edition, 2010).

To understand the different kinds of punishment and reinforcement dictated by a behavioural psychologist look at figure 2.

Screen Shot 2015-01-15 at 22.57.43Figure 2 (Karlsson, 2012).

Figure 2.

  • Punishment should be used sparingly to discipline students; as too much can be ineffective and can do more harm than good because it destroys the risk free learning environment (Latham’s Skill 5 “The ability to maintain a high rate of risk-free student response opportunities).
  • The expectations about homework should always be followed and a teacher must avoid compromising their expectations (Latham’s Skill 1 “The ability to teach expectations”).

Fourth Step – Reinforce:

  • Positively reinforce the student’s correct behaviors throughout the next week, so they are motivated to maintain the correct behaviours. The positive reinforcement balances the ‘stick with some carrot’ – the punishment with some reward.
  • Try to get the student more interested in the work. According to Jones (2007) interest causes intrinsic motivation, which in turn will make the student more likely to be motivated to complete the homework next time.

Fifth Step – Reflect and Observe:

  • Finally, the teacher must try to observe and solve what is causing the incorrect behaviour. The assuption, within behavioural psychology, that all behaviour is caused by a preseeding stimulus (Oliver, 1980). This stimulus is reffered to as the antecedent (Skinner, 1953). To modify the behaivour efficiently, the teacher must identify these antecedent stimuli and inhibit them (Center, 1999). These antecedent stimuli can be affecting them from any aspect of their lives; school, home, friends etc. (Center, 1999). Finding the cause of the behaivour can reduce the chance of this or any other incorrect behaviours from occurring again. Two examples of antecedents, accordant with the homework example, which could have led to the incorrect behaviour are:
    • If student did not understand the expectation (Latham’s Skill 1 “The ability to teach expectations”), make sure the student, when next receiving homework understands which day it is due and that there will be consequences if it is not handed in on time.
    • Make sure there are no nonacademic problems; e.g. at home or within school. These non-academic problems could be the cause of the incorrect behaviour, rather than the student simply not wanting to do the homework. Thus, it is imperative that teachers are observant, they talk to the student and/or the counsellor and/or other supporting agency about any concerns they may have.

From my example and the information contained within the blog I have hoped to convey three points about Latham’s Eight Skills:

  • Firstly, even though Latham’s paper is over seventeen years old, his ideas are still relevant to a modern classroom.
  • Secondly, the importance of including clearly understood/outlined behavioural management practices within a classroom environment. This view is further supported by many young teachers in their dissatisfaction with the current teacher-training programmes and their lack of clearly defined guidelines on classroom management.
  • Thirdly, that Latham’s 8 Skills are crucial in helping to create an academic “tool kit” which can help teachers preempt how to effectively deal with problems which could arise within their classroom.

Through this series of blogs I will firstly consider each of Latham’s Eight Skills of classroom management and secondly, I will reflect on how each skill can empower young teachers within education. For each skill I will give an example, which will demonstrate each skill in action.

Hopefully these blogs will give young teachers a better insight on how to create a standard philosophy to engender good classroom behaviours. Using the examples of each of the skills in action, I hope to give young teachers ideas on how each skill can be used effectively to empower them as they embark upon their teaching career.


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