When battle commences

11th July 2008 at 01:00
In the final part of his series on behaviour management, Tom Bennett reveals what to do if the worst, such as a fight, ever happens

In the final part of his series on behaviour management, Tom Bennett reveals what to do if the worst, such as a fight, ever happens

Behaviour Management

I'm sure you could go through an entire career without serious incidents, and some schools run like Rolexes and are filled with Stepford children. If you occupy this world, then I salute you. But what do you do if they start chucking chairs?

On one hand this is an irrational fear. Most dramatic episodes of high- octane disruption are exceptions to the norm. Like risk assessing Judgement Day, it may not happen very often, but when it does you'll know all about it. So what do you do with extreme behaviour?

It doesn't mean you're a terrible teacher

Remember that, in a sense, normal rules have broken down, which is why these situations are so terrifying. Control is what we're about, so when it goes, we feel lost.

But never forget that the classroom is just a box that the pupils spend part of their day in - the rest of the time they are with parents and friends, inhabiting a world that you know nothing about. They bring their demons into your space, so if little Danny or Phyllis hits out at Defcon 1, it might just be because of reasons a million miles from your lesson.

It might not be too late

Fights can escalate from nothing. I've seen men in pubs bottle each other over spilt pints and dirty looks - because nobody would back down. Know why it's called facing off? Because that's what it's about: face. As in the animal kingdom, where two animals would far rather settle a dispute using a show of bravado rather than by actually locking horns and getting hurt.

The (usually male) ego finds it hard to walk away from a fight because of the risk of looking stupid. So give them a get-out, a way of backing down that doesn't make them look soft. Stand in between most fights and they will melt away. Pull one child away and you'll often find that they co- operate with ease, giving only the faintest signals that they really want to fight (just enough to save face at least).

Get them away from the audience

Human behaviour is different in public from what we do in private. You need only reflect upon your own habits when the house is empty to see how true this is. It also applies to extreme behaviour in the classroom: the child chucking chairs is partly doing so because they are in a room with their peers. If you can negotiate their exit and start a one-to-one, you could turn the behaviour around. If they won't leave, get everyone else to leave. It's extreme, but has the same effect and can be your last resort if things get nasty.

Never humiliate a pupil in front of their peers, because you'll get what you deserve.

Get real

Don't threaten detention to two children rolling about on the floor in a ball of dust and fists. At that point they're in the red mist and you hardly exist. You might have to get physical, which justifiably appals many teachers because it's a minefield of blurred responsibilities and roles. But the law entitles us to use reasonable force to defend ourselves or another in our care, including the instigator.

Angry children are like miniature drunks, they need to be looked after even if they don't want to be. So maybe you have to make the decision and grab one, bundle them out, restrain an arm, whatever you have to do. If you don't feel comfortable doing this, no one will blame you. But sometimes you have to be brave.

Get help

Unless it's impossible, this should be automatic, because it usually only takes an instant to tell a good child to whistle up the marines. Most schools will have a designated floating teacher, but grab anyone because now is not the time to get fussy. Most pupils know that it's getting serious when a gang of teachers burst in and start getting medieval.

If the incident is non-compliance, then be calm

If you start freaking out, you raise the stakes by adding tension to a tense situation. So if a pupil refuses to move or leave the classroom and you don't want to get anyone else involved initially, stay calm and do your teacher thing. Issue a warning. Clearly describe the possible outcomes of their co-operationnon co-operation. Suggest a way that they can save face and still comply ("I need to see that jacket off in the next couple of minutes," then walk away and do something else. Once the heat of attention is off, they can give in with dignity).

If they still aren't singing your theme tune, it can be devastatingly effective to just move on and teach the rest of your lesson - but then make sure you follow it up in the way that you said. And ensure everyone knows it happened.

A lot of extreme non-compliance is done to get a reaction from the teacher. Some pupils live lives of insignificance and desperation and any effect they can have on someone is a substitute for self-esteem. So don't let them wind you up. You might be incandescent with rage, but don't let them see, or they'll have found a way to play you. Just state your expectations clearly, the outcome of transgression and then move on. Follow up. Stay calm.

Be the grown up. These situations are called extreme because they're rare. Remember who you are, be ready for them. Behaviour management is a complex web of skills that can be learnt, even if the Year 6s tower above you. But if you can dominate them with your mind, then you'll always be the big dog in the room.

Tom Bennett is head of religious studies and philosophy at Raine's Foundation School in Bethnal Green, east London


- Real fights. Not camp posturing, but actual engagement.

- The whole class ignoring you.

- A pupil refusing to do anything you say.

- Windows being smashed.

- Chair chucking.


- Crises can come at unexpected times, but you might have an early warning, so never ignore arguments when they start. Put the fire out fast.

- Prevention is better than cure. Difficult class coming up? Plan your lesson as if Ofsted is at the gates with torches.

- Anticipate the problems. Seat your class to avoid friction, and don't be surprised if two arch enemies go nuclear at each other if they're next- door neighbours.

- Set clear boundaries in your normal lessons. If the class knows that you've drawn lines in the sand for everything else, they'll think twice about taking anything to the next level.

- Be brave. Don't panic. You have to do something. So do something.

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