Behaviour Matters provides practical tips for saying what you mean, and meaning what you say

Perhaps a fuller title for this article should be: ‘Say what you mean, and mean what you say!’

All too often we tend to become passive-reactive in our approaches to managing challenging behaviour. The temptation to say the first thing that comes to mind can easily overcome all our training and better judgement. You can probably recall an occasion when you or a colleague told a confrontational pupil who failed to comply with your instruction, to:

‘See me at break time, at the staff room, and don’t you forget!’

All seems fine when you give the instruction. You have demonstrated to the pupil that you are not to be ignored, that you are prepared to take action. Not only have you given the message to the offending pupil, but you also feel you have given a clear indication to all his or her peers (who were obviously listening and waiting to see what you were prepared to do), that you are quite prepared to act and deal with failure to comply.

Unfortunately, and all too frequently, your supposedly good example of managing difficult behaviour can backfire on you.

The typical scenario that follows is that the pupil does indeed come to the staffroom at break time. You have meanwhile forgotten about the incident, or have become involved in yet another ‘must do’ job; and when the knock on the door is for you, there is a strong temptation to say:

‘Right, well, I haven’t time to deal with you just now, I’m busy (having my break, drinking coffee, on the phone, etc), so go away and don’t let me catch you doing that again!’

The actual message the pupil receives is that you do not mean what you say. The original instruction to come to the staff room and be dealt with becomes simply a threat. You have implied that you will take some action… but you are really not going to carry it out. The message will soon get back to both the pupil and his or her classmates. The end result will often be that they are prepared to push you further next time, simply to see where your boundaries actually lie.

Practical Tips
Saying what you mean and meaning what you say can be broken down into two very clear stages.

Saying what you mean requires, first of all, that you think about what you are going to say before saying it, so that you are not simply reacting in the heat of the moment, but taking authority in a deliberate way. Next, how you say it involves not only the verbal delivery of your instruction, message or direction – ie, well-chosen words – but also the accompanying appropriate non-verbal language. This requires a calm and planned approach. Consider the following methods:

  • Self-calming techniques, including self-talk, calm breathing, and calm body language.
  • Be prepared to ‘Stop and think’ before you react.
  • Practise risk-assessment techniques. Once these are part of your natural response system you will be able to react very quickly, considering the antecedent, behaviour and likely consequence of your actions.
  • Be aware of your verbal language: not just content, but voice tone, volume, pitch and speed.
  • Be prepared to slow your speed of delivery rather than appearing to rush into a statement that you may later regret!

The second stage, ‘meaning what you say’, is clearly linked to the first. It is only possible to actually mean what you say if you have given sufficient consideration to your comments. To make this simpler for all concerned, you should have a very clear and consistent behaviour plan or policy in operation within the school, and a refined version that applies within your teaching area. Your responses should then be determined by a clear and structured plan with which everyone is familiar.

When a pupil begins to test your responses, obviously trying to see how far he or she can go with their challenging behaviour, it is far easier if you can refer to an agreed hierarchy of responses. This takes away the likelihood of you making a statement or threat that you are not going to back up with action. In such a situation you will have the ‘protection’ of knowing how to risk-assess the situation, taking into account the likely outcomes, while having a structure to refer to. The outcome of this will be that your responses are measured and pre-planned.

Managing difficult or challenging behaviour should not be an off-the-cuff response. More often than not, your immediate response will not calm the situation. So take some time to risk-assess, consider your options, use self-calming strategies, refer to your behaviour plan and hierarchy of responses and deliver your instruction or message using a clear, controlled tone of voice.

Avoid the unthinking, passive or hostile response. Try not to say anything that you are not prepared to carry out or put into action, especially when managing a pupil who is prepared to test your ability. Once you get into the habit of being careful to say only what you mean, your pupils – and everyone else – will know that you really do mean what you say.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in June 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.