Troublemakers in class? Give peace a chance

8th February 2008 at 00:00
Psychologist says non-confrontational sit-ins by teachers effectively contain disruptive pupils.

Teachers are resorting to 1960s tactics to quell disruption from pupils in the classroom.

Rather than disciplining badly behaved children, the teachers are staging peaceful sit-in protests.

Sit-ins are inextricably linked with the 1960s: Martin Luther King would stage a demonstration while Joan Baez led rows of cross-legged hippies in earnest choruses of "We Shall Overcome".

But this method of civil disobedience has also proved an effective method of establishing authority in the classroom, researchers into emotional and behavioural difficulties have found.

Peter Jakob, a clinical psychologist in Kent, said: "When adults directly challenge young people, it's an attempt at controlling them. Then the young person makes moves to counter that control. That just leads to escalation. The sit-in is challenging, but it's not confrontational. It's a breach of the young person's control: he or she can't do anything about them sitting there."

A repeated cycle of reward and punishment allows the pupil to feel as if he is manipulating his teachers. So, Dr Jakob recommends that there should be a delay of several days between the pupil's action and the sit-in.

What happens at the sit-in is that a persistently misbehaving teenager is summoned by his or her teacher to the classroom during an appointed breaktime. The pupil is met there by all his or her teachers, who stage a 20-minute sit-in protest at his or her behaviour.

As with any protest movement, strength is in numbers. The first step is to form staff support groups.

"Teacher isolation is one of the most serious impediments to feeling authoritative in the classroom," said Dr Jakob. "They feel they're in a competitive situation and worry that they'll look bad if they can't cope with a pupil.

"In support groups, they can discuss problems with colleagues and strategise with them."

In the case of particularly difficult pupils, their parents should also be invited to meetings. This helps create a united front among all the adults involved in a child's life.

Another technique for the peaceful protester is civil disobedience. Pupils who misbehave anticipate a specific reaction. By refusing to be provoked or to react in the expected way, teachers are able subtly to undermine the pupil. For example, teachers could refuse to be embarrassed by a pupil's jibes or angered by disruptions.

Dr Jakob suggests a tactic commonly used by Gandhi. The man who led the fight for Indian independence would announce his demonstrations to the press, ensuring their attendance. Similarly, schools could publicise anonymous accounts of non-violent resistance on a prominent noticeboard. This would strengthen the impression of a united front.

The effectiveness of political non-violent protest is questionable: many of Gandhi's protests ended in large-scale rioting. Joan Baez, campaigning folksinger and founder of the California Institute for the Study of Non-Violence, concluded: "Non-violence is a flop. The only bigger flop is violence."

But Dr Jakob disagrees. "Gandhi's methods are pragmatically sensible," he said. "If I shout, it's easy for a child to shout back and even draw a knife. But if I remain quiet, eventually it becomes harder for the child to be aggressive. Through the very act of being non-violent and non-confrontational, it becomes harder for the other person to attack you."


Peace in our times

- It was Gandhi who turned non-violent resistance into a credible method of political protest. He advocated ahimsa, Sanskrit for non-violence, as a means of convincing the British to allow Indians self-rule.

- In the 1960s, Martin Luther King led non-violent demonstrations in protest at US segregation laws.

- Later in the 1960s, sit-ins, teach-ins and - in John Lennon's case - bed-ins became a popular method of protest against the Vietnam War.

After the jeers, the cheers

One school has used a non-violent protest technique to moderate the behaviour of a 14-year-old boy who was in the habit of making sexually explicit comments to female staff, writes Adi Bloom.

Peter Jakob, a clinical psychologist, held a support-group meeting with the boy's teachers and his mother. They discussed the effect his behaviour had had on them.

"The boy was controlling female teachers by triggering powerful emotions in them," said Dr Jakob. "So we had to look at the way in which adults were allowing themselves to be controlled."

The next time the boy insulted a teacher, she summoned him to her classroom later that week. The other teachers and his mother were present.

The insulted teacher told him: "You said something inappropriate to me. We're sitting here in protest. We hope you will use this time to think about how you might have behaved differently."

The boy was not under any pressure to report his thoughts.

A reconciliation gesture followed. The next time he played in a school football match, the insulted teacher turned up and cheered.

"Reconciliation is just a positive gesture of regard for the young person," said Dr Jakob. "You're saying, 'I care and you can't shake me off.'"

Dr Jakob said the boy's offensive behaviour had stopped since the protest tactics had been adopted.

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