What to do if a pupil says a teacher is picking on them

When a student feels they are being treated unfairly, there are questions we should ask, says Nikki Cunningham-Smith

Nikki Cunningham-Smith


“Everyone was doing it, but I was the only one that got sent out.” 

“He always picks on me, Miss.” 

“She just doesn’t like me!”

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Any form tutor, head of year and SLT member dealing with behaviour is likely to hear these words on a regular basis, particularly from repeat offenders. 

As staff, we should always support our colleagues, but there can be value in sometimes unpacking the sentiment behind their protestations. 

Here are some questions to ask:

Why do they feel they are being singled out? 

What is the emotion behind their reasoning? Do they understand why they are being reprimanded? Sometimes pupils who need additional support for their behaviour find it difficult to see the initial catalyst for a situation. 

If the whole class is being rowdy but they are the one who decides to throw a pencil across the room, for example, they may not be able to recognise why their action during the melee received a more significant response than someone shouting in the class. 

Do they understand that fairness doesn’t look the same for everyone? 

I’m a big advocate of firm-but-fair running alongside consistency. A pupil will be the first to let you know: “But so-and-so did this and you only told them off, but you’ve told me I’ve had to come back at breaktime”.

Are you being consistent? And if you are, do they understand that, although yes, you only told so-and-so off, it was in fact their first offence, so just like when they first got told off before, they have had their warning? 

The difference there, they need to understand, is that they haven’t learned from the warning, as you are still telling them off for the same thing, resulting in a different outcome for the same behaviour.

Do they understand that sometimes we get it wrong? 

Sometimes we do need to take a step back and look at whether we are being (unintentionally) unfair towards a pupil. Whether you like to admit it or not, some pupils will push your buttons more than others. 

That statement may sound controversial, but being reflective and subjective on this topic may actually help you to take some positive steps forward on managing that student’s behaviour. Take a step back and see whether that situation could have been handled any differently.  

If your conclusion is that you have placed more blame at one door than another, let them know that you are human and that you are sorry and will definitely take an extra second in the future to make sure it’s dealt with more fairly. 

If that pupil can see that everyone can get things wrong sometimes, they are more likely to try and build bridges and make steps to developing a relationship, as opposed to already approaching you defensively because of your previous interactions. 

In the heat of the moment, you will always have to make a decision about how best to deal with a situation.

Ultimately, you are the expert and have untold experience and common sense. But consider how you can make all parties feel that they are being treated the same, even if it means allocating different levels of sanctions later on, in private.  

For example, if two pupils are doing that same thing, send them both to the head of year at some point.

If you only send one, they will start to look at themselves and see what is the difference between them and may pick out a feature that is not even in your forefront of your mind (gender, race and so on), but they will keep that feeling with them going forward and attribute that emotion of being singled out to you and that factor.

Nikki Cunningham-Smith is an assistant headteacher in Gloucestershire

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