This week’s issue of Behaviour Matters looks at the importance of body language and personal space, offering advice on how to understand personal boundaries in order to get the best response from pupilsIntroduction

For some students there is nothing worse than being the centre of attention. This is true regardless of whether the attention is positive or negative. Feelings of embarrassment, threat or ridicule will all lead to examples of inappropriate behaviour. I’m sure we can all remember an incident when we were at school and the teacher made someone  stand up in front of the whole class (or school, if it happened in school assembly!) to explain their actions or to ‘share the joke’! Subsequent behaviour would certainly have been affected by the thoughts and emotions that the pupil experienced. Refusal to comply, giggling, or silence are all likely outcomes of such a scenario, all of which would be unacceptable to the teacher. When the pressure is on, we all struggle to manage our instinctive responses. When working with young people, it is the role of the adult to provide the young person with the best possible situation in which to respond appropriately. This means considering a whole range of influences, including:

  • verbal language
  • body language
  • environment
  • personal space
  • realistic expectations
  • clarity of instructions
  • peer pressure
  • self-esteem.

The above list may not be complete, but it highlights the highly complex issues that are constantly being addressed in the classroom environment. It is relatively easy to consider and assess the likely impact of all of the above while reading them now, but far more difficult to do so when dealing with the non-compliant or challenging student in front of 28 other students − especially in a hot classroom, with a noisy class of students, the pressure of the curriculum and one or two individuals beginning to test your patience and resolve! Many teachers successfully use a ‘move in’ technique when managing the difficult student, being very aware of all the aspects from the above list. Unfortunately, the student may still make a poor choice regarding their behaviour, simply because you have ‘moved in’. Giving a direct instruction when inside a student’s personal space and then remaining there, waiting for compliance, will usually result in a failure to comply, due mainly to the pressure you create simply by remaining in ‘their space’.

Practical Tips
If you have tried the ‘move in’ technique and have practised all the necessary strategies that accompany the technique as listed above, it is important to also consider a final stage in your actions.

When giving a clear instruction to a student and expecting a positive response, be mindful of the pressure your physical presence may be placing on the student. Try the following technique, which may allow the student to make the decision to comply with your instruction, without feeling the added pressure of being the centre of attention of both you and all their peers in the classroom.

  • To deliver an effective instruction to an individual student, use the ‘move in’ technique
  • Keep in mind your verbal and body language
  • You should try using the student’s own name, in a questioning tone, to gain their attention
  • Move into the student’s personal space
  • Don’t ask a question but instead, give a clear instruction about what you expect the student to be doing
  • You should at this point be standing quite close the student, but not directly in front of them
  • If the student is seated, consider your own height and the effect it may be having on the student

At this point you should consider the final and often most important stage of the technique. It is very tempting to remain in the student’s personal space, waiting for a response − even, sometimes, expecting a poor response. Instead of standing, waiting and expecting the worst − or at least, failure on the part of the student − it is now time to give him or her some space. Deliver your verbal message while standing slightly sideways on to the student. Ideally, your weight should be slightly on your back foot, and you should use calm hand gestures (palms down). As you complete your verbal instruction, you should now be moving away from the student. This gives a message of expectation of compliance. To give the technique an even better chance of success, finish your instruction with the word ‘Thanks’, again adding to the message of expectation. Don’t be tempted to end on the word ‘Please!’ This tends to emphasise an anticipated negative outcome or that you are pleading for, rather than expecting, a positive response.

By the time you have finished your brief dialogue, you should be out of the student’s personal space, allowing them to consider their own response in a less pressured situation. If the student does comply, don’t forget to show your recognition and approval. If they still have not complied, use the technique again before deciding to move to the next level of your response.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in June 2008

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 wrtier, consultant and trainer.