What do you do when a child knows you can’t get into their physical space, and is prepared to use that knowledge?
In a socially distanced school environment, the above is possibly likely, and certainly some teachers have expressed fears on social media about what might be done in this situation: what if the pupil goads you into their space, or you feel you need to intervene in closer proximity?
My response is: why do you need to be in their space in this or any other situation?
Physical proximity is a dangerous road to tread when it comes to behaviour management. If you advance on a pupil, you are on a path to sacrifice your control of the situation.
Closing in on anyone’s personal space means you trigger the innate physiological and psychological elements of self-protection.
So if you do advance, one of two things are going to happen: they are going to run, or they are going to advance and take the challenge back to you. Neither is what you want to happen.
Keep your distance
Instead, in keeping your distance, you remain in control. You offer them time to consider their actions and for their rational brain to weigh up their options. You are de-escalating, not escalating, the situation.
The way that you talk to them will be a large factor in the response they give. If you are shouting, they are not likely to be willing to join you for a discussion, regardless of whether they are in the wrong.
If you are calm, if you are measured, if you don’t pose a physical threat by closing the space? You stand a chance of facilitating a more positive outcome.
Use your knowledge
Moreover, if you know the pupil well, then you probably have knowledge you can draw on that will make them engage rather than exercise their ability to get a rise out of you. By staying back, you get the chance to use that knowledge.
But what if the situation is the other way around? What if a pupil chooses to get into a teacher’s physical space?”
If a pupil is at the point of getting into your space, a lot must have happened before that point. You have gone past the point of engaging them and it is likely that pupil is entering a crisis situation.
In short: we should not be getting to that point.
So what can we do to defuse these situations or prevent them occurring?
What are their interests? Begin a dialogue that distracts them from the initial issue. That way, you can bring them to a reasonable level at which they can hold a constructive conversation in a safe and comfortable place for both of you. This will also enable you to address the challenge of their behaviour in a measured way.
Re-establishing your boundaries
We need to directly address the zones of comfort. You can explain how the pupil needs to respect the parameters within which you feel comfortable and you will respect the space they need for them to feel comfortable. Tell them that if they stand where they are, and you stand where you are, there is no need for either of you to break the boundary, and actually it's safe to stand still so that you can resolve the situation.
Appeal to their better nature
Remind them of their own safety and your safety. Explain that if you can both remain in a place where you can talk, then surely it would be beneficial for both of you.
Ask for a change of face
If all else fails, engaging another member of staff to support may be the de-escalation technique that is needed to get that pupil on board and listening to reason.
Nikki Cunningham-Smith is an assistant headteacher in Gloucestershire