The Easter break from school and the change of circumstances can mean, for many students, problems in settling back in to the expectations of the classroom. Dave Stott takes a close look at teaching techniques to reduce the incidence of answering back and arguing

We are all completely familiar with the sometimes strange changes which come over all of us when we find ourselves in different surroundings. As emotionally literate adults we are confident in our ability to adjust our behaviours to fit with the environment in which we find ourselves. If you spend a couple of minutes reviewing how you would describe your behaviour in a variety of situations you will soon understand the point. For instance, describe your own behaviour in the following situations:

  1. At work.
  2. At home.
  3. With friends at a party.
  4. At a job interview.
  5. When stopped by a police officer while driving.

It is unlikely that the descriptions of your behaviour for the above will be identical in all five scenarios. Much more likely is that you will have been able to reflect and remember appropriate behaviour and then readjust to each situation. From previous experiences, taught behaviour and reinforcement, you will have a clear vision of how to conduct yourself in all of the scenarios, and have the skills to put that into practice.

A two-week break from the routines in school can cause major problems for students who find it difficult to readjust their behaviour to their current environment. The Easter break will have presented many students with the opportunity to mix with friends, spend more time with parents and their extended families and, in some cases, forget the routines and expectations of the classroom. They can find it difficult to modify their own holiday behaviour, which has been fine with friends, to that expected by school staff.

Arguing, answering back, muttered comments and wanting the last word are all behaviours that can both exasperate and annoy. When faced with these types of problems, it is important that staff have clear and well rehearsed strategies to prevent this sometimes out of character behaviour escalating into a major difficulty. The following practical tips are probably very familiar to you; however, after your own two-week break it is worthwhile reviewing the strategies to ensure they are part of the ‘muscle memory’ of your teaching techniques. In other words they should be strategies, actions and techniques which you have practised so often they have become your natural responses to the student who is arguing or answering back.

Practical Tips
Rather than trying to describe a situation that may have arisen in the classroom and how to deal with that situation, here is a list of techniques and strategies you may want to use to check against your own responses. The checklist of response techniques can be applied to a wide range of scenarios, from the off-task student in a class group who is bothering his/her neighbours, right through to the student who is fronting you up on a one-to-one basis.

  1. Remember, the first person who needs to calm down in a situation is you! Review your own self-calming techniques: self-talk; counting; slow, deep breathing; seeing the big picture; stance; and body language.
  2. Try to attract the attention of the student. Be aware of your language, tone of voice, volume and so on. Don’t demand eye contact.
  3. Move in to the student. Consider speed of approach and personal space, and stand slightly side-on with your weight on your back foot (ie don’t lean in).
  4. Give a clear and specific instruction to the student: ‘Susan, you need to stop disturbing Jackie and begin your own work. Thanks.’ Don’t ask a question or use threats. Notice the use of the word ‘thanks,’ indicating that you expect compliance. Saying ‘please’ can be interpreted as a passive instruction.
  5. If the student argues back, use a statement of understanding such as ‘Yes, I see that,’ or ‘OK, that’s fair enough.’ Now refocus the student on your original instruction: ‘Yes, I see that, but stop bothering Jackie and start your work now.’
  6. The final refocus should be given as you are moving away from the student, again giving the expectation that they are going to follow your instruction.
  7. Don’t get drawn into the argument, don’t use personal comments and don’t use threats. Remind the student that it is their choice and of the next level of your response, ie the behaviour policy hierarchy in place in your classroom.

For students who find it difficult to follow your directions, in spite of you using all of the above, it will be necessary to meet with them on a one-to-one basis to discuss the problem and to jointly arrive at some possible solutions. For many students, answering back is simply a case of them not being able to modify their behaviour from what they have become familiar with in non-school situations. Maintain your calm and use the checklist above to avoid being drawn into the argument and to reinforce the appropriate behaviour you expect from the student.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in April 2010

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.