NLP and Classroom Management
by Maite Galán and Tom Maguire
Mother was moving around quickly in the kitchen busily making lunch. Her
young son was in another room of the house playing quietly on the floor with his
Suddenly there was an almighty crash in the kitchen as a heap of plates
toppled over and shattered on the hard floor. The little boy immediately leapt
up and ran through to the kitchen shouting, “It wasn’t me! It wasn’t me!”
Class management often starts by healing guilty consciences.
In the past the teacher was often a figure of authority who controlled the
class by playing on feelings of guilt or threatening pupils into submission. As
a short-term discipline this sort of sentimental blackmail will work quite
However, in the long run these methods will erode the very self-respect
educators propose to install in their pupils. The power to impose your will by
threat or shame is, in the end, not useful for educating responsible citizens.
We are obliged to find and act out new patterns of discipline which will lead
to self-control and not simply obedience. Instead of using the influence of
power we need to use the power of influence - through positive management.
The aim of positive management is to give teachers the resources they need
to maintain the balance between controlling pupils’ behaviour and fostering the
growth of positive human values.
Many of the resources we will mention in positive management are inspired by
the insights of NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming).
When applied to education we can summarise NLP in three short sentences:
- First, know what you want in class, your outcome.
- Secondly, keep your senses open to know what you are getting.
- Thirdly, be flexible enough to change your behaviour until you get
what you want.
Following the NLP model this article proposes optimising classroom
communication as an effective outcome for class management three things,
suggestions as to how you can verify your outcome and recommendations of ways to
change your behaviour to achieve it.
Optimising classroom communication
Steven Covey in his study of the habits of highly effective people concluded
that the first most important habit was taking the initiative and the
second was to start with a clear determination to understand where you
are now, where you are going and what you priorities are. In other words, to be
effective you begin by having a clear outcome and acting on it.
At the very beginning of a class make it an outcome to get the attention
of everyone in your classroom before you start your lesson. Begin explaining
content only when you are satisfied that you have the class’s attention.
Experience shows that starting a lesson before focusing attention is a bad
start. If you begin a lesson and hope for attention, pupils will not necessarily
settle down. They will settle when you focus them.
Beginning class before focusing will send a false message to pupils that you
are willing to compete with them. You don't mind talking while they talk.
Spending time on focusing at the outset of each class teaches students that
speaking in this class is to be orderly and that you are leading them.
You will know when pupils are focused because there will be a general
silence in the class and students’ eyes will turn to you in the expectation
of a lead-in.
To achieve focusing you may be inclined to use your voice. It is more
recommendable to use visual cues primordially, leaving your voice for
You can begin to focus students by signalling them to be seated while you get
your papers in order. Then comes the roll call. During this ritual introduction
to the class we find that pupils quieten down noticeably once they hear their
However, the class has not really begun and you will now have to sharpen
In his book Envoy Michael Grinder explains just how to do this:
- Stand at the front of the classroom with your weight equally distributed
between your two feet and say your usual welcome.
- Say your greeting in a voice slightly louder than the background noise in
the classroom and then stand absolutely still and keep quiet.
- When the background noise lessens start the lesson in a low voice.
This sequence can be summarised as follows:
- STAND UP FRONT, IN BALANCE
- GREET IN A TONE HIGHER THAN THE CLASSROOM NOISE
- STAND STILL
- REMAIN SILENT
- BEGIN THE CLASS IN A WHISPER
Note the use of visual communication in this sequence.
You show what you want pupils to do – you are already leading. You say
little because you want silence, you keep still because you want
You then begin to use your voice for content, but in a whisper to
begin with to make sure students have to strain to hear you.
You will also notice that the whole situation is emotionally neutral,
neither you nor they have misspent energy on confusing feelings of discipline,
authoritarianism, or coercion.
You can evaluate the effectiveness of this strategic sequence by putting it
into practice one day then doing the opposite the next day and noticing the
differences in your pupils’ reactions. You can then decide which strategy is
more appropriate for your needs.
