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What’s the best way to deal with Billie, a show-off with an attitude and a chaotic home life?

The Scenario

You have a Y6 student called Billie. She’s noisy, chatty and distracts others with silly behaviour. If you challenge her, she’ll debate with you about why she’s right. She seems to enjoy winding you up and, frankly, she’s good at it. Last week she was chewing gum in your lesson. You asked her to put it in the bin and hand over whatever she had left in her pocket. After a to-and-fro, she eventually agreed to put it in the bin. But what she handed over to you was not gum, but a wrapper made to look like it had gum in it. You heard laughter from other students.

You thought about putting her on lunchtime detention, though the idea of that made you groan – more time spent with Billie! Anyway, sanctions haven’t worked with her in the past. To make matters worse, the SENCo has told you that her home life is ‘chaotic’ – which means that you go from feeling hurt by her behaviour to feeling sorry for her.

Though the details will be different, many teachers will have met a Billie. They are tricky students. So, what’s a teacher to do?

Option A: Toughen Up

You need to be firmer with Billie. Come down quickly and decisively on any misdemeanour. She’ll soon learn.

What you’re currently doing is clearly not working. Your problem is that you’re inconsistent. Of course she should have a detention for her misbehaviour. In fact, by not issuing a detention, you’re simply making her misbehaviour worse. She’s continuing to misbehave because she knows that she can get away with it.

The next time Billie stands out of line, impose a consequence. If you have to raise your voice at the same time, that’s no bad thing. It doesn’t matter what the consequence is, what matters is that it is imposed with certainty. Once she knows that you are onto her behaviour, she will quickly turn that behaviour around. But only if you are consistent with those consequences. If you aren’t, then you’re lost. And by the looks of it, that’s the position that you are now in. She sees you as weak and, actually, she’s right to do so. So, if you want to change Billie’s behaviour you have to change your approach to Billie. Time to toughen up!

The verdict
This option is driven by a need to show who’s the boss and involves a bit of shouting and, most likely, wildly disproportionate consequences. Yes, in the short term Billie might back down and behave, but she won’t be won over with this approach. It will only generate bitterness, resentment and entrenched misbehaviour.

Option B: Tough Life

Billie doesn’t need your sanctions, she needs your care and support. She’s had a tough life so needs you to go easy on her.

Patience, not punishment, is the way forward. Given her chaotic home life, the last thing Billie needs is a teacher who comes down on her like a ton of bricks the moment she steps out of line. Yes, her behaviour is challenging, but you can’t get it to improve through punishments or the threat of punishment. That approach only leads to bitterness and resentment, and once they’re in place her misbehaviour will become entrenched.

You have to model the behaviour you want to see. Explicitly show Billie – and, consequently, all the other students – how to behave. The trick is to keep calm, keep kind and keep at it. In the short term, you probably won’t see any dramatic changes, but in the long term you will. They’ll be incremental but they will be definite. So avoid the punishment stick, and instead stick with patience.

The verdict
It would be lovely if this method was enough, but it isn’t. Students need definite boundaries. Once they have them, they can feel safe. They’ll believe in you as a teacher. You’ll be credible. Make sure that what you say and do are one and the same. If they aren’t, you’ll be undermining your own credibility. Billie also needs to know that you genuinely care about her, and that’s not shown by getting all soft with her. You don’t need to take a keen interest in her life, become her pal or dish out any ‘poor you’ sentimentality. Instead, show you care by making Billie’s learning your priority. Billie needs to know that you want the best for her as a student. If she mucks around, relate that misbehaviour to the impact it has on her learning. But always finish on a positive. Take that approach and you will win Billie over – maybe not right away, but eventually.

Option C: Tough Love

Yes, be firm; yes, be caring, but the best approach is to do both in equal measure.

It’s right that you have sympathy for Billie and her home life. But there’s a danger there too: you mustn’t let it cloud your thinking about her behaviour. All students need teachers who are fair and consistent, especially those with difficult home lives. So, yes, be caring, but still hold Billie accountable for her behaviour. If you don’t, you’re lowering your behavioural expectations, and, as a result, her behaviour will fall to meet that new lower level.

If a behaviour carries a sanction, then it must happen. Billie cannot be treated differently from other pupils. The sanctions will rack up – at first anyway – but without them so will the misbehaviour. Don’t waiver.

However, sanctions are not enough on their own. You also need to follow up face-to-face – not in the moment when Billie has an audience to play up to, but at a time and place of your choosing. Keep it short, calm and focused on his misbehaviour. Tell her that you care about her learning and the learning of your other students. Describe her misbehaviour objectively, without any negative or critical tone. Ask her to comment – it’s only respectful that you do – but don’t get drawn into a debate. Then bring her back to how you want her to behave in your next lesson. Flag up the benefits of appropriate behaviour (remember: the conversation is predicated on you caring about her learning) and the negatives of her current behaviour.

The verdict
It’s the combination of consequences and concern that will turn Billie’s behaviour around. The former needs to be proportionate and certain, the latter professional and genuine. If you get it wrong (lose your rag, for instance) then apologise for getting it wrong, and make sure you don’t get it wrong again. Every day needs to be a fresh start with Billie. Whatever her behaviour was the day before, the next day the slate is wiped clean. That means she gets the same warmth and smiles that others get – not more, not less, the same. Do it through gritted teeth if you must, but do it – in fact, gritted teeth are fine because, well, you’re already halfway to a smile.