Behaviour: 6 ways to support isolated pupils

If pupils gang up on an individual, you're tempted to rush in - but that's not always best, says Nikki Cunningham-Smith

If a group of pupils gangs up on an individual, the teacher needs to take a cautious approach to tackle the situation, says Nikki Cunningham-Smith

We’ve all been there: we have watched the masses home in on a single, unfortunate pupil.  

It's much like an episode of a nature programme; the gazelle with the gammy knee is getting picked off by the boisterous lions: some are there for hunger, some for sport, some because they have nothing better to do and need light (but brutal) entertainment.

But a lot of time, a lot of those involved are simply following and joining in with the crowd.

So now you have to make a decision: how are you going to intervene with minimal impact on the pupil in question?  

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I have dealt with many situations like this and it is not something you can have a one-size-fits-all approach to.

Here are some options I have tried and that have been successful, either used together or individually.

1. Scatter the culprits  

I often find that it’s best to play ignorant to the masses when initially interjecting. You making it very clear that you are here to defend the one being isolated does not necessarily help. However, you can find a multitude of reasons to get the crowd away from the individual in other ways.

“Haven’t you got a lesson to be in, guys?”; “Right, class, in you go, you're clearly having too much fun in the corridor. Time to learn”; or “Can someone help me clean the chewing gum off the bottom of my desks, please?”

The pupil is already a target. They don’t need you riding to the defence and making it even worse.

2. One-on-one time

Talking to the isolated pupil immediately may be helpful for you, but not for them. Ask the pupil to return to you at a later time. Say something like: “You’re not in trouble, but could you come and see me at break time, please?"  

This will give you the chance to provide a safer environment to talk. They may not want to divulge what’s going on, so just let them know that your door is always open and you will keep an eye on the situation for them. Let them leave feeling reassured that there’s an adult on-side who knows what is happening and who can help if requested.

3. Engage with the perpetrators

This approach needs to be tailored to the particular type of aggressor, and, again, bear in mind that direct intervention on behalf of the isolated pupli may be counterproductive.

For example: a group of year 7 girls who are constantly leaving the same girl out of their activities: turn them into "Girl Ambassadors". Let them know that you are so impressed with how they organise activities that you would like them to be responsible for making sure all are included and welcome by them setting an example of how to do it.


4. Group work where one person is ignored 

If you know this is likely to happen, assign prior roles to the members, allocating one of the important roles to the pupil who is always left out. This gives an opportunity for their confidence to grow, but also for them to be seen in a different light.

5. “It’s just banter, Miss” 

Anytime you are calling someone out for poor behaviour, they may try and dress it up as  “banter”. If you have the rapport with the group, join in and turn it on its head: do not humiliate those doing it, but if you're clever with it, you will be able to put yourself on the side of the lone individual.

A lot of the time the pupils do like a joke with a teacher so will realign to your side, hopefully bring the group together, and this may allow the lone pupil to get involved positively.

For example: on a school trip, although they’re all meant to be working together as a group, some boys are isolating one of their group by making them do all the leg work, leaving them to have fun among themselves. Going over, you remind them about “workers and shirkers” and they let you know that it’s only banter letting him do all the work.

“Careful, if you keep giving him all the working opportunities now, in 20 years he’ll be in charge of you because he’s the only one who knows what to do!” Me being me, I’d actually follow it up with “Banteeeer” but that’s only works with a good rapport.

6. Pinpoint the Alpha 

Sometimes all that can be done is to have a serious word with those involved, and in the case where there is a clear ringleader, this is usually a good place to start.  

Find out what the problem is (if there is one). Let them know that the person left out didn't tell on them, but you, in fact, witnessed the incident yourself and it didn't sit well with you.

Try and get them to put themselves in the isolated individual’s shoes, but ultimately let them know that they have a decision to make: they can either try and be more inclusive or you will have to escalate it on to someone such as their form tutor or head of year if they cannot make the right call themselves.

One other thing…

It is very important to note that pupils do not always have to like each other and do not need to be forced to be friends. Engineering is not what the above is about. Instead, this is about the right of every pupil to come to school and feel happy and included. There is an important difference between the two.  

Nikki Cunningham-Smith is an assistant headteacher in Gloucestershire

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