Expecting an instant reaction to your instructions from some students may be a step too far! This bulletin looks at practical strategies to empower you and reduce confrontation

While I am certainly not condoning a delayed student response after your instructions or clear request, there is a very strong argument for allowing some students a ‘start-up time’. If not making an instant response, the majority of students will give an acceptable message of recognition (facial expression or verbal response) to your instructions, while a few students will try ‘testing’ your tolerance by:

  • ignoring you
  • continuing with their conversation
  • challenging you by direct verbal challenge, an under-the-breath muttering, questioning or pleading the ‘it’s not fair’ card.

Any of the above are likely to produce an emotional response from you. In making that emotional response (be it verbal or non verbal), you have raised the stakes and the student will try to push you even further. A typical scenario might look like this:

Member of staff (moving in close to the student): ‘John, it’s time to stop chatting and get on with your own work. Turn around and start writing up the experiment.’

The member of staff is now standing within the student’s personal space (the student is seated, member of staff standing). There is no response from student, who continues to chat.

Member of staff: ‘I’m waiting and I won’t tell you again.’

John: ‘Give me a break! Why are you always picking on me?’

Member of staff: ‘I’m not picking on you – and don’t answer back – I’m asking you to get on.’

The student and member of staff are becoming emotionally involved in a battle of wills. Both of them are prepared to stand their ground in front of a critical audience (the rest of the class) and argue their way out of the situation. Where is this going? It is certainly going somewhere, but the situation might have been calmed by the member of staff giving John some ‘start-up time’.

Practical Tips
In the situation outlined above, the member of staff still needs to get John on-task and away from the conversation he is having with his classmate. But there is a better way.

Given the brief period of time (of no more than 5-8 seconds) between the member of staff’s instructions and the confrontation, John may well have shown his annoyance at having to curtail his conversation and return to his work. But given the start-up time-delay, the member of staff could have avoided exacerbating the situation.

It is important to think about the non-verbal and verbal messages you are about to deliver to John prior to any verbal comment. Use John’s first name and while moving towards him, remember the importance of personal space, your own height in relation to the seated student and your intonation.

Here is another example:

‘John, you need to stop chatting now and get on with writing up the experiment. Thanks.’

At this point it is important to note that the instruction finished with the word ‘thanks’ (in anticipation of the student complying), and you should move slightly away from the student while speaking.

John may huff and puff, or even begin to argue. Don’t be tempted to hover over him and immediately respond to him. Give the student a brief start-up time. It is all too easy to be hooked into an argument, but by leaving a moment for the student to consider the instructions (even if accompanied with grumbling) you are allowing him to make a positive choice without getting involved in all kinds of secondary behaviour.

Clearly it is inappropriate to continue to use start-up time if it has no effect on the student’s on-task behaviour. However, it is a tactic worth using to reduce conflict and de-escalate problem situations.

If you have used start-up time and the student did finally comply (although it was accompanied by a lot of verbal or non-verbal demonstrating), then do not totally ignore this behaviour. Use the start-up technique, but once the student is back on-task – or at an appropriate moment – return to him, stating clearly that you are pleased he chose to get back to work, but that you cannot allow him to mutter, huff puff and so on. You are not letting him get away with unacceptable behaviour, but you are using a technique that will reduce confrontation, increase on-task behaviour and result in a win-win situation for both of you.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in September 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.