Five steps for dealing with an argumentative pupil

When a student decides to argue back, it can put teachers in a very difficult position, so this PRU leader offers some tips

Nikki Cunningham-Smith

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Picture the scene: I have asked a Year 9 girl to sit at the front of the class because she was hugely disruptive last lesson. Straight away her volume is heightened, her girl crew is behind her ready to take me down, and she’s now got the resilience of a protester who “shall not be moved”.

Although I have reminded her of her behaviour, she’s having none of it. Apparently, I have broken her human rights, and she’s about to tell me the 10 things she hates about me.

What should you do next?

Working in a pupil referral unit has taught me the following:

1. Minimise verbal communication

Do not engage with them in front of your class (or any type of an audience). The second that you do this, you really have lost the battle. This is a conversation you need to have in private.

2. Move them to a new location

If you are in a classroom environment, before you get to the point of a retort, ask them to leave the classroom (Coronavirus rules permitting).

If they are the argumentative type then they will not go out easily, but this is where you have to stay firm. Do not engage with them, until they have left. Use physical cues. Continue to help others in the room quietly, or – my favourite – hold the door open and wait for them to leave.

If the argument is occurring somewhere else – for example, you are on duty – ask them to come and meet you in your classroom so you can discuss their issues in a more private space. If they decline, suggest their head of year’s office or the head’s office, and by suggest, I mean inform. It’s not an option, but they can pick their location. Then give them a time frame: “I’ll see you there in three minutes,” and head there with no further dialogue.

3. Outline the consequences

If they still choose not to leave, remind them of their options, once: “Either leave now and we can have a quick quiet chat or I will have to get someone to come and remove you and it will be much more of a big deal later on.” The vast majority will move by this point. 

4. Let them feel listened to  

Once you have them where you want to be, you will have given yourself time to breathe. I often let them talk themselves out of steam, because more often than not, they don't really have much to say. Then I will let them know my stance: “Thank you for letting me know how you feel about this, however I found your behaviour inappropriate, and the way you have tried to talk to me has not been OK. If you need us to go into this further we can do it at lunch, but for now, you need to focus and get on with the task in hand.”  

If they interrupt me at any time, I will stop and start again.

This is known as the "broken record". It is not designed to annoy them, but to let them know that there is only one message that will be conveyed, and it will be from me.

5. A full stop to the situation

When I have got the message across, I will ask if there is anything else they feel they need me to know. This is not an opportunity for another rant, if they try and do this, politely suggest that this isn't relevant and it would be good to move forward now. I allow them to return to their seat or go back to their lunchtime. But if there is a reason for the poor behaviour, you will often find they volunteer it at this moment.

Nikki Cunningham-Smith is an assistant headteacher in Gloucestershire

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Nikki Cunningham-Smith

Nikki Cunningham-Smith is an assistant headteacher in Gloucestershire

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