Potential Guidelines for maximising Cognitive Engagement in pupils

Behaviour affects learning and good behaviour improves it. Here we will discuss the most impactful strategies to deploy to affect it.

Most teachers are aware of the significance of quality feedback; they have seen it work. The research agrees – feedback is one of the most impactful things that a teacher can improve to help pupil learning. It has an average effect size of 0.75 which puts it well ahead of the 0.4 hinge point and places efforts to improve it amongst the most effective for teachers to give energy to.

How does improving behaviour compare to this?

Collected together, scored as a whole set and not differentiated by specific type, strategies to improve classroom behaviour have an average an effect size of 0.71 and those designed to improve classroom behaviour techniques have an average effect size of 0.52. Thus these are impactful and worth giving energy to but less so than improving feedback.

However more specific analysis show four approaches to be even more effective:

  • Rules and procedures (routines) – 0.76
  • Teacher-pupil relationships – 0.87
  • Disciplinary interventions – 0.91
  • Mental set – 1.3

Thus if we design our classroom management around these four areas we should be able to maximise the cognitive engagement of our pupils. In order to consider this we will look at each in turn.

Rules and procedures (routines) – Effect size 0.76

Strategies to clearly and simply express rules and other expectations of student behaviour. Also to justify these persuasively from the teacher’s and students’ point of view.

These may include:

  • Have a starter activity ready on whiteboard
  • Meet the class at the door, greeting them by name – for a positive start, to reinforce teacher ownership of the classroom and to affect corridor movement
  • Admit pupils straight away – do not line up the class outside of the classroom – it doesn’t work and it creates congestion in the corridor
  • Take the register, including recording lates within 10 minutes (critically have an agreed point by which all classes will do this to reinforce consistency across the school)
  • Have and use a seating plan with a clear rationale, that you are in charge of and that you update regularly
  • Clearly display the classroom expectations / school rules and the consequences of choosing to adhere to them or not
  • Have clear accountability points in your lesson where pupil understanding and work will be checked
  • Plenaries and or exit passes are used every lesson. Critically this both holds the pupils to account for their work but also serves as a great piece of feedback on the progress pupils have made


  • Any rule or routine that is shared across the school is all the more likely to take hold and get a critical mass of pupils ‘doing the right thing’ without you even prompting them to do so. Until then just make it routine in your own room or area.
  • Routines require introduction, explanation and lots of practice. Good points for this are the starts of Years, Terms, Half Terms, particular units of study where expectations may be different etc.

Teacher-student relationships – Effect size 0.87

Strategies to improve the rapport, and mutual respect between teacher and student.

These may include:

  • Have clear success criteria and get pupils to engage with these. Goal setting before introducing a new topic (0.97)/  Goals which the students are involved in designing (1.21)
  • Use pupil names
  • Know your pupils – at the very least know their work and show this by referring to successes they have had – but also know their interests outside of class and ask them about this when you see them in the corridors, lunch queues etc.
  • Give key players responsibilities – from distributing resources to leadership roles in groups. Making these contribute and help brings them on board, keeps them purposefully busy during transitions and gives you easy opportunities to praise them
  • Ensure that your activities and resources meet the pupils’ needs
  • Praise pupils doing the right thing more than catching those doing the wrong thing
  • Have – and practice – clear routines for transitions and calling the class to attention. Getting these to be calm and positive avoids undermining relationship building work with abrasive calls to attention
  • Only display achievement based data in classrooms (avoid ‘naming and shaming’ in front of peers with negative behavioural data)


  • Relationship building is far more than a behavioural management tool. We are modelling behaviours that will build confidence, trust and friendships for pupils when we actively listen, respect them enough to remember their name, what they did previously and care enough to check on their progress
  • Adapting work, questioning and resources to the needs of individual pupils helps them but will also be recognised by others as the work of a teacher who cares. Doing this consistently helps build teacher credibility which, as discussed in a previous post has an impressive effect size of 0.9 but is built through a combination of wider positivity, consistency and certainty
  • Effective relationships are positive, are clear about the teacher being in charge but leave a pupil feeling confident to engage, try and even learn from mistakes. There are many who argue that, from a moral point of view as well as for efficacy, they underpin all successful classroom management

Disciplinary interventions – Effect size 0.91

The effective use of ‘sticks and carrots’ to enforce the rules described above. Both are critical.

Strategies to improve the use of ‘Carrots’ (effect size 0.86) plus ‘Sticks’ (effect size 0.78) = (effect size 0.97 when used together) are significantly more impactful than ‘Reminders’ alone (0.64) so reward and sanction but follow through.

