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Pupil calming without basic instincts

Nasty corridor confrontations can be avoided if you follow some simple rules, writes Paul Blum

It is sometimes very difficult being the senior manager on patrol at lesson changeover or at the end of lunchtime as one thousand or more young people move from one place to another.

Even when the vast majority of pupils show no more than a good-natured physicality towards each other, issues can arise which put safety and professionalism on the line.

There's low-level nuisance such as groups of pupils very late for lessons who blank you when you hurry them along. Then, body contact which infringes on other pupils' body space. Aggressive flirting, in which a girl squeezes a boy's arm or the boy runs off with a girl's bag. There is more unpleasant medium-level contact like holding another pupil in a full head lock or strangling them. Scenarios starting as jest can quickly escalate to a full-scale fight,which crowds of people gather around to watch. And the body contact tends to increase as the school day nears its end. After lunch pupils get to their lessons more restless and agitated than before.

So what is the bottom line for senior managers: how do we deal with pupil physicality without being too physical ourselves?

The legal position is set out in the 1996 Education Act. It allows teachers to use reasonable force to prevent pupils from committing a criminal offence, injuring themselves and others, damaging property or engaging in any behaviour prejudicial to maintaining good order and discipline at school.

But legal advice on what is "reasonable force" is unclear beyond that force should be kept to an absolute minimum. The law is most lucid in dealing with physical restraint in the context of action necessary to stop injury to self and others. But it is much less clear cut where pupils are behaving in a way which compromises good order and discipline. When should you use force to maintain "good order" and "discipline"? Stopping pupils attacking each other or a member of staff is a definite yes. Pulling back a pupil trying to run down a corridor, blocking a pupil who tries to leave a room without permission or manhandling a pupil who has refused to leave a classroom is probably not so wise.

The trouble is that "shouting" or "grabbing" are instant responses to defiance and disobedience. To avoid them is to defy intuitive human nature.

Sometimes being professional means doing just that - ignoring your basic instincts .

Here is some advice on being physical and staying safe. Or better still, using alternative strategies to being physical at all.

* Only intervene physically when your safety or that of others is really threatened. Don't intervene just to force somebody to follow your commands.

* Try and keep your voice relaxed and calm. Keep the restraint to a minimum. If you don't feel calm inside, don't intervene and don't touch the pupil.

* Check your school policy on physical force. If you do get involved in an incident, write down the details and give it to the head.

How to avoid physical restraint

* Accept that "holding" or "grabbing" is likely to fuel confrontation.

Sometimes it is better to pull back from immediate confrontation and follow up the pupils later.

* Follow up can be by letter or phone call to parents. Pupils can be as confrontational as they like with you in the corridor or classroom, but they can't stop you from contacting home later.

* Follow up can mean going to a classroom and getting an individual out on their own and away from their friends. Pick a time and place at your convenience and not theirs.

More effective corridor patrols

* As a senior manager, accept that you will need to prioritise follow up time after some corridor patrol situations.

* Don't expect instantaneous reaction when you give pupils a command. If you move away and give them time to hold onto their street cred before they obey you, your success rate will increase.

* Do corridor duties with other members of the SMT. Working as a team is always a wonderful way to support each other and takes the tension out of many crowd control situations.

* Humour and lightness of touch always pay dividends. The more relaxed you stay, the more likely you'll be able to sort out a problem without becoming aggressively tactile yourself.

Paul Blum is a senior manager in an inner-city London secondary and author of "A Teacher's Guide to Anger Management"

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