Once you have established a focusing sequence as a routine at the
beginning of your classes, you will find that it is possible to turn it into an
automatic reaction. This is what NLP terms an anchor. It is an
unconscious reaction to a given stimulus.
One of us has the experience of noticing that one particular class we took
began to start focusing when the teacher closed the classroom door. It was easy
to build on this observation and reinforce this natural attention
by closing the door just before starting the class.
Gradually the class became anchored to a routine in which closing the door
meant focusing. As human beings we make and receive anchors constantly. Focusing
a class in this way was simply the result of observation coupled with a use of
anchoring to strengthen the desired effect.
Once focusing is anchored those who want to go further can try inducing
“flow”, that wholesome feeling people have when they are totally involved in
Flow may not be easy to generate in students but focusing is a first step in
the right direction. (For more information on “flow” see www.xtec.es/~jmaguire/teachers/index.htm")
Continuing to aim at keeping the class focused during the lesson is good
teaching practice and at the same time an effective way of managing. You can
maintain focusing by careful use of your communication, especially your
NLP tells us that the human brain understands language primarily in the
affirmative. In fact we only comprehend negative sentences by first transforming
them into the affirmative then negating them.
For example if I say to you, “Don’t think of a pink elephant!” you must first
envisage such a coloured animal then dissolve that image to stop thinking of it.
Efficient communication in a classroom also requires you to express
instructions in the positive.
As a replacement for saying, “Don’t scribble on the desk!” say, “Write in
your notebook.”; to replace “no chewing gum” use “chew gum outside”; say
“remember” not “don’t forget”; instead of bellowing “No shouting!”, whisper
“lower your voice”.
Your outcome is to use phrasing that describes the behaviour you want instead
of listing activities that students should not do.
In order to train yourself in this technique you can practise
imagining, seeing and hearing yourself in class giving affirmative instructions.
You then link these rehearsals with actual practise in class in order to
effectively anchor the habit to your classroom.
In a short time you will find this has become another unconscious routine
supporting good management. You will know that you have attained your outcome
when you find yourself using positive phrasing more easily than negative
An inexperienced teacher may incorrectly only insist on telling students off
in a negative fashion: "I want you to stop ..." This usually triggers
confrontation and denial.
The focus is on the misbehaviour and the student is quick to retort: "I
wasn't doing anything!" or "It wasn't my fault ..." or "Since when is there a
rule against ..." and escalation has begun.
A much better way of reinforcing positive behaviour is recognising
improvements or praiseworthy points as well as admonishing negative points.
Acknowledge appropriate behaviour simply and clearly, without insistence.
One of our classes of 15 year-olds is unusually tidy and we praise them for
this at the same time as we insist that late-coming is unacceptable. By
approving in this way we balance out positive remarks with reprimands - and also
Balanced use of this technique will focus the students’ attention on the
behaviour you want, not on the misbehaviour, yet allow room for demanding
improvement. Make it an outcome to be positive, even in your language.
Clarity is another important tool which will help you keep pupils
focused and managed. The opposite, uncertainty, is something which will
undermine good management because it increases the level of excitement in the
If pupils know what is about to happen then they will be more likely to
remain calm and pay attention because you have effectively removed confusion
from their minds.
At the beginning of each class outline to students exactly what will be
happening during the period. Talk, for example, about the aim of the class and
how its content will lead them there.
Coupled with the use of a simple visual prop like the chalkboard the Mind Map
format will greatly enhance this communication in your classroom.
on Mind Maps see www.xtec.es/~jmaguire/articles)
Searching for positive intentions is a powerful way of managing. This
outcome is based on the NLP assumption which reads, “All behaviour has a
positive intention behind it.”
This of course includes students’ behaviour. Applied to class management what
the quote really means is that you can find a positive intention behind
all behaviours, no matter how bizarre or even hurtful they may seem.
When a student is insulting, rebellious, pays no attention to you or doesn't
do homework, this negative behaviour has a positive intention (for the student).
