Emotional rescue

26th September 2008 at 01:00
A them-and-us culture between teachers and pupils is a common problem. Paul Dix offers advice on how to stay cool as a cucumber when pupils test the boundaries

Every teacher has been faced with difficult pupils who know just how to get under their skin and escalate an already difficult situation into an impossible one.

But even the most challenging behaviour can be managed with flair if the teacher's response is ritualised, safe and emotionless, with a flash of positive reinforcement at the right moment.

How we perceive inappropriate behaviour is crucial. Think of it as a personal attack, a sign of a society in decline, a symptom of an uncontrollable generation, a product of poor parenting or of 24-hour news media, and it is difficult to stop emotion getting in the way. See it for what it really is - a young person testing the boundaries, trying to provoke an adult or trying to relieve the boredom of the day and it is easier to hold on to your rational understanding of behaviour.

The them-and-us culture is a problem in UK schools and the link between the behaviour of the pupils and our emotions is at the root of it. We can find ourselves defining and reinforcing this link on a daily basis. Think how many times you say: "You are making me angry", "I am irritated by your behaviour today" or "If one more person asks to go to the toilet I am going to scream."

By doing this, we're giving pupils a route map to our negative emotions. We give the most challenging pupils hand grenades that they can lob in at the most inappropriate moments. When Chantelle refuses to play ball, for example, frustration creeps into our tonal and physical language and exasperated appeals to the staffroom further cement our feelings that "these children are uncontrollable".

Save your emotional response to behaviour for when things are going well. Let your pupils see your enthusiasm for learning, love of teaching and delight in their success. Show them the passion of your positive response.

When you must intervene about challenging behaviour, things need to be different. Don't waste emotional energy on Trevor's curtain chewing, for example.

If your pupils choose to behave inappropriately, give them what they really don't like, an almost mechanical response. Remove their fear or excitement from seeing an adult start to react, or the adrenalin from watching them explode. Land your sanctions softly and you can protect what is most important: your relationship with the pupil and your own emotional wellbeing.

Challenging behaviour is not improved in the long term when it is met with emotion. When it is met with dull, mechanical structures that leave no room for argument or emotion, challenging behaviour becomes less seductive. It underlines the rational connection between inappropriate behaviour and sanctions. The teaching team has instant consistency; they are protected from the constant emotional drain and everyone has more energy for reinforcing appropriate behaviour.

There are a number of critical elements, the combination of which, when performed with confidence, makes it almost impossible for the pupil to skilfully return serve, divert the conversation or escalate the situation.

Before you intervene, ratchet up your self-awareness by imagining the pupil's parent on your shoulder. Adjust your verbal, tonal and physical language as if the parent were watching the situation unfold. In conversation, shift the behaviour to the past tense as soon as possible: "I can see that you have had a problem getting started," rather than "You are having a problem." State the behaviour that was witnessed and explain the consequence of that choice.

The moment you land the sanction is the pivotal moment of any exchange. This is when the pupil will protest, argue or attack with most vigour. It is the moment when the pupil will tempt you away from the conversation that you want to have and try to lead you into a conversational cul-de- sac. They may say: "I hate history, tell me why I should do this?", or else risk a secondary reaction with a slow smile cracking across the face or the infernal pen tapping to divert you from your course.

Don't be tempted to chase the secondary behaviours at that moment, deal with them later. Reinforce the behaviour you want and quell the first signs of confrontation by immediately using a previous example of the pupil's good behaviour. "Trevor, do you remember yesterday when you helped me clear upgave me that fantastic designresisted stabbing Darren? That is the kind of behaviour that I need to see from you today. That is the pupil I believe you are."

This is difficult to argue with. It defuses their protests and injects humanity into an otherwise mechanical interaction. It allows that moment of emotional panic (when the pupil realises they are going to have to do something that they don't like) to subside and firmly separates behaviour, negative emotion and identity. It allows the pupil to leave the conversation feeling that their teacher still likes them and leaves the relationship and your dignity intact. Rehearse it and it will be quick, efficient, and fair, allowing you to get on with using your positive energy to inspire.

As we teach young people that consequences are not personal retribution, we begin to erode the them-and-us culture. The aim is to leave pupils feeling responsible for their behaviour rather than angry at their teacher. You don't have to have a personality transplant to be effective in managing behaviour. You might, however, want to suppress your natural instinct to react with emotion. You may want to show Trevor that although others may respond to his behaviour with hostility, you are playing a longer game.

Paul Dix is director of Pivotal Education, training consultants working in schools and colleges, and the author of Taking Care of Behaviour (Pearson Longman)


When pupils try to argue, shift the blame, or divert the conversation, you need to quickly, kindly and efficiently bring them back to the conversation that you want to have.

Pupil: "It wasn't me."

Teacher: "I hear what you're saying . ".

Pupil: "But they were doing the same thing."

Teacher: "I understand . ".

Pupil: "I was only . ".

Teacher: "Maybe you were, and yet . ".

Pupil: "You are not being fair."

Teacher: "Yes I may appear unfair, however we are discussing . ".

Pupil: "It's boring."

Teacher: "Yes, you may think it boring, and yet . ".

Pupil: "You are annoying."

Teacher: "There may be some truth in that, what I need to speak to you about is . ".

If the conversation is becoming unproductive:

"I am stopping this conversation now. I'm going to walk away and give you a chance to think about the choices that you made. I know that when I come back we can have a polite, productive conversation."


Get in and out with your dignity intact

Know what you are going to say beyond your opening line. For particularly challenging pupils or difficult situations, have a scriptritual prepared so you know exactly where the interaction is leading.

Disconnect behaviour and identity

Confront the behaviour and not the pupil. "Your behaviour is inappropriate, I know that you can get control of it and complete this task."

Separate their behaviour from your emotional state

Reinforce the rational connection. "If you choose to break the rules about mobile phones you leave me no choice but to . ".

Parent on the shoulder

When things get tough, temper your language and approach. Imagine that the pupil's parent is standing just behind you.

Use physical language that models physical respect

With your verbal and tonal language in check, it is the stray pointy finger or intrusion of personal space that can unravel your performance at the wrong moment.

Shift behaviours to the past tense as soon as possible

"You have had a problem with . ", "I saw you choose to cut Sarah's hair without invitation."

Assume appropriate behaviour to challenge limiting self-belief

"I know you can . ". "I am sure you will . ". "You strike me as the kind of person who . ".

Script responses for pupils who try to divert or escalate

State the behaviour, state the sanction, reinforce previous appropriate behaviour, thank the pupil for listening, walk away and allow time for them to decide about their next move.

Relentless follow-up

For pupils who choose not to comply with sanctions or who try to escalate the situation with secondary behaviours.

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