26th June 2009 at 01:00
Problem: A troublesome 11-year-old in one of my classes laughs in my face every time I reprimand him. What's the best way to respond?

The appropriate intervention in this case will depend on a range of factors, according to Philip Garner, professor of education at The University of Northampton and director of the Training and Development Agency's professional resource network for behaviour management.

"You need to consider the context in which the behaviour has been displayed. If they are an 11-year-old at primary school, they'll be at the top of the tree and could just be flexing their muscles.

If they're at secondary school, they may be doing the same to other teachers. So it's crucial to deduce the meaning of the behaviour before jumping in if you want to get the intervention right," he explains.

Nevertheless, some approaches are likely to work in a range of scenarios, he says. "Standing close to them can sometimes be a powerful indicator to pupils that you are aware of a potential problem. You don't necessarily need to say anything about the behaviour itself."

Certain gestures will also help, he adds. "Eye contact, a nod of recognition and putting your finger to your lips while maintaining eye contact; there is a huge repertoire of non-verbal ways in which you can discreetly indicate to a youngster that you are aware of what's happening. Often, such gestures are one-to-one occurrences - the rest of the children aren't aware that it has happened."

Lynne*, who teaches English at a secondary school in East Anglia, experienced a similar problem and found talking to the child one-to-one in a detention helped. "When challenged, he claimed that he wasn't laughing but I told him that was how he came across and I wasn't prepared to tolerate it. I said if it happened again, he'd be sent out and make up the time in detentions. Then I gave him a choice - a new start or more of the same. And he agreed to improve."

Having spoken to other members of staff about the boy, she found he was doing the same with them. "I think that he laughs partly from embarrassment and partly to save face in front of his peer group.

"I have tried hard to catch him being good so I can praise him for that and I found that I just needed to give him a certain look to stop the bad behaviour in its tracks. Thinking about it now, I've not really had a problem with him this term, so I suppose it did work."

Mary, who teaches a Year 6 class in Leicester, also found that a pupil who tested her in this way did the same to other staff, especially those he didn't know well. So she decided to forge a relationship with him.

"This worked quite well and I now see it as the best long-term way of dealing with it. I still needed to show the boy and his classmates that I was in control of the situation, so I didn't stop sanctioning him when he behaved inappropriately. Gradually, his behaviour improved. But it wasn't like flicking a light switch," she says.

Giving the pupil a new task is a good way to deflect the situation, says Professor Garner. "Trying to progress with what they were doing when the bad behaviour started would be a waste of energy. Go to your bank of resources and try something else. Try something menial and routine and nothing to do with learning, like tidying books - something that will break the cycle."

One of the worst things a teacher can do is send the pupil to another teacher, he warns. "You may think that the battle has been won by sending a pupil like this to the headteacher or another senior colleague, but that just makes things worse in the long run. Such a victory only stokes ammunition for the youngster as it signals to them that you don't have the skills or authority to deal with them."

* Not her real name

DO .

. Consider why they are behaving this way before deciding on an intervention.

. See if they're doing the same with colleagues.

. Stand near them and make eye contact - it will signal that you have noted their behaviour.

. Address the child one-to-one.

. Consider setting them a different task to diffuse the situation.

. Try to build a positive relationship with them to prevent it happening again.


. Reprimand them in a confrontational way in front of the class.

. Persist with an approach if it isn't working.

. Send the pupil to another teacher - it will only undermine your authority.

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