Behaviour - Under pressure? Don't trigger your dark side

7th March 2014 at 00:00
Faced with a challenging child, it's all too easy to morph into Arnold Schwarzenegger. Follow our tips to keep your countenance

Lisa (the teacher) is walking around the classroom checking work. She sees that Billy isn't working. She asks him if there's a problem. This is what Billy says: "The lesson's boring. It was more fun with our old teacher. Everyone says so."

What Lisa does next is probably not going to be of her own choosing. Rather, her fight or flight response is going to kick in and make the decision for her. She'll either retaliate with a cutting remark (fight young Billy on his own terms, Arnold Schwarzenegger-style) or flee to the relative safety of her desk, never to bother Billy again (Scooby-Doo-style).

Either of these options will make the situation worse: worse for her, worse for Billy and worse for her standing with the class.

Of course, it is possible for a teacher to override that fight or flight response. Experience is often the most useful tool to help with this, because the mind has been trained to recognise that certain actions produce negative responses.

There is a more proactive way of tackling the issue, however, and that is through training in simple cognitive skills. The following have been extremely effective in the pupil referral unit in which I work.

Early warning signs

These are the thoughts, emotions and physical reactions that accompany the fight or flight response. They always happen and they always come in threes. Here are Lisa's:

  • Thought: "Right, I'll show him!"
  • Emotion: hurt and anger (the two often go together).
  • Physical reaction: clenched hands and tight jaw.
    • The skill is to notice these early warning signs. Lisa's are definitely present so you might think they would be easy to spot. Not so. When we're caught in a fight or flight response, we focus on, well, doing an Arnie or doing a Scooby. Consequently, the signs often go unnoticed.

      But Lisa can be trained to notice them. That's important because it means she can learn to recognise when she is having a fight or flight response. By doing this, she will already have begun the process of escaping its grip. Here is her thinking:

      "I've got angry thoughts and feelings. My hands are clenched and my jaw is tight. I'm in a fight or flight response. I need to calm down. I need to do a BAR and Roboview."

      BAR and Roboview

      Lisa tells herself to breathe and relax (BAR). She relaxes her muscles (her hands and jaw), takes a slow breath and, in her mind's eye, imagines that breath filling her lungs. She also does a Roboview. Without emotion and focusing only on the facts (in other words, like a robot), she surveys the situation.

      "Billy has said something that has hurt me. I cannot be sure that he meant to. He's not currently working but the other students are, including the ones sitting on either side of him."

      BAR calms her and Roboview helps her to regain control of her thinking. Together with the early warning signs, this might be all Lisa needs to stop herself escalating the situation. It often is. But maybe it isn't. Maybe she needs a little more help. Well, help is at hand (or rather, in head).

      COP, OPE and SPP

      Lisa has three options:

      Consequences, outcomes and penalties (COP)

      She could consider the consequences of what she does (or doesn't do) next. The trick with this skill is to focus on the negative consequences - remember, Lisa's aim is to ensure that she doesn't make the situation worse.

      Other people's eyes (OPE)

      She could look at the situation through someone else's eyes. Those eyes might belong to someone present or someone who isn't even there. OPE broadens our viewpoint and so counteracts the narrow focus of the fight or flight response.

      See the student as a person (SSP)

      She could force herself to see Billy as a person - that is, to see him as someone who, like the rest of us, doesn't always get it right. SSP puts empathy back into our thinking.

      Luckily for us, Lisa decides to combine all three (she must have known she was going to be in the pages of TES). Here's her thinking:

      "I don't want to do anything that's going to worsen my relationship with Billy and I don't want to disrupt the learning of the other children [COP]. If the school leader was here, she would want me to remain calm and professional, as would Billy's mum [OPE]. Billy is the child and I'm the adult. Maybe the work is too hard for him. Maybe he's saying it's boring to cover up the fact that he's struggling. He doesn't need me to lose my rag [SSP]."

      And that's it. Lisa has skilfully controlled her thinking and so managed her behaviour. We don't know what she will do next but, because she has overridden the fight or flight response, it won't be an Arnie or a Scooby. That has to be good for her, good for Billy and good for the rest of the class.

      Robin Launder works in a pupil referral unit in Hertfordshire. He is also the director of behaviourbuddy.co.uk, a behaviour management course for primary and secondary teachers

      What else?

      It's all about self-control. This TES article reveals why restraint gets results.

      Leaders, stay cool in a crisis and learn how to bite your tongue.

      One teacher asks for advice on building bridges after losing her rag with a class.

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