These may include:

  • Display rules and consequences prominently. These should be limited in number, emerge from the rights of pupils to learn and be simple in language
  • Apply the consequences for positive and negative rule adherence
  • Cite the rule that is being transgressed when warning a pupil and, where relevant, the learning or right that is being affected
  • Make use of fixed numbers of warnings (either 1 or 2) consistently to add layers to consequences
  • Record all positive and negative consequences that meet the relevant thresholds
  • Keep activities in detentions relevant to the rule breached wherever possible
  • Remember it is the certainty of the consequence rather than its severity that teaches pupils to make better choices
  • Give equal energy to following through on your positive consequences – private or public praise, communicating with key staff and parents, recording on school systems appropriate merits and sending postcards – as you do to the negative ones


  • Whilst our ultimate goal is to have intrinsically motivated and engaged pupils who effectively are self managing through their personal drive to learn, rules and consequences mark the edges of their learning path and help them to avoid diverging fro their progression through making the wrong choices
  • With practice and repetition along with the certainty of your follow through these will be quoted and referred to less as time goes on. They will still be needed however because we are dealing with young people with all sorts of other things going on internally, between themselves and even in their wider lives
  • We should not forget that it is our task to open their eyes to the interest and value of what we are teaching and that, particularly at their age, the conversations they were having as they walked into the room, the events at break and the plans some of them have at the weekend may be of more immediate interest and value to them at times. Consistently applied rules will fairly bring them back to learning
  • Within this framework a well strutted, pitched and facilitated lesson will always engage. Whilst necessary, rules and consequences are no substitute for this and will not be sustainable without it. The sooner we ‘lock down’ this framework the sooner teachers can apply their creative energies to the content of the lesson and its orchestration which is where the excitement really happens

Mental set – Effect size 1.3


Strategies to develop you awareness of what is going on in your classroom and why. A conscious control over your thoughts and feelings when you respond to a disruption.

There are two constituent parts of Mental set – ‘Withitness’ and ‘Emotional Objectivity’

Approaches to develop teacher ‘Withitness’ (effect size 1.4) – Having a heightened awareness of what is going on in your classroom and responding very quickly to actual and possible disruptions

These may include:

  • Scan and circulate the room, making eye contact with your pupils
  • Intervene promptly whether by using warnings (for a full breach of an rule), proximity praise of a pupil doing the right thing, moving in or by the use of non-verbal reminders and commands (for minor drift from a rule)
  • Use obvious signals and gestures for simple compliance that doesn’t interrupt learning and especially other pupils when they are contributing. A look and a small point can easily be understood to sit down on a chair appropriately for example
  • Use no hands questions – using names and pupils from various areas of the room. Plan your questioning to include a range of pupils and include some random follow on questions to test understanding


Strategies to build and maintain your ‘Emotional Objectivity’ (effect size 0.71) – Keeping an emotional distance between you and your classroom events and thinking about your emotional response to them (0.71)

These may include:

  • Don’t take behaviour personally
  • Don’t hold grudges
  • Remind yourself of your purpose in lessons and reflect only only that
  • Develop a behavioural ‘script’ that sticks to your rules and consequences and has consistent transition cues – this will minimise the strain dealing with interactions and help to depersonalise them
  • Remember you are human and be fair to yourself in your reflections
  • Do use school systems and the support of others – this is entirely appropriate. At times failing to escalate an issue undermines a teacher more than we recognise


  • These are often the skills that the experienced teacher who ‘doesn’t seem to need to use any observable strategies’ actually masters. Practice observing and looking for these if you get the opportunity as they will indeed sometimes appear to use very little else. Notice who the effective Head of Year, for example, makes sure that they say good morning to as her year group enters the assembly hall – look closely as key characters get a nod, a look, a smile or a ‘morning’, pupils next to them get praised for having the correct uniform (which these key characters may not have). Notice how, as they engage the pupils, they circulate the hall and talk from near potentially distracted pupils whilst asking questions of those who are on the other side of the room – The whole year group, and the key players know who is in charge, that they are positive and that they can see everything. They have withitness and because they have proved many times before that they will follow through there is little point testing them
  • You do not need a 100% success rate at noticing everything to attain the aura of withitness – an 80% plus rate is sufficient along with your strategies of scanning, circulating the room and intervening both with signals and verbally
  • Knowing your school’s wider systems helps you use escalation appropriately which in turn prevents the build up of stress that holding onto a problem can bring

Next time we will be discussing the significance of, and a potential method for creating, a framework for these strategies to be consistently and certainly applied across all lessons in a school.

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