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Strategies for Minimizing Off-Task Behavior

This is an excerpt from Teaching Children and Adolescents Physical Education 4th Edition With Web Resource by George Graham,Eloise Elliott & Stephen Palmer.

Appropriate on-task behavior is often described as students behaving positively in a way that is consistent with the goals of the educational setting (Siedentop & Tannehill, 2000). A class of students who are on task most of the lesson contributes to a positive learning environment and is unlikely to present discipline problems. Even if you have taught the behavior protocols presented in chapter 2, however, you are still going to have incidences of off-task behavior. Therefore, you need strategies that can minimize the misbehavior of students. Unfortunately, they are just strategies, not guarantees. Some of them succeed with some youngsters some of the time. We wish we knew foolproof strategies that work for all teachers all of the time, but we don’t; no one does. Good teachers seem to have a repertoire of strategies that they use, sometimes consciously and sometimes without really thinking about them. They include back to the wall, proximity control, with-it-ness, selective ignoring, overlapping, learning names, and positive pinpointing.

Back to the Wall

One of the simplest strategies is referred to as back to the wall. Teachers use this technique for formative assessment (chapter 5) and also for behavior management. Standing on the outside of the boundaries (the wall in the gym or the edge of the playground) lets you see what is going on in a class. When you stand in the middle of a class, about 50 percent of the class is out of your sight; thus, you may not see off-task behavior until it has gone on for some time.

The ability to detect off-task behavior as soon as it begins appears to be a characteristic of successful teachers. Immediate detection seems to prevent the behavior from escalating. When the behavior persists for several minutes, several students might become involved. Thus, a relatively minor incident can escalate into a major incident (e.g., one student tries to wrestle a ball away from another). This is known as the ripple effect (Kounin, 1970). When you see the beginning of such an incident, you can quickly prevent it from escalating because your targeting and timing are appropriate. You can identify the students correctly and quickly, thus preventing the situation from developing into a crisis.

Proximity Control

One technique that can prevent the ball-taking episode just described from escalating is proximity control - simply walking in the direction of the off-task student to let her know that you see her. Giving her the look will let her know that she’s off task.

Veteran teachers know what we mean by the look. It’s a certain way a teacher looks at a youngster to say, "You’re off task; now get back to work." Obviously, however, you need to be close enough so that the student can see your expressions.

Sometimes the look isn’t even necessary. Simply standing by a group of students on the verge of becoming off task is often enough to let them know that you see them and expect them to remain focused.

Proximity control implies that you are moving around the gym. Early in their careers, teachers have a tendency to stand in one place. Although standing in one place may be more comfortable than moving around, it’s not as effective. Virtually without exception, good teachers move about the classroom, the gym, and the outdoor space.


The strategies of back to the wall and proximity control give the class the impression that you have with-it-ness - it’s like having eyes in the back of your head (Kounin, 1970). When he began his series of research studies on discipline, Kounin hypothesized that teachers whose students were well behaved and consistently on task were those who threatened them, basically scaring them into behaving. He discovered that this wasn’t true. The teachers with the fewest discipline problems communicated to their classes in a calm and reassuring way that they knew what was going on in their classes, they knew the tricks, and therefore students shouldn’t even bother to try them. By keeping their backs to the wall and quickly targeting youngsters tending toward off-task behavior, they convinced their students that indeed they were with it.

With It and Without It

Remembering my (GG) days in elementary school, I can recall a sixth-grade teacher who was particularly with it. She was friendly and warm, yet from the first day, we could tell that she wasn’t about to let us get away with anything. It was uncanny how she could identify children who were off-task types and, with looks and proximity control, keep them from misbehaving much of that year. The next year, however, we had a teacher who was "without it"; the same class quickly escalated into a rowdy group of children who were continually yelled at and threatened, though without much success. I am sure we were difficult to teach that year. We were essentially the same children, but, among other things, the teacher was "without it."

Selective Ignoring

Recently, I (GG) watched a first-grade lesson focused on round, narrow, wide, and twisted shapes. At times the children were making shapes in their own space; at other times they were traveling around the gym in their shapes. Whenever the opportunity was given to travel, one of the children, Bryan, ran. My reaction and that of my college students who were also observing was to immediately want to stop Bryan from running. The teacher ignored him, however. As we watched, I realized that Bryan really wasn’t bothering other children. In fact, they ignored him also. Another teacher might have considered Bryan’s behavior off task; Bryan’s teacher didn’t. And, after watching the entire lesson, I think she was right. Bryan was one of those high-energy children - some might have labeled him hyperactive. He was doing what the teacher asked but at a fast speed. The teacher obviously saw him but chose to selectively ignore him. It was an effective strategy in that lesson.

Selective ignoring works when students have been helped to understand why a student looks or acts a certain way. The opportunity to learn to accept students who behave in ways outside of the norm has been one of the major advantages of mainstreaming in schools. When we observe students working with those with special needs, we are always warmed by their ability to understand the situation and their genuine willingness to help. This understanding doesn’t happen automatically, however. Good teachers intentionally teach their classes to understand and work with special students.

