How able or prepared are you to allow reluctant and disengaged learners to change the planned activity? This article highlights how having alternatives to planned lessons can reduce the chances of students developing and escalating confrontations

Changing the activity
As with many, if not all, possible solutions to problems, the most effective strategies are often the simplest. How many times have you been faced with a problem at home, or even a practical DIY issue, and said to yourself: ‘I can’t cope with this at the moment,’ or ‘This really starting to get to me now! I’m going to put it down and sort it out later.’

Not only are you recognising that the activity you are involved with is beginning to cause you annoyance and anger, but you have also realised that to continue in your current state of mind, it will inevitably result in you making mistakes, losing your temper, errors or even damaging the project!

You will have made the link between thoughts, feelings and emotions having a direct influence on your behaviour. Outside the classroom this often results in exasperation, unacceptable language, walking away and a distinct lowering of self-esteem and confidence.

Problems arise when this style of approach and behaviour is transferred into the classroom. The behaviour which you don’t think twice about when it is you acting out, suddenly becomes totally unacceptable when you are faced by a student in your class who is repeating your own behaviour. The temptation is to insist that the student stops his or her behaviour and gets back on with the task. This style of inflexibility and reluctance to understand the issue will almost certainly spark a confrontation. In this situation the student, who is already frustrated and annoyed, will find it very difficult to control his or her emotions and subsequent behaviour. The onus is now on you. How can you de-escalate the situation, and how can you enable the student to re-connect with the teaching and learning environment?

Practical Tips
As with all practical tips and advice, there is no guarantee of success and each strategy should be viewed as a possible solution. Techniques and strategies should be considered as part of a range or toolbox of responses which need to be used at the right time, in the right situation and with the right student. Clearly, that is the difficulty faced when attempting to de-escalate a situation.

The off-task student who is finding the work a) uninteresting, b) too difficult or c) not relevant, will usually be faced with two choices:

  1. Get back on with the work.
  2. Face a possible consequence or sanction.

The two possible solutions are also often linked to the words ‘You know what you should be doing, it’s your choice!’.

If you think back to your own frustration and annoyance as described in the introduction above, when you are faced with your own frustration, how easy would it be for you to simply get back on with the task or face some sort of sanction? It’s fair to say that would not be too easy and in just the same way as you decide to ‘put it down and come back to it later’, you need to enable the frustrated or annoyed student to make the same informed decision.

Perhaps this style of approach goes against your normally accepted response styles and it also goes without saying that you should not have to provide alternatives to the set work for every off-task student. However, as the clear-thinking and rational adult in this situation, a simple change of activity can make a huge difference to the mindset of the student.

Simple changes can involve many activities. Some may be more effective than others:

  1. Send the student in question to deliver a note or message to another member of staff. This will temporarily remove them from the situation, allowing them to calm down and focus on something else.
  2. Have alternative activities for the student to change to. There must be the understanding that the original task will be returned to.
  3. Engage the student in a calm conversation to distract from the current problem, rather than insist on immediate compliance.
  4. Pair the student with another class member.
  5. Allow the student to act a coach to other class members.
  6. Remind the student of previous ‘self-calming’ tactics.

We all expect students to be able to take responsibility for their own actions, and to comply with our requests to get on with the work as set. However, it is important to keep in mind that we, the adults, should be assisting students to solve their difficulties and help them to develop their management of strong emotions. In the grand scheme of things, ie the need to complete the work, it is usually more effective to have a range of responses, which will include compliance but will also give the student a wider range of choices.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in November 2009

About the author: Dave Stott has nearly 30 years’ teaching experience including seven years as a headteacher. He has worked in mainstream and special schools and Local Authority Behaviour Support Services, and is now a writer, consultant and trainer.