Behaviour in Scottish schools: 2016 research

This report is from the fourth (2016) wave of behaviour in Scottish schools research, first undertaken in 2006.

7 Pupil engagement in teaching and learning

7.1 In the qualitative research with staff and pupils, we explored the links between relationships and behaviour in the classroom and pupils' engagement in their learning.

Key findings

7.2 The qualitative research with staff and pupils indicates a strong link between engagement in learning and behaviour in the classroom.

7.3 Rather than specific teaching methods being more or less effective, what matters most is how they are delivered and how well they engage pupils.

7.4 Staff and pupils agreed that teachers taking an interest in, and getting to know pupils as individuals, was key to developing relationships and managing behaviour.

7.5 The following aspects of teachers' manner and demeanour were important to pupils: being happy/smiling, being enthusiastic, using humour, being calm and not shouting.

7.6 Using a variety of different teaching methods was one of the most important ways to engage pupils.

7.7 It is important – from a behaviour point of view as well as a learning point of view – to ensure appropriate differentiation in lessons.

7.8 In the qualitative research with staff [15] , we asked the extent to which different teaching and learning methods had an impact on behaviour, while in the qualitative research with pupils, we explored the factors which helped engage them in their learning. There was a great deal of consistency in the themes that emerged – evidence of the strong link between engagement and behaviour.

7.9 There was a consensus that it's not so much about whether specific teaching methods are more or less effective, in terms of behaviour, it is about how methods are delivered – how they engage pupils – and about:

  • relationships between teachers and pupils
  • variety
  • differentiation

Relationships between teachers and pupils

7.10 Staff and pupils agreed that teachers taking an interest in, and engaging with their pupils, was key to developing relationships and managing behaviour. A common theme was that, over and above teaching and learning, it was important to understand individual pupils. Staff felt that having a good relationship with pupils enabled teachers to better negotiate behaviour in the classroom.

7.11 This point was illustrated with the observation from support staff that some pupils behave differently with different teachers – some teachers 'get them', while others do not – and that this speaks to the relationships that they have developed.

7.12 More specifically, teachers felt that the understanding that comes from good teacher-pupil relationships enabled teachers to select methods that would suit individual pupils.

7.13 An awareness and understanding of what is going on in the classroom throughout the lesson was another aspect of maintaining relationships and managing behaviour. Teachers stressed the importance of scanning the classroom and reacting/adapting. Support staff, in their observations of effective behaviour by teachers, echoed the need to maintain a strong presence and move round the classroom.

7.14 Aspects of teachers' manner and demeanour were important to pupils. In particular, they identified the following as important in setting the tone in the classroom and helping make a lesson enjoyable:

  • 'the teacher being happy' (and 'not being in a bad mood' – 'maybe the previous class has put them in a bad mood')
  • 'the teacher smiling when you come in to class'
  • 'when the teacher is enthusiastic'
  • using 'humour'
  • 'being calm'
  • 'not shouting'.


7.15 There was universal agreement, among both staff and pupils, that using a variety of different teaching methods was one of the most important ways to engage pupils. Teachers felt that almost all pupils will be more engaged if there is variety in lessons. Furthermore, that, because some pupils learn more effectively with specific methods (which in turn impacts their behaviour), having variety helps address this. Primary teachers, in particular, described having a number of approaches planned for the same lesson and changing their approach if a particular method was not working in the classroom.

You're not going to appeal to everyone, there are some kids that are going to be like, 'yes, creative writing'. Others will say 'oh, my goodness this is torture'. So, having a mixture of strategies and tasks within the class that kind of allow pupils...different pupils to crop up and show their expertise and to get engaged.

Secondary teacher

7.16 Another common view among teachers was that having a clear structure – and communicating it to the class – helps pupils to know what is coming next and gives them cues on what type of behaviour is appropriate. This is particularly important for some pupils e.g. those on the autistic spectrum who require that level of structure.

Active learning

7.17 One of the main ways in which teachers introduced variety was through the use of different active learning approaches [16] . Active learning approaches were seen, again by both staff and pupils, as particularly effective in engaging pupils.

7.18 Staff also acknowledged that giving pupils more choice in some of the topics they covered and the approaches they used, resulted in pupils feeling more ownership of their learning – and that this had led to more engagement.

7.19 However, while there was general agreement that active learning approaches led to increased engagement, there was a concern among staff that the emphasis on active learning meant that some pupils struggled with more 'traditional' teaching approaches – such as working quietly on writing tasks or listening to the teacher. There was a view among secondary teachers that the extensive use of active learning approaches in primary/early secondary meant that, in the senior phase of secondary, some pupils struggled when 'traditional' approaches were required. Linked to this, pupils themselves talked about finding it uncomfortable if the class was ' too silent'.

Triggers for disruption

7.20 Primary school staff indicated that pupils moving out of their seats could be a trigger for disruptive behaviour. There was the view that this should be managed by having a balance between physically active tasks and sitting down, as too much moving around can also lead to disruptive behaviour.

7.21 Transitions between activities were also identified as possible triggers for disruption.

Group work

7.22 Staff also reflected on the fact that group work helped to increase pupils' social skills - and less well-developed social skills was identified as one of the causes of negative behaviour. However, it was pointed out that simply 'doing a lot of group work' is insufficient to develop the necessary skills – structuring the group work and helping pupils to learn and practise aspects of effective group working ( e.g. only one person talking at once and responding constructively to others' suggestions) can help develop those skills.

7.23 Whilst recognising the pros and cons of group work, there was general agreement among staff that it could lead to off-task chatting at times.


7.24 There was a consensus among staff that it was important – from a behaviour point of view as well as a learning point of view – to ensure appropriate differentiation [17] in lessons to avoid pupils disengaging and becoming disruptive because they find tasks too difficult (or too easy).

7.25 Related to this, pupils thought that the following were important factors in maintaining engagement:

  • understanding the task and the content of the lesson
  • responding quickly to requests for help
  • praise and encouragement.


7.26 Ensuring variety, structure, a balance of activities, differentiation and engaging lessons, requires careful planning. Indeed, planning was a cross-cutting theme in the qualitative research and staff frequently discussed the need for planning in terms of breaking lessons into manageable sections, and (in primary school), the overall planning of the day.

7.27 Pupils identified that disruptive behaviour was more likely to occur when there were 'gaps' and they were not being occupied.


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