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It’s Behind You! – How To Deal With Bad Behaviour You Can’t See

Howls of laughter as you turn your back – you know something happened, but what? Who did it? How do you stop this pantomime of bad behaviour, asks Paul Dix...

  • It’s Behind You! – How To Deal With Bad Behaviour You Can’t See

You held your nerve, and your temper. Throughout that intervention with Ryan you reminded him of his previous good behaviour and told him to stay behind at break without an explosive reaction. As you stand up and turn away, you give yourself a little inner cheer – your calm rational response was commendable, you are a legend of behaviour management.

But as you take one step away, the entire class erupts with gasps of pleasure, howls of joy and even some whoops of awe. You immediately recognise the signs of a secondary behaviour. Even though you haven’t seen what Ryan has done, you have a pretty good idea that it was a commonly used ‘hand signal’ or perhaps the exaggerated mouthing of a bad word.

As the spotlight focuses sharply on you, every child stares waiting for your next move. So what will you do next…?

A – Make a scene
Spin round and deal with the behaviour immediately.

B – Audience participation
Find out what Jack did and who shouted encouragement.

C – Play the fool
Keep walking and pick up your tab later on

A – ‘Oh no it isn’t’

As you snap back round you are surprised by the ferocity of your own reaction. In a heartbeat you have gone from calm, rational and consistent teacher to raging bull, and now find yourself towering over a 9-year-old child on the far edge of your temper. Ryan immediately cracks and the tears begin to pour. You turn to face his sympathisers with equal venom.

There is absolute, awkward silence until breaktime, when you gently call Ryan aside as he is walking out to the playground. He explodes. “It wasn’t me… I didn’t… you never… not fair… can’t believe… bang out of order…”. You begin to argue, but a howl of protest suddenly erupts from other children. It soon becomes clear that you have called it wrong.

There was no secondary behaviour from Ryan. Blame lies elsewhere. Behind the mob there is one child who is waiting to speak to you alone. One child whose otherwise impeccable behaviour is matched only by her impeccable impression of you.

It seems that as you turned your back she took the opportunity to pull her best ‘Miss is cross but controlled’ face. The timing was a triumph, breaking the tension and bringing the house down. You now need to have two very different, and very difficult, conversations.

Talking behaviour
• How should you react to secondary behaviours?
• How can you deal with behaviours that you don’t see?
• Who has more control of their behaviour in this situation, the adult or the child?

B – ‘Where’s the baddie?’

Infuriated with this display of mass disobedience, you resolve to stop the lesson and conduct an immediate witch hunt to discover what Ryan did behind your back and which children thought it appropriate to “whoop”. A stunned silence falls over them. You sense the wall go up and battle lines being drawn. You are ready for their game, and immediately remove all breaktimes for the day.

Their response is stony, resolute. Breaktime passes. Even the old ‘leave a note on my desk’ or ‘come and see me in the staffroom’ fails to result in one child turning queen’s evidence. You up the ante, bringing in the big guns. Mrs Denton’s ‘disappointed’ speech is normally enough, but not today. You play your Mr Harris card, but their game is good. They hold tight.

As time passes, you see the cul de sac that you are painting yourself into. You see lesson time seeping away, but you have waded in too far to turn back now. You have to try to play your trump card, but you know the head won’t be happy. Being passed from adult to adult, the children are already looking at you and wondering if their class teacher has any real power after all.

As you knock on the head’s door, you think back to the timeline of events and wonder how your actions are going to stand up to the inevitable scrutiny.

Talking behaviour
• If some children react rudely as a group, is whole-class punishment appropriate?
• How can you break collective silence without forcing an individual to ‘grass’?
• What do children learn when they are passed from one adult to a ‘more senior’ adult to an ‘even more senior’ adult?

C – The walk of Dame

Walking away wasn’t easy. The class sat stunned for a moment. You fought the urge to turn, swallowed the anger, breathed through the itching irritation and composed yourself without an outward flicker.

As you turn to the class you see that amongst the ‘whoopers’ there are children who seem anxious. They clearly don’t like their teacher being laughed at. You decide to address the fact that ‘something happened’ as you walked away, but immediately let them know that you will be dealing with this later. They seem content with this and the class quickly return to the busy hum of learning.

Taking a moment you write down what just happened. You know that if you leave it until after the lesson you won’t remember the detail. Some of the children see you writing, and you catch a whispered, “Look, she’s writing it down”. As the children go out to break, there is still some lingering tension as they wonder how and when you will deal with it. By lunchtime, all has been forgotten and the afternoon passes without incident.

As the day nears its end, you speak to Ryan in the thinking corner, out of earshot of the rest of the class. He’s surprised you remembered, and is calm and apologetic. The conversation is rational, kind and reflective. Just the kind of conversation that a parent would have. You go through your checklist of what happened and he is able to calmly tell you that it was Chelsea’s impression that got the standing ovation. You stifle a smile and resolve to have another private conversation with Chelsea.

As Ryan returns to the body of the room, the other children know that you have kept your promise to follow up. As Chelsea is asked to join you in the thinking corner, they realise that their teacher’s game is good…really good.

Talking behaviour
• Why is it important that you follow up personally and not delegate it to someone else?
• What are the advantages of immediately making a discrete record of the incident?
• What do the rest of the children learn from the way that you have conducted yourself and managed the incident?

Your style

A – Pantomime Villain
Great behaviour management is counter-intuitive. Just because it feels like the right thing to do in the moment does not mean it is the reaction that leads to the best outcomes. With your judgement emotionally accelerated, you have caused more harm than good.

B – Wicked Witch
Whole-class punishments are bad enough, but a public witch hunt will have consequences beyond the classroom for those who eventually ‘crack’. If you didn’t witness the behaviour, then your inquisition starts on the flimsiest of evidence. Perhaps it would be better to choose a more winnable battle.

C – Panto Legend
A truly polished performance. Letting the children know that you are aware of the situation and will deal with it is important. It shows them that you are in control. Writing down the incident quietly, and then opting to speak to those involved when you choose to, demonstrates the finest emotional resilience.

Paul Dix is a lead trainer at Pivotal Education and co-presenter of the Pivotal Podcast

The Pivotal Curriculum is a licensed trainer scheme that allows every school to deliver Pivotal Behaviour and Safeguarding Training – you find out more at pivotalcurriculum.com and by following @pivotalpaul

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