Taking issues with pupils personally can lead to difficulties. This e-bulletin looks at how you can become more proactive and stand back to see the full picture

From time to time situations develop or comments are made which seem to touch a nerve. However, an emotional response is not your best course of action. Many pupils who are described as ‘difficult’ or ‘challenging’ spend a great deal of time working out the best buttons to press to promote the emotional response, and some pupils may just hit on it at random. The danger is not necessarily the challenging pupil, but how you manage your response.

Managing situations off the cuff may be successful some of the time, but it is a risky technique and one which sooner or later will lead to you taking the comments made too personally. Your techniques and strategies must enable you to stand back and see the bigger picture. Using your knowledge of the pupil or the situation, you can then depersonalise the comments and respond in such a manner that the focus is on the behaviour chosen by the pupil rather than the emotional upset which may be intended.

Responses such as ‘What exactly do you mean by that?’ or ‘What did you just say?’ not only give the pupil the opportunity to repeat the unwanted comment, but will also lead you into a dialogue or argument that you most certainly do not want!

You don’t even need to make a verbal response to show the pupil that they have managed to hit the spot. Facial expression and passive or hostile behaviour patterns can also highlight your vulnerability. Once the pupil has detected that you are being sucked into the scenario, they are likely to move up a gear, or even worse involve other pupils in their plan. At this stage things can only deteriorate and you are left with a feeling of frustration, anger and a worrying dent in your professional and personal morale.

Practical Tips

A tip that has been constantly reinforced in previous articles is equally strong and effective in avoiding the over-personal involvement. Remember that you are the role model in the teaching and learning environment. You are in the lead position not only in teaching appropriate emotional responses, but also in practising them.

If that overall reminder is sometimes forgotten in the heat of the moment and you feel yourself being pulled into a situation that really should not go any further:

  1. Stand back either physically or emotionally. Try to see the situation from another point of view. What advice would you give a colleague in such a situation?
  2. Ask yourself whether, in the greater scheme of things, it is really worth getting involved in something that really should be seen as trivial and not worth reacting to.

Once you have quickly thought through the two points above, what practical course of action do you have to avoid the personal involvement route?

When presented with a pupil who is arguing or making personal comments, don’t respond with a question such as ‘How dare you?’ or ‘What have I told you about…..?’

Instead of the question response, begin with a statement of understanding, such as: ‘Yes, OK, but that is not the point’ or ‘I hear what you’re saying, but that is not the issue.’

Following such a response, you must focus on what you actually want the pupil to be doing. In other words, focus on appropriate behaviour — don’t get caught up in an argument about inappropriate and unwanted behaviour.

Another well-used tip is to have a planned approach when managing a potentially personal situation.

  1. Calm yourself down before becoming involved. Use positive comments to pupils who are on task or not involved in the confrontation.
  2. Use calm verbal and non-verbal signals. Think about facial expression and hand positions.
  3. Think about the situation/pupil using a risk-assessment approach. What do you know about the pupil? What have previous confrontations led to? What worked or didn’t work previously?
  4. Consider the potential challenge in relation to ‘the greater scheme of things’. Remember this is one pupil in one teaching situation in front of an audience who are all waiting to see what your response will be.

The controlled or planned approach enables you to become more proactive in your management style, gives you the time to think things through, and finally gives you the opportunity to use and role-model the social and emotional skills that your pupils may learn in a formal teaching situation.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in June 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.