Behaviour - Don't reach the point of no return

31st October 2014 at 00:00
Losing your temper will result in regrets all round - so use a magic boomerang instead

It was a disaster waiting to happen. Darren Barnes screeched into class on the wrong side of acceptable behaviour. He was fuelled with the emotional equivalent of nitromethane, courtesy of an argument at home and a punch-up in the schoolyard. Unfortunately, he ran straight into an inexperienced teacher.

"Get outside now! Come back when you can stop swearing and kicking my furniture," I ranted. So Darren swore even louder, kicked the furniture even more violently and left voicing his intention never to return to school again.

At that moment, I learned that although road rage on the busy highway of a school day is inevitable, the impulse to fight it with yet more rage will only make matters worse.

Not just in school, either. Darren's dad was a bully and not averse to using his fists. I suspect the entire family suffered because of my unthinking reaction. If only I'd had my magic boomerang back in the early days of my career.

A magic boomerang, you say? Yes, you heard right. Back in the 1960s there was a television programme about a young Australian boy who could make time stand still by throwing a magic boomerang. As it circled through the air, he used the extra seconds to avert disaster. Teachers need their own version of this. Below, I outline mine.

Do tackle the issue

It is important to realise that this is not about avoidance. Bad behaviour has to be dealt with. Ignoring it leads only to more bad behaviour. But reacting impulsively in a loud and aggressive way is always counterproductive. The key is to ensure that time is on your side. When we look back on a disaster, our perception of time changes and the events leading up to it seem to have happened in slow motion. Whether it is a motorway pile-up or a classroom catastrophe, the opportunities to avoid it become glaringly obvious with hindsight. Unfortunately, classroom life happens in real time (and sometimes even faster). If teachers could stop time occasionally, just think how much easier it would be to manage behaviour.

The pros and cons of time outs

Some people believe that having a time out - sending the child to cool off in the corridor, for example, or a quiet corner of the room - achieves this aim. It has long been a useful tool for managing behaviour. Not only does it give angry students a chance to settle down and reflect on their actions, it also affords the same luxury to teachers. The disadvantage of a time out is that it takes place after the damage has been done, when there is a good chance that both student and teacher will be cross for the rest of the day. The trick is to intervene before things blow up.

Bad omens

Fortunately, where children and disaster are concerned, adults are biologically programmed to see into the future. Unfortunately, this can have explosive consequences. Foresight causes us to act prematurely. Screaming "Don't fall off that wall!" can sometimes achieve the opposite result.

Naughty students arouse similar instincts. When Ryan abandons matching fractions in favour of doing keepy-uppies with Nathan's football in the book corner, my initial impulse is to shriek, "Stop that now!"

But then his response would probably be to boot the ball in the direction of our expensive new projector. Instead, I need to spot the beginnings of bad behaviour then pause time to fix it. The frequently used trick of raising one hand and waiting in silence for every child in the class to do the same only does half the job. It doesn't make time stop instantly. Silence drifts in slowly and by then I might have missed my opportunity. So on some occasions I need to use my magic boomerang.

Help is but a Post-it note away

Actually, it's a Post-it note but it does come back. That's because I write "Please sign and return to Mr Eddison after five minutes" on it. Then I fold it meticulously and ask Jenny to take it to the office. No student sees what I have written.

As the class is hushed into an awed silence contemplating the serious consequences that may arise from my mysterious note, I ask Ryan to come and talk to me. I say this calmly, then ignore him completely. Suspended in time he mulls things over. Eventually he sidles up to me of his own accord. He apologises for his behaviour. He makes sincere promises and order is restored.

"Thanks, Jenny," I say, when my boomerang eventually comes back, "but you can tell the office it's all been sorted out."

Steve Eddison teaches at Arbourthorne Community Primary School in Sheffield

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