Douse the flames with a splash of respect

17th September 2004 at 01:00
As a behaviour support teacher, I draw heavily on my own experiences as a teacher of pupils with emotional and behavioural difficulties. I know that, while there are some valuable theories and philosophies relating to behaviour management, much of it comes down to your wits.

Defusing an angry outburst or skirmish can be unnerving for even the most experienced practitioner, but it's not always necessary to engage with the problem. A child's limited concentration span can be a useful resource in a time of challenge. By the time he has realised what you are doing, he will have forgotten why he was angry in the first place.

And what is this cunning trickery? Distraction. It's as old as the hills, but no less effective. "Look! There's a dog in the playground" can sidetrack a temper tantrum in seconds (it helps if the child is gullible).

Of course, a judgment call is required. Often it is wise to see something through, to rise to the difficulty played out in front of you. But there are those occasions when you know a child is working the system, letting off steam without intention. A simple diversion can deal with the matter quickly, cleanly and with the minimum of fuss.

I recall an incident with a six-year-old boy who was known for his temper.

He arrived at school with an issue about seat belts on his school transport. Bawling his way to my classroom, he made several threats about trashing the place and was menacing to anyone in his way. Just as he reached the point of no return, I got lucky. He caught sight of the miniature screwdriver I'd been using to fix my spectacles. He fell silent, and stared at this cute, child-sized tool. Had this screwdriver been of normal size, the fascination may have faltered. He was charmed; he wanted to see it in action, wanted to fix things. The seat belt drama was over.

Distraction is most effective in the early stages of a potential difficulty; preventive rather than reactive. If you spot an argument brewing over colouring pencils, steer the protagonists away from confrontation: "Stacey, it would be very helpful if you could water the class cress..." Most children relish responsibility. It can be applied at secondary level, though pupils are not so easily swayed at this age. "Look! There's a packet of fags in the playground!" may have more success than the dog thing. But say it quietly, or you could lose half the class.

* My job means I have the daunting task of offering strategic advice to Steve, long-term supply cover for the Year 6 "hard class". My initial observations reveal that they are indeed a hard class. Nothing exceptional, but undeniably challenging: the impenetrable ripple effect of inappropriate verbal banter; occasional aggressive outbursts; lack of respect for teachers; a few ringleaders, more than enough followers, and a handful of quiet types who are all but ignored; pupils who have trouble starting a task, staying on task, and changing to another task. Steve, ragged and hoarse, flails his arms wildly. He's drowning, not waving.

I sit among a table of chatty girls, painting coil pots, who are happy to engage me in conversation. "I like your skirt, Miss... why are you here? It's because we're really bad, isn't it?" I feign innocence. "We're the worst class in the school. We've had seven teachers since Year 4 and we made two of them go mental." The rest of the girls nod. "Are you gonna be our next teacher?"

There's neither shame nor pride in these self-defining statements, but a sad voice of resigned acceptance. We're the worst class in the school.

That's how it is. Oh well.

It pains me to think that these pupils will enter secondary school with labels firmly attached, but two years of such precarious self-image cannot be unravelled in a mere six weeks.

Praise them, I say to Steve. He looks at me with alarm, checking for signs of delusion. Praise them for the tiniest things they do right. And when you do, praise yourself for praising them. It won't control them, but it might shock them into keeping quiet.

* One of the first things I look for when I'm called to observe an unruly primary class are the rules themselves. That backbone of behaviour management. I have seen some inspirational displays: entire boards given over to smiley faces and photographic examples of pupils demonstrating the right and wrong things to do. But sometimes a school's behaviour guidelines are no more than a battered A4 photocopy of do's and don'ts stuck to the back of the classroom door.

Rules are necessary, not because they make children conform, but because they provide a neutral territory for asserting class boundaries. How many times have we gone down this road: "I've really had enough of you doing that. If I've told you once, I've told you a thousand... " And got this in response: "Chill out, man. Don't get lairy... God! Miss is always moaning."

Use the rules. The rules will be with you. Engage the whole class, the whole school if possible. Encourage pupils to have ownership over them, and keep them simple. My favourite is: in this class we (pupils and staff) have the right to respect, the right to get on with our work, the right to feel safe. These three principles cover most classroom misdemeanours and emphasise inclusive enthusiasm for a positive environment.

Billy prods Corey for the seventh time: "Billy, remember our rule about letting others get on with their work... " It's not personal, it's not a moan - it's what we've agreed on. Billy can no longer justify calling you a miserable old hag. He will,of course, but you get the moral high ground.

A word of caution. Having imposed my worthy class rules on to a particularly lively Year 4 class, I was caught using sarcasm on a class clown: "And that, children, is how you squander your education... " A boy tapped me on the shoulder and, with smug satisfaction, highlighted my own broken rule (the one about respect). Which brings to mind the most important rule of all: practise what you preach.

Louisa Leaman Louisa Leaman, winner of the TES's New Columnists competition, was a behaviour support teacher in east London until the end of last term. She now supply teaches l Don't miss the new series on behaviour which starts in Friday magazine next week

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