Ignorance is bliss

24th March 2006 at 00:00
Don't acknowledge rude and misbehaving pupils, says behaviour management expert Sue Cowley


"I have tried the angry route with the disbelieving face"

During my PGCE I taught a number of children with behavioural problems, but now I teach a boy who surpasses them all. He has good lessons and even some days where he works well throughout. More often than not though, flare-ups occur.

Examples include throwing objects across the classroom, ripping up a magazine and throwing it around, imitating going to the toilet, crawling across the floor, booing another class's drama production, refusing to go to the time-out table, running out of class before a detention and refusing to see the phase leader. My question is: how can I get the "bugger to behave?"

Let's call him Andrew. His previous teacher advised me that he has problems with managing his anger. There are issues at home involving sibling rivalry. His intentions are good in the mornings. He can produce insightful, imaginative work, albeit a bit scruffy. I constantly praise this. When he's on task, he often gets up to show me his work. I ask him to sit down, reassuring him that I will try to see everyone. It is then that he starts to get angry.

It is difficult to ask questions of the class because often Andrew will shout out the answer so others don't get a chance. When he has put his hand up and I ask another child to answer, he shouts things like "See man, that's not fair. You never pick me."

In maths my latest strategy is to sit him at the front and ask him questions near the start of the lesson. That way he cannot say that I have not asked him something. I also give him a whiteboard so he can show me his workings when someone else is answering. It sometimes works, but nothing beats speaking up, I guess.

I have explained to him that I'm keen for pupils to contribute, reinforcing the importance of letting other children do this too. He shouts out rude comments ("Everyone knows John is stupid. He won't be able to answer that.").

I have tried the angry route with the disbelieving face: "How dare you say that about another pupil!" To which he replied: "How dare you!"

I've tried a target card, a signed pledge, positive rewards so all pupils get a prize if they stay on the green face all week (rather than amber then red). On good days, he has received my Worker of the Day award; in bad weeks he has been on report. I would like to try an individual reward system for him - can you suggest one?

Lorraine Thompson teaches at Montem primary school in Slough


"Be reasonable, but don't reason with them"

Sometimes we teach a child who poses a challenge no matter how hard we try.

My first piece of advice for Lorraine would be not to blame herself and lose confidence in her teaching. See dealing with your challenging pupils as a valuable learning experience and, like Lorraine, keep trying anything and everything until you hit on an approach that works.

A lot of Lorraine's focus and energy goes into getting Andrew to behave.

She has become trapped into spending lots of time negotiating and reasoning with him, even adapting her methods to suit his needs. Unfortunately, this only seems to reinforce his behaviour.

A headteacher once said to me: "Be reasonable, but don't reason with them."

This is a great maxim for behaviour management. It is very tempting to reason with difficult children, particularly when they accuse you of unfairness. This is unnecessary, though, and will only undermine your status as the adult in charge. If what you ask is reasonable, there is no need for discussions about what is fair. Set the rules and limits, make your systems of rewards and sanctions clear, and apply them as consistently as you can.

Andrew's behaviour is his own choice: it is up to him to manage it - Lorraine cannot do this for him. She should lay out the consequences of failing to behave properly, and apply sanctions as necessary. The more she placates him, the more she trains him to misbehave to get attention. As far as it is appropriate, the best approach is to ignore low-level misbehaviour. When he is difficult, she could pretend that she can't hear or see him, unless he is doing something dangerous.

Lorraine could try having a chat with the rest of the class without Andrew being present. (Whether this is appropriate will depend on the maturity of the other pupils.) She might talk to them, without naming the child, about how some people say rude things to get attention. She could ask the pupils to come up with their own strategies for dealing with this, for instance, ignoring what has been said.

A particular problem for Lorraine is Andrew's calling out during question and answer sessions. She wants to justify herself to him, but again this only undermines her authority as the teacher. Although sitting a tricky child at the front can be a useful approach, in this instance it is reinforcing his attention-seeking. I'd be tempted to sit him at the back so he can't disrupt the others. Never feel guilty about looking after the rest of the class when one child is making life difficult. She might even set up a system where he has to move backwards every time he shouts out.

Lorraine should think about what it is that makes some days good for Andrew and other days bad. Perhaps there are certain subjects where he struggles, or maybe it is tiredness towards the end of the week. If she can work out what the problem times are, she might be able to adapt her approaches to encourage better behaviour.

She asks about creating an individualised reward system for Andrew. I suspect this would only exacerbate the problem because it would make him feel that he is somehow different and special. At the moment he is disrespectful to other pupils and this is unacceptable. He needs to see himself as part of a class team rather than separate from his peers.

Lorraine should find ways of building whole-class co-operation skills, for instance, using activities that rely on teamwork for success.

When one individual is testing your patience, it is easy to become fixated on that child and to forget that all the pupils need and deserve your time.

In fact, remembering to focus on the quiet, well-behaved children is the best way to encourage good behaviour from everyone in the class.

Sue Cowley is author of 'Getting the Buggers to Behave' (Continuum)


* Don't reason with pupils: Set reasonable standards, then apply the rules as you see fit. You are entitled to insist on good behaviour without the need for endless discussions.

* See your role as a police officer: Behaviour management is important because it allows you to get on with teaching. Police difficult behaviour in a calm, depersonalised way, by stating rules and applying consequences.

* Share out your time and energy: Sometimes one really difficult child will pull your focus. Aim to spread your attention equally between all your pupils.

* Get the class working as a team: Where a class feels a sense of teamwork, this can really help with both behaviour and learning. Spend time on building a sense of unity.

* Don't blame yourself: Accept that there are some pupils who will pose a challenge no matter how hard you try. Do your best, but don't beat yourself up because you can't change the world.

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