Use Proximity to Deal with Behaviour

Engage the Power of Proximity

The problem

Some of us mistakenly depend on using words to address behaviour problems. When we teach a lesson and notice a kid misbehaving (e.g. talking out, tapping a pencil or foot, not paying attention, etc.), our initial instinct might be to say something. While we may think ourselves successful, there are a number of problems with this:

  1. You stopped your lesson to deal with something that was, in the grand scheme of things, a minor issue

  2. The child may have wanted your attention, tried to get it in a negative manner, and you gave it to him (in other words, they win!)

  3. You wasted your voice for something that could have been dealt with quietly

  4. You distracted other kids who were doing the right thing

  5. You may have inadvertently damaged the child’s confidence or embarrassed them, decreasing trust with your students

  6. They may have even been talking about the lesson content with a peer and you discouraged their natural curiosity

What is “Proximity”?

Proximity means being close in location to someone or something. When addressing behaviour in school (or even at home and in the community!), being in the approximate location of others can have the desired effect.

I recently walked by a group of high school students who were casually and joyfully chatting away. As I got closer, I noticed their speech start to slow, their volume quieted, and their demeanour completely change.

Complete silence.

They looked at me out of the corner of their eyes until I was out of ear-shot.

Prior to my arrival they were enjoying a casual conversation. When I came close, they stopped. But after I passed by they continued laughing and talking. Admittedly, I do not know what they were talking about, but this again demonstrated proximity is a way of changing behaviour.

It’s like when we change our speed when we see a police car.

Not that you’ve ever had to do that, right?

Practical Proximity

To begin using proximity as a behaviour management tool, here are a few things to remember:

Stay on your feet- Staying mobile allows you to engage with and re-direct any issues in the class. Proximity is a reminder of the expectations for your students and you must be on your feet to use it!

Stay engaged- Develop your withitness; that is, your general understanding what your students are doing throughout the lesson regardless of whether you are near. I wrote about this recently. Click here to read Withitness: The Secret to Being Brilliant.

Stay close but don’t hover- Don’t be that person. Stand close enough that they notice, but not so close where you are invading their personal space. Remember, this is not about being confrontational but about being respectful and maintaining the dignity of the child.

Avoid using words- Words are a quick way of addressing behaviours but they may have little effect and our language and tone can become exhausting to your students.

Don’t forget to focus on the positives- Use proximity to reinforce the good things your students are doing. Use gestures, signs, and other non-verbal cues to let kids know they’re doing a great job.

The benefits of Proximity

Hopefully by now, the benefits of using proximity are clear. But just in case, here are a few:

  • It maintains the flow of classroom learning/instruction

  • You might catch them having insightful conversations about their learning

  • It maintains the dignity of the student

  • You re-direct behaviour in an effective way

  • It keeps you engaged in the learning environment

  • It reinforces the standards and expectations of your classroom.

Proximity is an essential tool in a teacher’s toolkit and a highly effective teacher will use it on a daily basis. One key aspect of being a great teacher is that we create climates of respect, learning, and investigation. This is one way to do so!

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