Hi Behaviour Buddy,

I’m really struggling with a “Simon”, a Year 6 pupil. He’s noisy, chatty and distracts others with lots of silly behaviour. If I challenge him, he’ll debate with me why he’s right and why I’m being unfair. He enjoys winding me up and frankly he’s good at it. To give just one of many examples. Last week Simon was chewing gum in my lesson and I asked him to put it in the bin and give me what he had in his pocket. It was met with the same to-ing and fro-ing debate, but I wouldn’t back down. So, he eventually handed it over. Thing is, what he gave me was an empty chewing gum wrapper made to look like it had gum in it. It was the last straw. I had him removed from my lesson. I told the deputy that I didn’t want him back until he apologised, and I said the same to Simon.

I don’t know the ins-and-outs of his home life but my understanding is that it’s chaotic. Dad is currently in prison and I understand that Simon has been witness to some domestic violence. It’s all very sad and I genuinely feel sorry for him.

I don’t really see the point of giving him loads of detentions every time he mucks around – they’ve not worked in the past so I don’t think they’ll work now. And, anyway, it’s not as though his life isn’t punishing enough already, if you see what I mean.

Any ideas how to handle him?

My reply

Oh dear. Distractor, debater and winder-up-er. I can see why you’re having problems.

It’s absolutely right that you have sympathy for Simon and his home life. The things that some of our students have to experience is, frankly, shocking. Poor lad. But there’s a danger in your sympathy too: you mustn’t let it cloud your thinking about his behaviour. All pupils need teachers who are fair, boundaried and consistent, and pupils like Simon, with difficult home lives, need those teachers even more. So, yes, be sympathetic, but still hold Simon accountable for his behaviour in your lessons.

If a behaviour carries a sanction, then that sanction MUST happen and Simon MUST be certain that it’s going to happen. He cannot be treated differently from the other pupils. If he doesn’t do the sanction (e.g. moves seats for chatting), then he does whatever comes next in your school’s behaviour policy. The detentions will rack up – at first anyway – but without them so will the misbehaviour. So, don’t waver. Ever.

In terms of how to deliver the sanction, take a neutral and matter-of-fact approach. No raised voice, no sarcasm, no put downs. Let the sanction do the talking. In fact, the less you get into a debate with Simon, the better. As you say, Simon loves debates – or, to be exact, he loves winning debates. And his favourite opponent appears to be you. He knows your hot buttons and how to push them. The trick, then, is to not let him. You do that by not engaging in the debate. Once he knows he can’t bait you, the huff and puff will go out of his sails. Sure, they’ll be some yeah-buts and perhaps even an initial ratcheting up of misbehaviour, but that’s ok. Simply bat away the former and put a sanction to the latter.

Sanctions are very important, but alas not quite enough on their own. You also need to follow up on his misbehaviour face-to-face. Not in the moment, as Simon wants, but a time and place of your choosing. Keep it short, keep it calm and keep it focused on his misbehaviour. Begin by describing what he did. No negative tone or criticism, just an objective description. Ask him to comment on what you’ve said – it’s only respectful that you do – but don’t let his response draw you into a debate. A simple ‘I’ve-heard-you’ nod will do. Then bring him back to how you want him to behave in your next lesson together. Flag up the benefits of appropriate behaviour and the negatives of his current behaviour. Part as amicably as you can.

Now here’s the thing: following up on misbehaviour, like so many behaviour management strategies, only works if you do it every time. And by ‘every time’ I mean every time. You know that coffee and biscuit that’s waiting for you in the staffroom at break? Well, you can’t have them until you’ve followed up with Simon. Same goes for lunch and after school. If necessary, even use your frees (sorry!). Sure, they’ll be some short-term pain (and a bit of caffeine withdrawal), but it’s the price for long-term gain – aka Simon behaving as you want him to behave.

So what about that chewing gum apology? Well, if you’re going to stick to your guns about everything else, then it makes sense to stick to your guns about the apology, right? Umm, actually no. Look, I understand why you want an apology – you’re hurt and you’re angry (those two often go together, don’t they) – but I’m not sure you’ll get one. To be frank, I’m not even sure it’s worth holding out for. It sounds like a power play, a way of getting Simon to bend to your will, and while that’s not always a bad thing, in this case it is. You see, for Simon the only thing that’s more important than winning is not losing. So I’d bet a week’s worth of marking he won’t say sorry. And even if you’re able to force an apology, well that’s even worse because that’ll set down the conditions for a grudge. A grudge that just won’t budge. Whatever it takes, Simon will get his own back – and then add a bit for good measure.

So don’t insist on an apology, but don’t let the issue just fade away either. What’s said cannot be unsaid, so you need to address it. Tell Simon that as an act of goodwill you’re going to drop the apology requirement. Yes, it is your view that his behaviour warrants an apology, but that’s a matter for his conscience. Tell him that you want him back in your lessons and that you are looking forward to his return. But also tell him this: you are going to hold him accountable for his behaviour. He won’t believe you, not at first, but he will once what you say and what you do become the same thing.

Lastly – and this is no less important – every day needs to be a fresh start with Simon. Whatever his behaviour was the day before, the next day the slate is wiped clean. That means he gets the same warmth and smiles that others get – not more, not less, the same. Do it through gritted teeth if you have to, but do it – in fact, gritted teeth are fine because, well, you’re already halfway to a smile.

That’s it. Do all of the above consistently and Simon will change his behaviour. And it’ll probably happen quicker than you realise. Not only that, you’ll will have given a little boy – a boy who has experienced things he shouldn’t have experienced – the boundaries he needs to make a success of school.

All the best

Behaviour Buddy

Article written by Robin Launder, from Behaviour Buddy
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behaviourbuddy.co.uk