It’s dangerous, but some people just can’t resist poking a bear.
Over and over again, jabbing their index finger into their fur, until it roars.
And so it is with some children. They poke and poke relentlessly, until the bear – their teacher – snaps.
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It almost always leads to disaster. Sadly, I’ve been in enough parental meetings and home visits to know where this comes from: modelled behaviour between parents and between parents and their children, which is passed on and learned from a young age.
Children who are starved of attention, ignored unless eliciting fury, simply believe this is normal behaviour.
When quizzed on it, they have few answers besides “I don’t know”, “It’s only harmless fun” or – my least favourite – “It’s just banter.”
If you are the bear being poked, it is not just banter – it is demeaning and disrespectful. But the way we react in these situations often dictates whether there will be a repeat of them.
Teachers get (understandably) angry and frustrated and sometimes we snap. We shout, we rage and we want something done. Our response – in body language and voice – veers from professional to personal.
The hundredth time little Kenny forgets his capital letters and we will sigh and correct with a smile. The hundredth time he throws a paper aeroplane at us, we go bonkers. In all likelihood, little Kenny will find this hilarious, he will have gained the attention he wanted, and will do it again.
Not even the most draconian punishment will remove this human behaviour pattern. The only person who really suffers is you. It shouldn’t be, but it is.
The sleeping bear
Therefore I would recommend a response called sleeping bear. A sleeping bear does not react when poked. A sleeping bear is unmoveable and calm and enjoys sleeping. A sleeping bear simply refuses to react and instead directs her energies to praising the behaviours she wants to see.
Many years ago, I attended staff training on behaviour by Peter Hook (I was very excited as I firmly believed this Peter Hook to be the bassist from New Order. He wasn’t). He stated that we, as adults, give others permission to upset us. All we need to do is practice not giving them permission.
At the time I scoffed, but over the years I have found it to be true. As professional teachers, we do not have to let everything a child does or say upset us, we do not have to be 10 seconds from rage our entire careers.
It’s not always possible, of course. We all have our thresholds, after all.
But to refuse to give the children that poke at us any kind of satisfaction, by refusing to give them the reaction that they so desperately seek, and by repeatedly reinforcing that you will only react to positive behaviours, you can and will change your interactions over time.
Keziah Featherstone is co-founder and strategic leader for #WomenEd and co-edited their book, 10% Braver. She is a member of the Headteachers Roundtable and head of Q3 Academy Tipton. She tweets at @keziah70