In fact, as Don Blackerby (www.NLPok.com) has pointed out: “It's the positive
intention which drives the behaviour.”
He adds that you will not be able to influence the negative behaviour until
the positive intention is recognized and satisfied.
What makes the search for positive intention a powerful agent for
change is the response it elicits from the other person.
If you blame, act judgmental, criticize, or otherwise attach a negative
intention to the behaviour, you will automatically get a defensive response, or
a withdrawal, or a counter-attack.
You become the enemy.
If you are honestly and actively assuming positive intention and looking for
it, there is no need for the other person to defend himself against you or to
You cease to be a menace and become a COLLABORATOR. In class management
looking behind the behaviour for the positive intention will put you both in
positions of collaboration instead of opposition.
As with all NLP assumptions there is no need to accept this on faith - we
suggest you practise finding the positive intention behind behaviour and observe
how this affects your management.
Bonnie Tsai, an ESL teacher living in Toulouse, tells of a management
solution she hit upon while teaching a badly behaved group of teenagers during
one hot summer. The group was so exceptionally unruly that no amount of
reasoning or reprimanding made an impact.
So Bonnie tried another tack: she showed them a mirror image of themselves
by reproducing their behaviour. This mimicry went on for an hour. Gradually
the students began to see themselves in action - and they didn’t like what they
Mirroring this disagreeable image vision back to them finally changed their
This little story points up the importance of a technique many teachers use
as a tool for management: visual cues. Some teachers flip light switches,
others use facial expressions, body posture and hand signals.
You can extend this to other non-verbal cues such as pocket clickers or
tapping the board with chalk for attention.
One technique which works well, especially with adults, is asking people to
pay attention and raise their hand when they see yours raised. This has a
knock-on effect of spreading the signal silently and efficiently throughout the
Cueing management visually also has the advantage of appearing less
aggressive and, more importantly, allows you to reserve your voice for content.
In this way you avoid contaminating your discipline with disciplining.
Another big spin-off of aiming to discipline visually and reserving your
voice for lesson content is that you exclude feelings. In general to
ensure that you avoid involving feelings it is wise to direct management
instructions to the whole class instead of to a particular student.
However in extreme cases it may be useful to include your feelings in a
controlled manner. Thomas Gordon offers a technique for this purpose in his
Teacher Effectiveness Training (TET). He tells us to structure messages in three
- First, a description of the child's behaviour: "When you talk while I talk
- Secondly, the effect of this behaviour on the teacher."…I have to stop my
- Thirdly, the feeling that it generates in the teacher. " ... which
A teacher, distracted by a student who was constantly talking while he tried
to teach, once made this powerful expression of feelings:
"I can not imagine what I have done to you that I do not deserve the
respect from you that I get from the others in this class. If I have been rude
to you or inconsiderate in any way, please let me know. I feel as though I have
somehow offended you and now you are unwilling to show me respect."
The student did not talk during his lectures again for many weeks.
We have detailed different practical skills for good management. However,
underlying the diverse techniques there is an important general outcome:
Rapport is the NLP word for the positive relationship you have with
others, in this case with your students. The power of the techniques shown
lies not in their technicalities but in their ability to enhance your positive
relationship with the class.
It is because these procedures will strengthen your bonds with the class that
you will manage better by using them. One of the secrets of good management is
(Another management outcome, caring for pupils’ self-esteem is dealt with in
a separate article.)
Maite Galán has a degree in Philology. She works as a language teacher in a
high school and has 25 years teaching experience in Spain and France. She is a
consultant for McGill University, Canada, in reading material foreign for
Website: http://www.xtec.es/~tgalan E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Tom Maguire has a BA (English), M-čs-Lettres (French) and Philology degree
(Spain). He has 27 years experience in TEFL in France and Spain. At present he
teaches EFL in a Spanish State high school near Barcelona and is participating
in a pioneering website to give academic support to local students, teachers and
He is interested in using Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP ) to enhance
Learning to Learn strategies. He is a Master Practitioner in NLP and manages a
listserv for those interested in NLP in Education.
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