how pupils behave in the classroom has very little to do with the lesson, the subject or the individual teacher. Even when there is a dramatic clash between teacher and pupil, it is rarely caused purely by personality differences. Sue Roffey, senior researcher at the University of Western Sydney, claims that bad behaviour is determined by the experiences and expectations that pupils have built up from early childhood, rather than by what goes on in class.
In a paper on repairing pupil-teacher relationships, she says that some pupils' past experiences have taught them that behaving well leads to adult approval and a feeling of self-worth. These pupils are likely to seek out approval by obeying rules. By contrast, she says: "A young person who has had less positive experience, and anticipates rejection or failure, is more likely to respond negatively to innocuous comments, and feel hurt and angry before any alternate possibility is considered."
Dr Roffey's list of "unhelpful constructs", which pupils can bring with them into class, include the assumption that people in authority want to put them down and the belief that adults only notice them if they make a nuisance of themselves. Some pupils may believe that they are inherently bad, and act accordingly.
More recent experiences can also affect classroom behaviour. If the pupil has had a bad weekend or a confrontation during the previous lesson, they may feel raw and sensitive before the lesson has even begun.
But it is not just pupils who arrive in the classroom bearing emotional baggage. Teachers also allow previous experience to colour their interaction with pupils. Different members of staff will have different ideas of what makes a successful, competent teacher. Some may feel their authority is being challenged if a child misbehaves, others that they have failed as a teacher.
Teachers are also affected by the ethos of the school. If the school is authoritarian and the teacher fears criticism, they will respond very differently from teachers at a more liberal school.
Any breakdown in teacher-pupil relationships, therefore, involves a meeting of individual insecurities. Both teacher and pupil can end up fighting for control of the situation. "Students who feel that they have been treated unfairly are very unlikely... to acknowledge that they are at fault," Dr Roffey says. "It simply serves to confirm the construct that those in authority are out to get you."
Teachers, however, hold the power and authority within the school system.
They can choose whether to insist on pupil conformity to the rules, or whether to acknowledge that there are times when emotions on both sides can get out of hand.
"Students whose lives have been enmeshed with unsupportive relationships, poor role models, and values contrary to those of the school, do not change overnight," says Dr Roffey. "But individuals do change incrementally, in a consistent and emotionally safe environment."
'Repairing and re-building student-teacher relationships', by Sue Roffey email@example.com
ON BEST BEHAVIOUR
Check intentions ("Did you mean to be rude?"). Sometimes pupils overstep the mark without realising it.
State expectations calmly. Tone of voice is as important as what is said.
Check whether pupils understand instructions.
Praise pupils sitting near the misbehaving pupil.
Give pupils choices. This gives them a sense of control and autonomy.
Threatening ("If you don't do this, then...") only entrenches opposition.
Do not take behaviour personally. If teachers understand their own triggers, pupils are less likely to succeed in baiting them.
Disapprove of behaviour, rather than people ("I don't want to hear that kind of language here", rather than "You are being rude").
Do not stand over misbehaving pupils. Moving away gives them a chance to decide what to do.
Anger exacerbates anger. Being calm and controlled demonstrates appropriate behaviour for the pupil.
Acknowledge pupils' feelings ("I can see why you might have a reason to be angry").
Avoid put-downs or unfavourable comparisons.
Make statements that show care and concern for the pupil, in order to maintain the relationship.
Be prepared to listen, if not now then later.