Behaviour - How to handle the hardest to reach

Change won't happen overnight with aggressive and violent students, but a consistent approach can turn things around

You know it's not going to be a good day just by glancing through the window. His head is down as he walks through the playground, fists clenched, body language screaming aggression. You approach the student with your brightest smile, move him to the front of the line, escort him inside, hand him a freshly sharpened pencil. But it's all in vain.

Shoving children aside, he glowers at the whiteboard, leaves his maths book unopened and declines to answer when the register is called. Your praise and encouragement fall on deaf ears, your reprimands are met with verbal aggression and your attempts to coax him into doing some work end in point-blank refusal. You have no cards left to play. One child is stopping 29 others from working. You remove him from the classroom. You have failed.

Sometimes we come across a child whose behaviour is simply in a different league - a student who can reduce all of our tried-and-tested behaviour management strategies to dust before 9am on a Monday. The effect such a child can have on you and your class can be profound. They devour your time and energy. They are violent towards their peers. They make you feel powerless and inadequate.

But every child's behaviour problems come with a back story. Whether they have a special educational need, a deeply difficult home life or both, the student who can be the hardest to like is probably also the one who needs you most. So how can you make this child do some work, fall into line and behave?

The simple answer is, you can't - at least not all the time. Some children have so much to deal with, and find sustaining good behaviour and concentration so unbelievably difficult, that improvement is just not going to happen overnight. You need to keep whittling away at the problem, trying new approaches, celebrating each incident of good behaviour as though it were a World Cup victory. Here are the techniques that have worked for me:

Celebrate the small stuff

When a student is insolently answering back or thumping other children, we must remember that such behaviour can be a classic sign of low self-esteem. Use every opportunity to praise them for the slightest evidence of good behaviour, even if it's just a quick thumbs up or a nod in their direction as they obey an instruction without having to be reminded repeatedly.

Avoid nitpicking

As a teacher it can be hard to let indiscretions go by without a reprimand, but with some children it is wise to pick your battles. If a student who usually calls out constantly is sitting quietly but fiddling with pencils, for example, it can be expedient to turn a blind eye. I used to worry that this was sending out the wrong message to the rest of the class, but children are pretty savvy - they recognise a child who genuinely struggles with behaviour and won't hold it against you if you sometimes let the little things slide.

Beware scapegoating

Children who find themselves in trouble can often try to shift the blame on to the class troublemaker, hoping that this will get them off the hook, so be on guard for this. Also, when it comes to seating plans it's often best to keep your most difficult child on the move. Don't punish the best behaved student in the class by sitting them next to a challenging peer week after week.

It's not just your problem

When it comes to behaviour, you need to know that you are not alone. Your behaviour management should always be backed up by a wider support group and this is particularly true for very challenging children. Show the student that you have that backup. Senior managers, special educational needs coordinators and outside agencies can all help - hopefully by having regular contact with the child and their parents and removing the student from class for short periods if necessary, instead of just filling out incident forms with you.

Take time out

For some children there will be occasions when they just cannot cope in a whole-class environment. Give them a place they can go to for time out: somewhere safe where they can get some space and regain control of their emotions. Try to keep any activities here repetitive and undemanding, using whatever best suits the child's learning style.

Stay in control

Children with severe behavioural difficulties often don't respond to strategies that are effective with others. This can be very disempowering for teachers. And battling a child who continually expresses angry and negative emotions can create similar feelings in the adult. Ensure that your response is intellectual rather than emotional. Bear in mind the kind of behavioural response they may be used to in their home life and try to be a good role model.

Don't give up

It sounds trite but keep believing in the child. Try to be a calm, consistent presence and give as much positive encouragement as possible without ever condoning bad behaviour. Their progress may well be a case of one step forward, two steps back, but the fact that your influence may be hard to measure is not a reason to stop trying.

Jo Brighouse is a primary school teacher in the Midlands

What else?

Peer-to-peer talks on violence have positive effects on pupils.

A video from Teachers TV offers advice on dealing with a student who is known to be aggressive.

Is behaviour management a learned skill or an innate talent? Join the debate on TES Connect.

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