The Wolf You Feed: Behaviour

08 Jun 2022


I’m a big fan of this famous Cherokee legend about two wolves:

One evening, an old Cherokee tells his grandson that inside all people, a battle goes on between two wolves. One wolf is negativity: anger, sadness, stress, contempt, disgust, fear, embarrassment, guilt, shame, and hate. The other is positivity: joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe, and above all, love.

The grandson thinks about this for a minute, then asks his grandfather, “Well, which wolf wins?”

The grandfather replies, “The one you feed.”

I’m thinking a lot this week about classroom culture and behaviour, as I work on the design of the new PDGE in English I will be running at Napier University.

I’m very conscious that this is often a frequent complaint about the University provision for new teachers: the fact that behaviour is often ‘covered’ in an hour long lecture. While I don’t want to ‘feed’, any notions of contempt, I do seem to recall much more time being spent on the design of effective group work than the management of behaviour in my own PGCE.

For me, discussions about behaviour need to be ubiquitous on a teacher education course – because without securing positive behaviour, there is no learning.

So, why the parable about the inner conflict we all experience?

My contention would be it seems to encapsulate a lot of the dynamics that can occur in a secondary classroom. It becomes very simple to ‘feed’ negative behaviour with a challenging class: to slip into a negative, draining and repetitive voice that all members of the class begin to switch off from and that impacts on the quality of relationships.

I have done it so many times myself: allowed that minority off-task and challenging behaviour to dominate the ethos and culture with a class. In doing so, I know how often I didn’t shine a light on the positive behavioural choices in a classroom, and struggled to build a positive relationship with a class.

It becomes a self-defeating prophecy, as teenagers as so influenced by classroom norms, that they seek to mirror the behaviours of their peers and seek validation. The atmosphere in the room is soiled, and you can feel the lack of connection if you are in the classroom. It becomes joyless for us as teachers, as we begin to dread the lessons – a dread that no matter how hard we try to mask it, the kids recognise.

So how do we prevent such a downward spiral? The first way is to be conscious of the evolutionary pull of the negativity bias.

The Negativity Bias

The more aware we are of the negativity bias, the less likely we are to fall into its seductive allure. It is an innate part of our human psyche which influences us to reflect on the more negative aspects of our lives, rather than the more positive ones.

This inclination is revealed most obviously by considering what happens if we are driving. If we imagine that on one side of the road is a car accident, and on the other side is a beautiful water-fall. Our attention is almost always held by the car-accident – a fact that is ruthlessly exploited by the extensive negative news in the media.

It is a by-product of evolution: our ancestors needed this in order to focus on immediate threats and avoid being eaten by giant tigers. In the classroom, it can often be counter-productive, making us hyper-vigilent about the numerous ‘threats’ that we perceive as facing us.

Observing the tendency to think towards the negativity is a useful starting point. It requires us to ask a dispassionate question: am I allowing negativity to impact my interactions with this class, or indeed this individual?

We then need to supercharge the rational side of our brain in order to counter such thinking. We can begin to challenge such negative thinking by gently reminding ourselves why the internal thinking we are going through might not necessarily be a true reflection of the events.

Then, we seek to actively channel a more calm and positive mindset.


The reality is the calmer we are, and the more positive internally we feel before a lesson – the more likely we are to manifest such upbeat values for those who share our classroom spaces. I don’t say this flippantly, it is one of the hardest aspects of being a teacher: the need to maintain an enthusiastic and optimistic persona. It is, however, what can often make such a difference in terms of securing a positive classroom atmosphere.

How to achieve that status of individual calm will depend on the individual. Some commonalities will exist and help us to feel confident, positive and calm: a clear sense of a plan for the lesson; understanding of the individuals in the class; channelling the passion and interest we have in our subjects; ensuring we don’t obsess about the one or two individuals who might be demonstrating more challenging behaviour, and recognising the many who do.

Combined with this is a sense of acceptance. The lesson is very unlikely to go perfectly well, and part of our mission in the classroom is being able to adapt and respond to the complex behaviours that young people will undoubtedly demonstrate. Remembering that those negative behaviours are not the result of some personal vendetta against us, can help us to sustain that sense of unnerving calm and professionalism that the best teachers seem to have in the face of challenging behaviour.

