Tags: Behaviour management | Classroom Teacher | Continuing Professional Development | Teaching Assistant | Teaching Skills

Sometimes, regardless of how much effort we put into planning, stimulating and rewarding, we will still come across the pupil who is determined to disrupt at all costs. In this instance, conflict is probably unavoidable and will have to be confronted.

So what can we do when all else fails?

  1. It is essential that you are familiar with your own School’s behaviour policy, since this will provide the framework within which any sanctions can be given. It may be useful to have a list of expected behaviours on display in the classroom as a point of reference in moments of confrontation as this draws the conflict into the general arena and stops it being personal between you and the pupil.
  2. Before meting out any ‘punishment,’ consider how appropriate it is to the severity of the offence concerned. Minor misdemeanors (e.g. gum-chewing or paper flicking) don’t warrant the same sanctions as verbal or physical abuse. Decide upon a scale of sanctions with which you are comfortable, keeping the more severe punishments in reserve as your ultimate fall back position. If you have this clear in your mind then you will be able to respond to conflict in a controlled manner.

For instance, if you shout and immediately dish out detention to the pupil who refuses to pick up a crisp packet the pupil may feel the punishment to be unjust and react negatively, perhaps becoming aggressive or even abusive. The minor offence has escalated into something far more serious and you now have to deal with the issue of the crisp packet and the verbal abuse. Even in a situation where you are forced to punish a pupil, it is still better to work on diffusing the conflict, thus avoiding a full-on confrontation.

So how can you do this? You have asked the pupil to pick up the crisp packet and they have refused. First warn the pupil that the issue is now one of disobeying instructions, rather than about a crisp packet and that, in line with School Policy you will be forced to punish them if they continue to ignore you. It can help to walk away briefly at this point and by giving a warning, the pupil still has the option to back down. If, however, they disregard the warning then a head to head collision is imminent and the miscreant has the whole class as an audience.

It is crucial at this point to take the conflict out of the public arena as soon as possible and to move the situation on from your deadlocked positions. Defer the resolution until a moment when you can talk to the pupil in private.

In the example above, I would give the pupil one final chance to pick up the crisp packet with the warning that if they didn’t, they would be spending break picking up litter with me. Psychologically this seems to provide the pupil with a choice and, therefore, the responsibility for the outcome. If they still chose not to comply I would actually throw the crisp packet in the bin myself so that, like a trophy, it would be not be on display for the remainder of the lesson. It is important that the pupil is not seen to ‘get one over on you’ in front of his or her peers, there-fore I would make it clear to the class that I would be dealing with the matter later.

Having handed out a sanction, you must be prepared to deliver it or your warnings will be regarded as empty and will carry no weight with the pupils. If you threaten to contact a child’s parent to discuss their behaviour, then be sure to make that phone call as soon after the incident as possible and that the sanction is meaningful. The traditional punishment of writing lines serves little purpose, whereas picking up litter or writing a letter of apology does.

If, of course, you have tried all the above and still find yourself in a situation where a pupil is being verbally abusive or physically threatening to yourself or any of their peers, then you will have to fall back on your ultimate sanction. This usually takes the form of having them removed from the classroom by a senior member of staff. Requesting backup in this way would usually be used in cases of emergency where there may be a danger to yourself or class members or where there is the potential for the miscreant to spark mass insurrection. As such, it should not be deemed by the teacher as a failure, but as possibly the only means of averting a serious situation from developing.

Finally, remember that whatever the severity of the offence, you must always punish the behaviour, not the pupil themselves. It is vital to make this clear to miscreants in an attempt to appeal to their better nature. For example, you could even go so far as to point out how surprised you are that such a likeable person could be behaving in such a manner. At the end of the day, you will have to meet this pupil regularly for the remainder of the school year and there-fore it is important to maintain some kind of positive relationship with them.

In conclusion, the whole subject of class-room conflict cannot simply be dealt with by following a fixed set of rules.It is as complex as the number of individual teachers and pupils involved in each confrontation. To a certain extent therefore, the school behaviour policy and the suggestions above can only provide a framework for class-room management. The final response is down to your innate sense of which approach works well with each pupil with-in that given framework.This ‘intuitive discipline’ is something which builds with experience. So don’t be too disheartened if you’re currently experiencing some difficult classroom scenarios. Just remember that even the most seasoned disciplinarians have probably experienced similar situations in their time. It is only through trial and error that you will build your own confidence and effectiveness and therefore you shouldn’t give up. Good luck.

Recommended reading: ‘Getting the buggers to behave 2’

Useful Website for supply teach-ers: www.teachernet.gov.uk (select Supply Teacher option)

Nicola Fahey began her career as Head of Spanish in an outer London comprehensive. She then spent 8 years as a Management Development Trainer and Change Consultant with BT. Nicola has returned to teaching and is currently employed at a pupil referral unit where she deals specifically with pupils who have severe behavioural, psychological or physical difficulties.

This article first appeared in Teaching Expertise, July 2004.

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