How to handle experts in the art of distraction
Some students have a lifetime’s experience of throwing the teacher off course in lessons. Many discovered a successful technique as early as primary, which, in turn, led to an entire school career of disruptive behaviour and work avoidance. Not understanding the lesson content and not wanting to admit to it resulted in them behaving negatively as a distraction. There were consequences for that behaviour, often removal from the learning environment. Because of this absence, the child fell even further behind, with even less chance of understanding what they were learning. And the cycle continued into college.
Sometimes, the distraction strategy of choice is charming conversation rather than aggressive or obnoxious behaviour. Some students have such expertise that we’re not even aware that we have been at the mercy of their diversion until after the class has ended. One of the most charismatic students I have ever taught dominated almost every session – often amusingly, always intentionally. It was only towards the end of the year, after trying every conventional behaviour management trick in the book to gain some semblance of control, I realised that, to the large group of students, I was never going to be more interesting than their leader. So, he could be their teacher and I would be his assistant.
I made PowerPoint presentations to give the session a structure, with the resources and activities necessary to consolidate learning, but he would stand at the front and deliver the session with the notes I gave him. The group began to learn, under the illusion that he was teaching them, and I could spend time supporting the group and my new “colleague”.
I’m not sure how Ofsted would have viewed my strategy, but it was my best last resort.
The more cunning student preys on their teacher’s love for their subject and disrupts the session with a controversial question that will divert off topic. It will be phrased to suggest that it will add to the session and it may be of genuine value. However, it’s worth noting that if the same student casually offers their shocking views on hot topics on a weekly basis, they may have clocked your personal or professional triggers.
This tactic may also involve the regular challenging of content. The student may have some experience of your specialism and believe that they have superior methods or knowledge. Maybe they do (it’s worth listening to them). The frequency of their interventions will mark them out either as a distractor or as someone who should be working at a much higher level than they currently are.
Subject-related distraction can be an attack on the validity of the subject itself. I have been told by many students in the first few weeks of term that English is “pointless” and will be of no use in their future. Defensiveness and resistance towards learning is the most obvious pointer towards a student’s lack of confidence in it. It usually masks negative previous educational experiences and should be treated with the full force of positive attention.
These students are often the most vulnerable and may feel overlooked. Don’t waste time arguing. Acknowledge your student’s views and set about developing a positive relationship to change their mind.
The most sneaky of all is the false claim that the student doesn’t understand, prompting you to explain the same topic in a variety of different ways. This is a pre-planned attack, so watch out for students making eye contact with each other to signify that this swizz is in action. This strategy takes some bottle and is of significant risk – instead of using words to explain and thus delaying work, set work in order to explain.
This route employs extremes of positive and negative communication. At the positive end, a student may attempt to charm you into distraction by developing a sudden interest in your day or a topic that they know you care about. They may also volunteer extensive information about their own life. Handle the situation with care if this is a student who you have made an effort to achieve a positive relationship with. If there is any prolonged interaction with an over-confident chancer (possibly the class joker), be clear: tell them that you know their game and you’re not falling for it.
Distraction is more difficult to manage if it’s in the form of low-level disruption, or a refusal to engage with the session. Making it clear that you are in charge is the first step to addressing the problem. That doesn’t have to be in an abrupt or dictatorial manner, rather it is about showing them that you are responsible for leading educational progression and that you care about everyone in the room.
This fosters a secure setting, where you can approach consciously disruptive behaviour with a motivation of student support. Asking the distractor to suggest ways in which you can support them hands them the control and subverts the purpose of negative behaviour.
Always take the “How can I help you to stay on track?” approach rather than shutting them down completely. If the behaviour is becoming a problem, don’t disrupt the class further by discussing it during the session. Have a chat after the class and find out what the real motivation is. For some students, the chat itself may be the motivation and the opportunity for positive change.