It’s widely recognised that our thoughts, perceptions and emotions drive our behaviour. So how can we learn to stay in control when students are challenging our authority?

Faced with a confrontation, it is widely accepted that we have an inbuilt, automatic response mechanism – the old ‘fight or flight’ scenario. Whether the confrontation is real or perceived, the response system is there to protect us. However, for adults working with pupils in an educational setting, whether it be the classroom, the dining room or an outside space, an uncontrolled fight or flight response is unlikely to be appropriate! Challenging authority or ‘pushing buttons’ has long been the chosen activity of many students and to only have the automatic fight or flight response both limits your chances of successfully managing a situation and demonstrates a poor role model to the student.

Trying deep breathing or counting to 10 are strategies which you may find useful when combined with a range of techniques. On their own they are seldom a reliable means of avoiding the ‘emotional hijack’ – being suddenly wrongfooted by a student’s challenging behaviour. It is all too easy when faced with a challenging situation to be affected by your own thoughts and perceptions of that situation. Coupled to that is the effect of what has happened to you already during the day. Emotional baggage which you have brought with you from home, your stressful journey to work or even incidents that took place during the previous lesson will all have an impact on the way you respond. Examples of a lack of control can include changes in your non-verbal communication and inappropriate verbal language. A louder than normal voice, the use of threats, invading personal space or even giving up can all escalate a situation and will certainly lead to you being pulled into the emotional hijack.

Practical tips
When faced with a situation that challenges or threatens you, consider the following:

1. Recognise the problem and be aware of your own trigger points. Consider a brief pause before reacting in order to both compose both your thoughts and your body language (remember that more than 80% of all communication is non-verbal). Taking a brief moment to decide what you are going to say or do and quickly rehearsing your response will help you to maintain control.

2. Your reaction will also be determined by how you feel (thoughts and feelings drive actions). It is important to create a working environment in which you feel confident, comfortable and supported. Under normal circumstances, do you feel in control and generally relaxed in your workplace? Is there an atmosphere of professional support? If these thoughts are running through your mind when trying to manage a difficult situation, it’s probably too late! Spend time proactively creating your teaching and learning environment.

3. What self-calming techniques have you developed? a) deep breathing? b) counting to five/10 (not down to zero and then blast off!)? c) a sideways glance with brief eye contact with another adult (this can often reduce the tension)?d) self-talk?e) seeing the bigger picture (is it really necessary to get involved in the problem)?

f) planning your response?

4. Body language can calm both you and the student. Consider standing with your hands together, unclenched, in front and with palms facing downwards. Do you stand face to face or slightly side on? Is your weight on your front foot (leaning in) or back foot? This positioning should become part of your ‘muscle memory’ and should automatically occur when you are faced with a confrontation or stressful situation. The action will calm you down and help you maintain confidence, while also demonstrating a good example to the student.

5. Any verbal response should be carefully scripted. Don’t ask a question, thereby opening up a dialogue. Consider both the volume and the tone of your voice. Two individuals in a conversation will often ‘voice match’ each other, ie if you are loud and angry, then expect the student to match you. Give a clear and precise instruction or statement and remember that you must be prepared to act on anything you say. Students quickly recognise threats, and will push you even further to see how far they (and you!) can go.

In any confrontational situation, remember that the first person who needs to calm down is you. It is also worth considering the involvement of other adults in a situation. It could be you who is inflaming the problem. Don’t labour under the misconception that you have to sort the problem out on your own. Be prepared, and have a system whereby it would be possible to call for assistance and involve another adult.

No matter how well prepared you are, when confronted or threatened, the same fight/flight or hostile/passive feelings will still occur. The important issue is how you manage those feelings.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in November 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.