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How to tackle low-level disruption in the classroom

Emma Dolman, Space Planning & Estimating Director at British Thornton, on changing the classroom environment to improve behaviour

Posted by Lucinda Reid | December 04, 2016 | Facilities & buildings

Whether it’s passing notes, distracting others or talking at the same time as a teacher, low-level disruption is the scourge of many classrooms across the UK. According to a recent Ofsted report, behaviour of this sort is causing pupils to lose up to an hour of learning each day in English schools – equivalent to 38 days of teaching lost every year. Furthermore, such disruption is also having a negative impact on teachers themselves, with a recent survey for the Education Support Partnership showing that 70% of teachers had considered quitting the profession due to poor behaviour.

Clearly, low-level disruption needs to be tackled. While there is a myriad of suggested solutions to the issue, none in isolation act as a silver bullet. Instead, schools and teachers must, and invariably do, utilise an integrated approach in tackling the issue, combining a range of techniques to minimise disruption. Tried and tested methods such as the threat of detention and forced seating plans are still effective, though schools can benefit from fresh ideas and positive techniques to improve behaviour.

Unsurprisingly, the majority of strategies employed focus on behaviour management techniques and discipline. What often goes unaddressed, however, is how the classroom environment itself plays a role in influencing pupil behaviour. By recognising this, some more practical concerns can also be addressed. At British Thornton, we work with schools across the UK to design effective classroom environments that inspire and engage students – rather than distract or isolate them.

The layout of furniture can be planned so teachers, who are invariably at the board at the front of the classroom, have clear sight lines to all students in the room – making any poor behaviour much easier to quickly identify and nullify. Several guides on how teachers can tackle low-level disruption stress that it is better not to openly engage with the student as this is more likely to escalate matters. Rather, they suggest that a ‘short look at the student in question’ is usually sufficient to stop the behaviour – something clear sight lines enable.

An effective layout also brings other benefits. The presence of a teacher moving around the room is often more than enough to deter any disruption. If teachers have clear pathways to walk between desks and talk to students one-on-one, then they are far more likely to remain focused.

Thought should also be given to improving the organisation of materials. For example, if storage spaces are incorporated into desks, or nearby to each student, this prevents pupils having to walk across the room to reach an item required for a task, thereby minimising the risk of distractions.

Furthermore, the design of the furniture itself can have an effect on reducing poor behaviour. For instance, whereas the natural instinct may be to avoid white furniture in classrooms, studies have shown that, surprisingly, white is far less likely to be graffitied than coloured furniture. In our experience, fitting a clean, modern and stylish interior often leads students to take pride in their environment, discouraging damage and eliminating another element of disruptive behaviour. 

Other design elements have an effect on students’ engagement. For instance, muted colours, such as blues and greens, painted on walls and other large surfaces have a calming effect by lowering blood pressure, and reduce behavioural problems. Complementing this with splashes of colour, through chairs or other small pieces of furniture, helps to create a more intellectually stimulating environment and effectively combines a settling influence with enough visual flourishes to keep students focused.

While classroom design alone can’t solve the issue, it is an important tool for teachers in the fight against disruptive behaviour. Simple fixes, such as altering the layout of a room, and bigger changes, such as altering colour schemes, are both effective methods in reducing low-level disruption.

British Thornton is the UK’s largest manufacturer of educational furniture, with sites in Keighley, Hull and Sanquhar in Dumfries and Galloway. Visit for more information.

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