Defiant behaviour is often a cry for help or an attempt to cover a fear of failure. Nobody wants to look stupid in front of others (except those in the audition stages of the X-Factor) and arguing against authority can be an effective distraction and a way of avoiding looking foolish. Being sensitive to your students’ needs and the reasons behind their behaviour, rather than assuming they are being belligerent, makes it less likely you will do or say something that will only aggravate the situation and make matters worse. Remember also that their behaviour is most probably not aimed at you so try not to appear to take it personally.
Offering support to your students is a very positive and totally non-confrontational first response and is, therefore, one of the best ways to deal with a student who is digging themselves into a deep hole. This classroom management strategy will also strengthen the staff/student relationship.
‘I can see you’ve made a start but do you need me to explain that bit again for you? Would it help if I let you start on one of the other questions first?
‘Do you need to get a drink or some fresh air?’
‘I can see you’re getting angry about this, why don’t you go and sit over there quietly for a few minutes and then let me know when you need some help?’
‘Is there anything I can do that will make this easier for you?’
Asking students for help catches them completely off guard, immediately changes their negative state and can, more than any other technique I’ve tried, disarm the angriest of teenagers and get them on side.
I think we all, on some deep level, like to feel ‘needed’ and this is the easiest way of tapping into this primitive human trait.
“Jonny, I know you’re very good with technical equipment – can you help me set up the AV suite, please? We can talk about your homework after that.”
“Jonny, I’ve got a bit of a problem. My son is really struggling with one of his teachers at school. You remind me of him and I’m impressed with the way you have managed to turn yourself around over the last few months. Can you give me some advice to pass on to him?”
“Jonny I could do with your help here. I don’t want to be on your case all the time – what do you suggest we do?”
Our most challenging students often have leadership qualities (the ring leaders) and are in desperate need of attention. Meet this need on your terms by giving them a responsibility of some kind - a job, an errand or being in charge of some equipment. This particular classroom management strategy can have remarkable (and very fast) results.
Some students will try to escalate an incident in front of their peers. If possible, speak to the student privately or redirect them to deal with the problem later.
“Let’s not talk about it here – it could be embarrassing for both of us. Come and see me at lunchtime so that you can tell me everything that’s bothering you – and come early so that you still get your break.”
Any form of distraction such as asking them an off-topic question or diverting them towards a new activity/scene can switch their attention, take the heat out of a situation and provide the necessary change in state.
Quite innocently I once responded to a very irate, tantrum-throwing teenage boy with the question ‘what colour are your socks?’. His change in state was immediate and the expression on his face changed from wild-eyed fury to utter bewilderment in a trice as he stood, puzzled, looking at me. His mood was transformed and we both fell about laughing. ‘What colour are your socks?’ (or an equally random question) is now my standard response to anyone displaying a hissy-fit.
Another de-escalation strategy is simply not to react; say nothing and just look at them. Ignore their socks altogether.
Silence is very powerful at times like this. The student wants a response and by meeting them with an impassive look and total silence you clearly convey that you are in total control and will not be drawn into an argument. One of the greatest ways to deal with someone who wants an argument and get them to stop and think and reflect on their behaviour is to deny them a reaction of any kind. Top tip: stay calm. It’s key to making this classroom management strategy an ultimate success.
Tasks pitched to their interests and ability level allow students to experience success and raise their self-esteem. If fear of failing at a task in front of peers is driving their negative behaviour they need sufficient opportunity to succeed and experience ‘a-ha!’ moments to improve their attitude. It’s difficult to feel fed up when you feel a sense of success and achievement.
It’s easy to continually focus on negative behaviour when dealing with particularly challenging students but the quickest way to make lasting positive changes to their behaviour is always with positive comments. When was the last time you did something to please someone who was constantly nagging you?
If they make a slight improvement, be quick to jump on it and ‘catch them being good’. Tell them specifically what they have done and why you are so pleased with them.
Positive relationships between peers need to be established and continually developed if students’ negative attitudes towards school/college are to be addressed. All students (particularly those who are opting out) need to be made to feel welcome and part of the classroom community. Peer relationships can be strengthened through regular team building activities and cooperative group work. You can find lots more advice on how to build a community in your classroom in two of my books:
Connect with Your Students
The Cooperative and Active Learning Tool Kit
Both are available on Amazon.
Move them to an isolated seat.
Take time off them at break/after school.
Notify them of a letter/phone call home.
‘Park’ them in another class.
Send them to senior staff.
When moving through consequences, give a fair warning to remind them of the consequences of their actions if they continue. And try to give them ‘take up time’ to follow your instructions rather than standing over them expecting immediate compliance. With audience pressure, that’s a tall order.
“Jonny this is the third and final time I’m going to ask you to sit down. You’ve had your warnings and you know what happens next. It’s your choice.”
“Jonny if you don’t make a start now you’ll be… (insert consequence of choice). Is that really what you want? I’m going to go and help Hammad and I’ll be back over in 2 minutes. I’ll expect to see that you’ve completed that first question by the time I return; if you don’t you’ll be back in at break. It’s your choice.”