When we have a room of 25+ students, we want to create a learning environment that is conducive to all students and this often means that we cater to our already engaged, focused learners, or at the very least, our compliant learners.
So what happens to our students with often "disruptive" or "challenging" behaviours if we're unable to "manage" them? We send them to the office, which seems, in many cases, the ultimate punishment for inappropriate behaviour.
Although I understand this inclination and the occasional necessity for relying on our admin for this level of support, we risk creating an environment that feels unsupportive and unsafe to our reluctant learners. We sever a tie that was already hanging by a thread, and the odds of rebuilding and repairing that relationship becomes near impossible, which paves the way for ongoing behaviour challenges and repeated calls to admin.
So what do we do instead?
Here are 5 things to do before you resort to calling admin!
1. Pick your battles
I know this seems obvious - it is! However, when we first look at our class lists at the start of the year, how many of us scan the list and see which names we recognize? Some are students we've had before, but some names we recognize because they're "that kid" in our school. So we come into our first day of class already prepared for battle, prepared for the horror stories we've heard from our colleagues.
When we pick our battles, we have to do this every day, from jump street. Determine where you need to draw the line, vs. where you're standing your ground due to fear of the student "taking advantage of you."
Do you normally not allow food in your class and this student arrives after lunch every day with a Mr.Noodle's bowl, and sit down to noisily slurp their soup? Instead of demanding they throw the soup away, or sending them to the office, try gently reminding them of the class rule, explain why it's a rule (so it doesn't seem arbitrary and unreasonable), and politely ask the student to finish their soup outside in the hallway before coming back in. It's about compromise, not demanding compliance. Chances are once relationship is built the student will begin to respect your classroom rules and follow them.
2. Find the humour
Our students are funny! Even when they're being non-compliant, not listening, and being generally disruptive, these situations are often littered with humour!
My compliant classes are also often my most boring - not because the students are boring, but there are fewer opportunities for meaningful connection and for there to be group laughter. Laughing together as a class, including all of your learners in this experience, will help solidify your class culture and connectedness!
Find the humour, highlight the humour, laugh at yourself, and model that students can laugh with you! Model that students can also laugh at themselves! Once the stakes seem a little less dire, students will quickly begin to appreciate the times when you are taking something very seriously - because they know you can have a sense of humour, too.
3. Ask yourself these questions before responding
A) Where is the "fight" coming from?
Why do you think the student feels so passionately about this particular situation? We want to breed passion in our students, so is there a way to honour this student's passion without shaming, disciplining, or belittling them?
B) Who stands to gain more from "winning" this argument?
Often times the stakes for winning an argument are much higher for students than for the teacher. If you build your class on mutual respect and appreciation, it won't matter if you have a few students who struggle to behave respectfully - it won't sway your other students' engagement.
However, consider the stakes for the non-compliant student. If they "lose" this argument against their teacher, they have effectively lost face to all of their peers. What stakes are higher in high school?! As a healthy adult, if you can ask yourself the importance of this argument. Is there a way you can let this slide, address it privately in a calm, patient manner, and allow the student the opportunity to feel like an equal? If you're able to do this, the student will feel less of a need to challenge your authority to begin with.
C) Where's the relationship?
If a student is arguing with you about something you feel is trivial, or if they're being non-compliant or disruptive, consider whether or not you have a relationship with this student. Chances are, if you're experiencing behaviours like this, you do not have a relationship, or your relationship needs work.
How can you turn this challenging situation into a relationship builder? Do you have something in common? Do you know the student's older sibling? Some of the best relationships I have ever had the privilege of building started on a contentious note - use it to your advantage. Be the "cool teacher" who sees the disruption for what it is - desire for connection.
4. Give options rather than commands
If you're needing a student's engagement, or at least compliance, in order to move onto another activity, try offering the student some options for engagement, rather than directives or commands.
For instance, asking a student to give you another 5 minutes of quiet attention before then allowing the student to go for a walk, is typically a choice the student will want to make!
There seems to be this fear in education that if I "allow that student to do *insert action here* I will suddenly have anarchy and all students will want this privilege." I have never found this to be the case. Students are intelligent and they know that what works for one doesn't work for all. They understand teacher flexibility is not the same as teacher favouritism.
Consider allowing the student to choose between listening to music while they do their work, or sitting in the hallway. Make it about their learning, not the learning of everyone else. All that does is makes them feel like their experience matters less than their peers. If you send a student to the hall, let them know it's so that they can focus and work, not so their peers can. If that doesn't work, allow them other options to choose from! Some may not be appealing options, but then at least the student was given the autonomy to choose!
5. Ask "What do you need," rather than "What do I need"
When we tell students to sit down, be quiet, and comply, often this is because this is what we need to move onto the next part of the lesson. But what does the student need?
Behaviour is communication. It is giving you valuable insight into the lives of your students and the challenges they face. Once you can see it as another tool they've learned to use to communicate, it no longer feels personal.
A student responds the way they do because it has worked to have their needs met before! Which need are they trying to meet and are you able to demonstrate a new tactic for having that need met? This is an incredible opportunity for skills development work!
If this is too much for you to take on, try asking the student if they'd be willing to see the school counselor. Come at it from a place of concern, rather than discipline. If they're unable to build relationship with you for whatever reason, allow them another adult in the building they can connect to and feel supported from. Odds are they will respect you more and you'll see less of the undesirable behaviour in your classroom in the future.
Have you tried these strategies before? Which ones do you find the most helpful? If you have some not listed here, email me and I'll add them to the list!
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