How do you avoid arguments with students? Some students will always answer back, but there are subtle ways of communication that can help you avoid giving them the opportunity, says Dave Stott

When confronting a pupil about their lack of focus, it is important to get them back on track rather than provoke an adverse reaction that can too quickly escalate. Below are several verbal approaches and strategies for a calm return to task.

Teacher: “So, what’s going on here? There seems to be a lot of time being wasted.”

Pupil: “Nothing’s going on – we’re just talking about something.”

Teacher: “Yes, I can see that, you two have always got something to talk about.”

Pupil: “That’s not fair, you’re always picking on me!”

Teacher: “What do you mean, picking on you? With you in the room there’s always something going on.”

Pupil: “Why don’t you tell Katy? She’s always talking and Emma never has her work finished on time.”

Teacher: “I am just about to say something to Katy, but right now it’s you I’m interested in!”

I’m sure there is no need to continue the dialogue, it’s easy to see where this whole discussion is heading, and it most certainly isn’t back to work.

The opening comment made by the teacher was phrased as a question, thus requiring an answer from the pupil. The teacher probably did not want a response from the pupil, but was merely trying to redirect the two talkers back to work. Unfortunately for the teacher, when you ask a question, you are inviting an answer. The ensuing discussion was clearly not what the teacher desired.

Before you know it, the pupil will have misdirected you onto another subject altogether or even shifted the blame for the interruption onto some other unsuspecting pupil. Within seconds you have entered into a discussion or argument in which you are now attempting to “persuade” the pupil to see the problem and to then cajole him or her back on to the task in question.

What you intended to be a short, simple reminder has become a drawn out conversation that now begins to question your observation skills and professional competence which threatens to escalate into confrontation and the use of consequences or sanctions.

It is all too easy to allow this sort of initially low-level intervention, to “push buttons”. You suddenly become aware that your voice is louder than necessary, you are feeling quite hot and that your body language is distinctly tense.

Your style of approach and initial comment or instruction is vital. A passive or hostile style of approach together with a question will almost certainly result in unwanted and potentially threatening dialogue

Practical Tips

Before approaching the pupil or group, make sure that you have calmed yourself down using:

  • slow deep breaths
  • counting (if that works for you)
  • self-reassurance (‘Be calm, no problem, ok it’s only…’)
  • relaxed body language, no tension.

When you do approach the pupil, try to gain their attention by using their first name. Try not to say the name in a negative tone. Be upbeat and end the name with a positive tone. One word (such as a name) can convey annoyance, irritation or negative expectations in the way it is spoken.

It is also a good idea to inwardly rehearse what exactly you are going to say to the pupil. Remember not to begin with a question. Use a clear and direct statement specifying exactly what the pupil should be doing. It is easy to avoid asking a question if you begin with:

“Chris, you need to…..”

Opening with ‘you need to’ means that you have to state what you require of the pupil. If the pupil replies with an excuse as to why they cannot do whatever it is they are expected to be doing, use a clear statement of understanding in a non-threatening tone, together with some non-verbal indicators such as an open palm low down close to the desk or if standing, at about waist height.

A statement of understanding could have various forms such as:

“Yes, I see that, but……”“That’s not the point…….”“Ok, I understand, but….”

“Fair enough, but……”

Your intention of using a statement of understanding is to demonstrate that you are listening to the pupil. Following the statement you must however clearly repeat your original expectation or direction.

“Yes, that’s not the point. You need to put that away and start work right now.”

Use a calm tone of voice and calm body language, a smile will also relieve possible verbal tension, but remember not to use a grin!

If you are still then faced with argument or contradiction, use exactly the same format:

  • self-reassurance
  • statement of understanding
  • clear and specific instruction (This should be the exact same words as previous instruction)
  • finish your instruction with “Thanks” rather than “Please”.

The intention is to convey your exact meaning in a non-threatening fashion, demonstrating to the pupil that you are listening to them and that there is a clear expectation that they will in fact comply (use of the word “thanks”).

This e-bulletin issue was first published in November 2008

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.