This issue of Behaviour Matters explores situations when disruptive pupils direct negative or abusive personal comments at you, the teacher, and the different ways there are to deal with them


Even though the new school year is only a few weeks old, there will have undoubtedly been numerous incidents of personal comments being offered around the classroom. Some of these comments will hopefully have been used in a positive fashion: rewarding effort, achievement and appropriate behaviour.

Unfortunately, there will also have been incidents where personal comments have been made of a less than helpful nature – sometimes directed at you, the teacher. Direct, loud, and often hurtful, these comments can be the source of negative confrontation and can undermine self-esteem and confidence, as well as your authority over the class.

These remarks, however, are not always made for all to hear. They are sometimes made as a quiet aside; a muttered retort to a request or instruction, or perhaps a personal comment made about a member of staff, almost out of their earshot.

As the role model of appropriate behaviour, it is vital that you do not become drawn into this ‘tit-for-tat’ type of conversation. While these types of personal comments can have an immediate escalatory effect on any interaction between adult and pupil, they can also form the basis of long-term ill feeling and a complete breakdown in relationships. Your responses to negative personal comments should be calm, considered and measured. Avoid the temptation to reply with an equally personal comment, which would be simply joining in with the inappropriate behaviour. Sometimes, what can be even worse than ‘joining in’ is to make a request for the pupil to explain what they mean by their comments, for example:

‘What did you just say?’ or

‘How dare you speak to me like that?’

A ‘head on’ style of confrontation from the adult in the classroom may possibly stop the personal comments in the short term, but will almost certainly lead to an increase in the number and type of comments, as well as with leaving all parties feeling frustrated, annoyed and emotionally hurt.

The other extreme, of course, would be to simply ignore the comments. However, the underlying message of this tactic – to all your pupils – would be that either:

a) You are condoning the use of these personal comments in the classroom; or,
b) You do not know how to deal with them.

Either way, you are missing the opportunity to demonstrate appropriate responses to negative personal comments in the classroom.

Practical tips
Practical tip number one has to be:

1. Avoid the temptation to make an immediate reply to any personal comments directed at you.

The chances are you will be feeling any of the following:

a) annoyedb) professionally or personally challengedc) hurtd) ready to get your own back

e) tempted to respond with a range of equally personally directed comments (which are likely to escalate the situation).

Your first action should always be internalised. Develop your skills at recognising the key warning signs that your emotions are giving you, and then use a range of self-calming techniques to manage those feelings.

As you gain experience and skill at managing your own emotions, you will learn to immediately and quietly assess an arising situation.

a) Is the comment really directed at you?b) By making an immediate response, will you make the situation worse?c) In the whole scheme of things, is the comment really that important?

d) Remember and consider the difficulties this particular pupil has in keeping his/her own feelings under control.

Obviously, personal comments that are directed at you and that have been clearly heard by all need to be addressed. In your response, try to focus on what the pupil should be doing and not on the negative behaviour:

‘Come on, Mark, you need to stop talking and get back on with your work, thanks.’

Using the word ‘thanks’ as you begin to move away gives a clear indication that you expect Mark to comply. Try not to use ‘please’, as this tends to emphasise a passive or pleading style of management.

Pupils who constantly disrupt the class by using personal comments should not go unchecked. Make a mental note to speak to the pupil at a time later, when you are calm – you should by then have a clear, planned approach and you will be out of sight and earshot of the pupil’s classmates.

Unpleasant personal comments made by pupils and directed at you can quickly undermine your confidence and/or promote strong emotional reactions. As with all other issues related to behaviour management in the teaching and learning environment, remember that you are the role model; your comments and your behaviour are critical in developing relationships, as well as providing an emotionally literate environment where staff and pupils are motivated to recognise and handle their feelings appropriately.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in September 2008

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