Nick’s Insight

When my (GG) oldest son, Nick, was in fourth grade, I remember talking to him about some of his classmates after I had observed his class. I commented on one boy who was off task constantly and obviously annoying the teacher. I said that the boy who was off task seemed to be a distraction to the class and a troublemaker. I expected Nick to agree. He surprised me, however, by providing me with one of those glimpses into how children view the world when he said: "Dad, it’s not all his fault. The teacher doesn’t understand him. He’s really a good guy if you give him a chance. She never really gave him one." I try to remember Nick’s insight when a child misbehaves in one of my classes.


Unlike back to the wall, which is an easily learned strategy, overlapping is a skill that is learned with practice. Overlapping is the ability to focus on several things at once and still maintain an intended direction.

As a teacher, you are continually required to deal simultaneously with several students or situations. For example, you may nod your head yes at the youngster who has to go to the bathroom; smile at the child who says "Watch me"; put your hand on the shoulder of the youngster who wants to talk to you to signal "Wait a second"; and continue to observe the whole class as you determine whether to change the task or continue it for several more minutes. Locke’s vignette in chapter 1 is another illustration of the need to develop the ability to overlap.

Overlapping is a pedagogical skill learned through experience. It is critical because if you work with 30 or more students in a class, you will have to overlap at times to keep a lesson from coming to a complete stop. Obviously, establishing routines and protocols will minimize the need for overlapping, yet it is needed at times.

Tech Tips: ClassDojo

ClassDojo is a wonderful app that you can use to encourage your students, log classroom behavior, and engage parents and guardians. Compatible with any Apple or Android device, ClassDojo allows you to give behavior or skill feedback instantly to individual students and help them see their progress right away. Parents and guardians can see their children’s behavior points on a daily basis, and you can even exchange messages with them through the app to keep them informed and engaged.

Learning Names

Learning students’ names can be difficult, but it is possible even if you have 600 or more students. One of the frustrating aspects of teaching is attempting to get the attention of a student whose name you don’t know. As you try to find out, you may halt the flow of the lesson as several youngsters volunteer the student’s name and then stop moving to watch what you have to say to him. When you know a student’s name, you can often speak it across the gym to let him know that you see him and offer praise or remind him to get on task.

Some teachers learn names with relative ease. For others it’s a struggle. We have all heard of name-learning techniques (e.g., alliteration, using the name several times in conversation, having the students tell you their names when they enter and leave the gym, and taking photos of students) (Williams, 1995). PE Central (www.pecentral.org) provides a number of suggestions in the section "Tips for the Beginning Teacher." Increasingly, classroom teachers are making name tags for younger children who then wear them to PE until the teacher has time to learn their names. Learning names is even more challenging for teachers who work in schools with transient populations. Half of the youngsters they teach in September are gone in May, replaced by a new group. We wish we had a magical, instant solution to this challenge of learning several hundred names, but we don’t. We do know, however, that it really helps to know students’ names when trying to prevent off-task behavior.

Positive Pinpointing

Identifying one or more students and pointing them out to the rest of the class as modeling the desired behavior or skill is called pinpointing. This strategy is common in elementary schools. I like how Verenda and Tommy are standing quietly is an example of positive pinpointing. Our experience suggests that this technique is more effective with younger children who want to please the teacher. It can be overused, however. Some youngsters seem to ignore it because the teacher is constantly talking about how well someone is doing something. As with any of these strategies, pinpointing can work depending on the students, the way you use it, and how frequently you use it. Chapter 7 explains how to use pinpointing when teaching motor skills.

Many of these strategies or techniques seem to be innate characteristics of successful teachers. Although they are rarely taught or discussed, many teachers use them. But not all do - especially in the beginning of their careers. Beginning teachers are often anchored in the same location throughout their lessons, or fail to see students misbehave because their backs are turned. As with so many of the skills discussed in this book, it’s easy to write about them and far more challenging to actually use them when teaching. We hope, however, that you will reflect on the subtle orchestration of teaching skills and strategies and their value for minimizing off-task behavior, whether you are a beginning or an experienced teacher (Downing, Keating, & Bennett, 2005). No matter how well you use these strategies, and others, some students will simply refuse to do what you ask (Timmreck, 1978). Such students are not off task; they have become discipline problems.

All teachers experience discipline problems in their classrooms from time to time. Some minimize the problems, however. What strategies do successful teachers use to minimize discipline problems? To begin with, they spend the first few days of the school year establishing the routines and teaching the management protocols described in chapter 2; they insist that the students learn these routines. They also use many of the strategies previously mentioned for minimizing off-task behavior. In addition, when inappropriate behavior occurs, good teachers examine their own performance. Is the lesson appropriate for the level of the student(s)? Has their behavior instigated student misbehavior? Have they engaged in negative interactions or differential treatment? Is the environment less than positive? Are they reactive rather than proactive?

Proactive or Reactive?

Proactive teachers focus on strategies to maintain or increase positive behavior, such as having established rules, planning appropriate lessons, and praising students who are following expectations (positive pinpointing). Proactive teachers try to avoid discipline problems before they happen. Ideally, we strive to be proactive!

Reactive teachers focus on strategies to stop inappropriate behavior once it has occurred, such as expressing dissatisfaction or imposing an appropriate consequence. Reactive teachers respond after an incident happens to try to avoid further discipline problems. We all must be reactive at times, and with a good discipline system in place, we know the consequences - and so do the students.




Learn more about Teaching Children and Adolescents Physical Education, Fourth Edition.