We examine how to resolve classroom behavioural problems without inciting further escalation Tactical ignoring

It is all too easy to be “reeled in” to a situation that doesn’t really justify the amount of time you may spend on dealing with it. Equally, many adults don’t give the youngster sufficient time to comply with their request. Invading the student’s personal space, giving your instructions (sometimes louder than is really necessary), and then remaining in the same space, waiting for the student to comply is not the most effective way to deliver instruction. The waiting time is often way too short. Repeating the instruction or request within only a few seconds (again louder than is necessary) will invariably lead to a negative, or at worst, confrontational, response. The expression “in one ear and out of the other” becomes a reality when students are faced with an unending torrent of directions and requests, especially when they feel that they are not being given sufficient time to comply. Even when sufficient time is made available, the adult will focus not just on the primary instruction and subsequent behaviour but will immediately pick up on any unwanted extra, or secondary, behaviour.

For example:

Adult: “John, turn round and get on with your work.”

John may well turn round but his compliance with the instruction is also accompanied by a scowl and muttering under his breath.

Adult: “Don’t you look at me like that young man, and what was that you said?”

The situation can quickly develop into an argument with both the adult and John feeling like they are not being listened to or treated with respect. There was no recognition by the adult that John did actually comply with the instruction. The focus of the continued dialogue is once again on the negative aspects of John’s behaviour. Clearly you cannot totally ignore inappropriate behaviour but you do need to “risk assess” the situation.

  • Does immediately reacting to John’s behaviour make the situation worse?
  • Did John comply with your original request?
  • Do you have any other suitable strategies that you could use to keep the interaction low key and still allow John to comply with your request?

There are certainly more techniques to use in order to achieve the desired end result. Your aim is to achieve compliance with your instructions, together with appropriate associated behaviour. It is, however, your job, as the role model, to allow the student time and be clear about what you expect.

Practical Tips

  • When giving direct instructions keep the following tips in mind:
  • Move in towards the student, using their first name to gain attention.
  • Be aware of personal space and your own body language.
  • Give your instruction or direction as a clear and specific statement of what you require.
  • As you finish giving the instruction your body language should demonstrate that you are now moving away and that there is an expectation that the student will comply.
  • Do not remain in their space waiting for compliance. Remember your body language. Folding your arms, tapping your foot and making direct eye contact will only worsen the situation.
  • Remember, you are prepared to ignore the short time delay it may take for the student to comply.
  • Do not totally ignore non-compliance or allow too long for the student to react. This will simply give the message that you only make threats and do not back up your words.

Moving away from the student, following your instruction, allows you to practice stage two in your technique of tactical ignoring.

  • Be aware of the secondary behaviours that are often linked to reluctant compliance.
  • Make a considered decision as to whether you are prepared to tactically ignore this secondary behaviour at that moment.
  • Be prepared to return to the student once they have complied with your initial instruction and remind them of how you expect them to comply.

For example:

Student complies with instruction as above but still displays a scowl and mutters under his breath. Teacher’s reaction is to move away following the instruction (not far − two or three paces is sufficient) but decides to reward the compliance and return a little later to remind the student of his unwanted behaviour. Thus, tactically ignoring the initial response in order to keep a low-key dialogue together with creating a win-win situation.

Adult: Returns to John, taps the desk saying in a low voice, “Good, well done for getting back on with your work.”

Moves away briefly, ignoring the scowl and muttering, returns when the student is calm. “John, it’s good that you are getting back on with your work, but I can’t let you answer back, giving me bad looks.” You may decide to speak to the student at the end of the lesson, once again reminding him of the inappropriate secondary behaviour.

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This e-bulletin issue was first published in February 2008

About the author: Dave Stott is the author of Behaviour Matters. He has nearly 30 years’ teaching experience including seven years as a headteacher level. He has worked in mainstream, special and Local Authority Behaviour Support Services, and is now a successful consultant and trainer.