The Behaviour Question

7th October 2011 at 01:00

I have a problem with a five-year-old pupil. I understand she has serious family issues, but she is out of control. She has tried to escape from the classroom several times, has ripped down displays, hit me and spat at me. She shouts at me and the other pupils constantly. I have spoken to other teachers, including the deputy head, and have been told to try to reward her good behaviour. I have tried, but to no avail.

What you said


You should be getting support from your head and deputy, not just being told to "reward good behaviour". In this situation, my head would have frog-marched said five-year-old out of the classroom.


Carrots are nice and should not be forgotten, but sticks are a greater incentive. Don't overuse anger and shouting, but don't smile and give her stickers when she's rude. Admonish her, and if she continues after this warning punish her in steps: five-minute break; 10-minute break; naughty seat; phone call; isolation. Every. Single. Time.

The expert view

I don't blame you for wanting to do everything you can for this child - it marks you out as having the DNA of teaching excellence, as you possess at least one of the credentials of the professional educator: you care about the child's well-being. But that compassion must not be allowed to overrule practicalities. This child has rights, of course, but is now destroying your mental well-being and the educational space of your classroom. That cannot be right.

The approach recommended to you by the school is well-meaning, but wrong. You have been advised to tame this child with love, which is sweet, but not all problems can be solved with compassion alone. You have been urged to try to motivate, inspire and persuade, but this child does not want or care for such persuasion. She needs to be shown boundaries, so I suggest you use sanctions.

Every time she gets out of control, you (or the teaching assistant) need to take her out of the room. This will minimise the impact on the others. After all, they have a right to an education, which is being denied them by the actions of this child. The pupil could be taken to another class, to the head, or to a quiet space with the TA. Young children especially dislike social exclusion, so this is a sanction with teeth that isn't cruel, merely effective.

You don't need to shout. If the child comes from a difficult home they probably get worse there, and shouting just reminds them that adults are shouty. Make your point in a voice slightly louder than conversational level. If you mean what you say, it's all you need.

Pursue any sanctions available: detentions, calling home (if you can, or if there is any kind of adult with influence on the child). If these do not work, the school must pursue more punitive measures, because this girl isn't being given boundaries. She is being allowed to be disruptive and destructive, and it sounds as if she hasn't met with any meaningful consequence to those actions. Can you imagine what she could be like when she's older if no one has emphasised to her that actions have outcomes? If the school won't support you with sanctions, then it doesn't deserve to have you.

Tom Bennett is author of The Behaviour Guru and Not Quite a Teacher:

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