The Positivity Ratio 

Barbara Frederickson author of ‘Positivity’ and a positive psychology professor, has spent decades studying what will help humans flourish:

Far from being trivial, we’ve found that positive emotions broaden our awareness in ways that reshape who we are, and they build up our useful traits in ways that bring out the best in us, helping us become the best versions of ourselves.

“How to foster that mindset? It helps to be open, be appreciative, be curious, be kind, and above all, be real and sincere. From these strategies spring positive emotions.”

She writes about a 3:1 ratio, which argues for three positive moments for every negative one:

By cultivating positive moments that make you feel optimistic, grateful, appreciated, inspired, awe-struck, and just plain happy, you can build your ability to enjoy life in general and seek out even more of these positive experiences.

The report on behaviour from the Education Endowment goes a step further, arguing for a 5:1 ratio of positives against negatives in the classroom:

In another promising study, teachers in disruptive classes of pupils aged between 9 and 14 years old were trained over two 45-minute sessions to increase their use of behaviour-specific praise. Teachers were given reminders at intervals to praise students, alongside training focused on the ‘magic 5:1 ratio’ of positive-to-negative interactions. The 5:1 ratio theory is that for every criticism or complaint the teacher issues, they should aim to give five specific compliments, approval statements and positive comments or non-verbal gestures. This ratio has been shown to be key to long-lasting marriages and has been explored in other fields, such as medicine and business. Several interventions focusing on positive approaches to behaviour in classrooms promote this idea, but this research was the first experimental study to explore the feasibility and effectiveness of the approach. Over the two-month study, pupils increased their on-task behaviour by an average of 12 minutes per hour (or an hour per day), while pupils in similar comparison classes did not change their behaviour. This study implies that teachers with disruptive classes could benefit from increasing their positive interactions with pupils.

Clearly this requires us to be reflective and pause often in a classroom to consider our language choices. Are we uttering repetitive negative behavioural feedback (“SHHHH, be quiet”, is more own personal favourite), or are we balancing this by shining a spot light on all the positive behaviours that are going on in the room?

Name the specific behaviours

In order to keep this positive ratio high in the classroom, we need to name the specific behaviours that are contributing to a positive atmosphere. Being clear about our classroom values helps here – what do we really want to be explicit about that is going well?

For me, I would want to reiterate three core positive values as often as possible in the classroom: when young people are being attentive, respectful and thinking carefully. Any opportunity to be explicit about those qualities being shown helps.

It also, clearly, helps to know our students before we publically herald them. Some students will find this excruciatingly embarrassing, and a quiet moment is going to be much more effective for them. Some positive phrases:

“Thank you, John, you are being really attentive.”
“I love how carefully you are listening, Mary.”
“You are working really hard today, Aziz, thank you.”
“You thought so carefully about that Suzy, thank you for taking the time to do that.”

I don’t want to appear naive in this post, I don’t see this approach that reframes and seeks to value the positive in a classroom as the solution to all poor behaviour. Sanctions, parents, consistency and many other areas play such a significant role in this complex endeavour. My own experience in the classroom, however, has shown me that feeding positivity can make a real difference.

In my NQT year I taught an all boy’s bottom set Year 11 class in a comprehensive in central London. I can’t say it was all a glorious success, but it did start to be more effective when I realised that what was going to make a major difference in the lessons was, in fact, my own persona. They had enough shouting and negativity surrounding them from challenging home lives, never mind media and cultural influences – coming into my lessons was just providing them more of the same.

This post from a few years ago on stoical philosophy behaviour management  expands on this idea: how we can make sure that our focus is on taking ownership of our own emotions and behaviours in the classroom.

To return to our opening parable: young people want to be in a room with teachers who are calm, who are positive, who demonstrate gratitude, joy and laughter. By reframing our thinking to quietly manage challenging behaviour and loudly exclaim the positives in our lessons, it goes some way in building a class community in which positivity, optimism and effort are celebrated and heralded.

A classroom, that is, where we feed the second wolf.

Thank you for reading.

Which Wolf Are You Feeding? - YouTube


Jamie Thom

English teacher, host of @TES English teaching podcast. Author of 'Slow Teaching.' MEd in Practitioner Enquiry, doctorate student #StrathEdD. Runner.

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