Arguments with pupils can escalate quickly, so Dave Stott gives tips on how to defuse or control arguments with students, before they become out of control and cause permanent behavior problems

It is so easy to be drawn into the counter-productive argument situation. This article looks at some proactive techniques for avoiding an argument in the first place, and for defusing an escalating battle of words should one begin.

Two dictionary definitions of an argument:

  1. ‘An exchange of diverging or opposite views, often heated or angry.’
  2. ‘A reason or set of reasons given with the aim of persuading others that an action or idea is right or wrong.’

It seems that the school or classroom environment is sometimes the perfect place to practice!

Pupils who are keen to assert themselves and their ideas can easily become embroiled in power struggles with their peers and adults in the school. Failing to comply with instructions, avoidance of work and simple awkwardness (often interpreted as winding someone up) are all classic opportunities for arguments to develop.

Negative or disruptive responses to simple instructions and requests can be the trigger for even the most placid and even-tempered characters. If a comment is seen as a threat, personal insult or challenge, the ensuing emotional response is often reproduced in outward behavior, ie. the start of the argument. The result of such a situation is at worst an escalation of verbal sparring and there is a perceived loser and winner. Many adults, in their roles as parents and teachers, will no doubt agree that you cannot win an argument with a young person – so why do we try?

Let’s stand back for a moment and look at the actions, behavior and emotions that an argument can produce:

  • threats
  • aggression
  • comments of a personal nature
  • Invasion of personal space
  • opposition
  • rise in body temperature
  • tension
  • shouting
  • revenge
  • dislike
  • frustration
  • anger.

How many of the above descriptors do you want to promote in your teaching and learning environment? Hopefully your answer will be: ‘None of those!’

The above list may be replaced by descriptors, such as:

  • understanding
  • listening
  • calmness
  • agreement
  • resolution
  • appreciation
  • assistance
  • contentment
  • safety
  • empathy.

The difficulty we face as adults working with young people, who are developing their own views and individuality, is how can we provide an environment that encourages challenge, questioning and instruction without causing detrimental behavior problems? We need to possess skills and an understanding of the need to be teachers and role models in all our interactions with pupils.

Practical Tips

As has been noted many times in these behavior e-bulletins, when faced with a potentially difficult situation the first person who needs to calm down and think rationally is you! Revise some of the self-calming techniques you have used previously. If you find yourself faced with managing a potentially argumentative situation and you already appear frustrated, tense or angry, chances are that the argument will develop. Try to avoid behavior that includes:

  • showing signs of exasperation, such as looking skywards, shaking your head and tutting
  • displays of overconfidence, such as grinning, hands in pockets, gesticulating
  • taking comments personally
  • looking for support from the pupils and peers (a sympathy vote).

Just as you will be attempting to ‘read’ the pupils’ non-verbal language, so they will be doing the same to you. For some pupils, even the slightest sign that they are having an effect on you will spur them on to even greater attempts to argue.

Try to avoid the strong temptation to make counter-statements to what is being said to you – this will simply escalate the strength and type of comments.

Another classic argument tactic used by pupils is to distract you from the primary concern. Before you know it, five other pupils could now be involved in the story, or it was all someone else’s fault, and you have now completely lost the thread of the original conversation or instruction!

When confronted with a possible argument, be aware of your body language and try to adopt a calm stance or seated position. Try not to use your hands in an open palm facing upwards position. Work on a stance which reduces tension and demonstrates that you are prepared to listen. Standing slightly sideways, with both hands open and together in front of you, and with your weight on your back foot, should help you to feel calm.

Use phrases such as:

  • ‘Yes, I see what you are saying.’
  • ‘OK, that may be the case.’

After each phrase, you then need to focus back on the subject rather, than being distracted by comments.

Try to avoid comments that may be interpreted as patronizing, and constantly assess how the conversation is going. Rather than risk further conflict, be prepared to break away from the dialogue, to return when you are both calmer.

Remember, don’t take matters too personally. In the bigger scheme of things, is it worth the damage to adult and pupil relationships to continue or escalate the argument?

This e-bulletin issue was first published in April 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 Behavior Support Services, and is now a writer, consultant and trainer.