Dare to be daft - and nip silliness in the bud
It is the third time he's done it. I am left with no choice but to send in my alter ego, Mr Grimchuckle. I take a deep breath, place my hands on Ryan's shoulders and explain the situation.
"Listen carefully, Ryan, because I am only going to say this once. If you burp in Naomi's face one more time I am going to be forced to beat you over the head with a big mallet. Do I make myself clear?"
Ryan grins. Mr Grimchuckle, who is dressed as a clown - part funny and part scary - grins too. No more words are needed. Mr Grimchuckle relaxes his grip on the trigger of his squirty flower. A moratorium on silliness has been declared by mutual consent. Playfully, I ruffle Ryan's hair. With a bit of luck, Naomi can spend the rest of the day in a burp-free zone.
`I know it when I see it'
Is burping in someone's face silly or naughty? What if it happens several times? The space between the two is an ever-changing landscape. Silly behaviour is part and parcel of childhood but it can often cross over into naughty behaviour. Lines of distinction cannot easily be drawn.
Although it was originally used for deciding whether to apply US obscenity laws in 1964, Justice Potter Stewart's famous phrase - "I know it when I see it" - provides a useful guide for teachers trying to distinguish between silly and naughty behaviour. It's an experience thing; you learn to spot the signs.
Of course, the children will try to confuse you. If I had a pound for every time a sulking child complained that he was "only having a laugh", I would be spending the late afternoon of my life sipping rum cocktails on my yacht in the Caribbean. They're not lying as such - naughtiness is more often than not clowning around that has got out of hand. The trick for a teacher is to recognise when the wheels are about to fall off Mr Silly's car.
To this end, primary teachers must be the ringmasters of their own fate and know when (and more importantly when not) to crack the whip.
In my experience, less is usually best. But classrooms are packed with strutting performers and audiences eager to be entertained or to participate. This makes them dangerous and unpredictable places, subject to sudden shifts in mood, attitude and behaviour. Even the most experienced teacher can be caught out when Mr Silly teams up with Mr Naughty.
Dealing with silliness requires different strategies from those used for dealing with naughtiness. Because it is essentially low-level disruption, stamping down on it with the full weight of sanctions aimed at addressing bad behaviour is inefficient (and exhausting). Low-level disruption requires low-level behaviour management.
In the fight against silliness, it is important to avoid declarations of war. It is far better to employ covert operations in a battle for hearts and minds. To this end, teachers must know their enemy (remember it's the behaviour we are up against, not the child) and use their superior knowledge, skills and experience to defeat silliness in its own backyard.
I normally send in the clowns. In particular, Mr Grimchuckle. His jokes, exaggerated playfulness and slightly threatening smile make him much more effective than, say, the Lion Tamer.
But you can also use humour. It's not just what we say and do that shapes our relationships with students; it is how we say and do it. Try to keep things light. "It's the way I tell 'em" was the catchphrase of comedian Frank Carson. Change that to "It's the way I tell 'em off" and you'll be well on the way to guiding children from the slippery slope that leads from silliness to serious consequences. Remember, a smile is more disarming than a glare, a joke is less painful than a barbed comment and ruffled hair smoothes better than a jabbed finger.
Steve Eddison teaches at Arbourthorne Community Primary School in Sheffield
Use this simple sheet to help students recognise when they are being silly.
Create a display of your behaviour expectations and sanctions.
Help pupils to reflect on their actions with this clear flow chart.