10 March, 2011

The student with attitude

How do you deal with a student whose attitude is simply unacceptable? Dave Stott offers some practical ideas.

I suspect that this week's title will already have stirred up some feelings about students past or present. Unfortunately, my guess is that you will be thinking not of the student whose behaviour and attitude you find pleasing, helpful and enthusiastic, but of the student who can – with just one word, a shrug or a change of facial expression – change the whole atmosphere of a classroom and trigger a situation that quickly escalates out of control.

When you are already feeling worked up or anxious about a situation and you decide to move closer to the difficult student, using that well-known tactic of 'proximity', how do you then feel if the student looks you full in the face and grins broadly? Or if he or she begins to mutter something which you can't quite hear? Remember that the muttering or grin may well be the audible or visible sign of the student's own anxiety and is not necessarily intended to suggest even more challenge to you!

Obviously the grin, brought on by the student's own inability to manage his or her own feelings and emotions, is relatively low-level when compared to the other extreme of open defiance, non-compliance and verbal threats. The natural temptation is to either try to ignore the student's behaviour and walk away, or to take issue with the student and confront them, escalating the situation. You are now not dealing with just one student – you are on show to the rest of the class, with all of them waiting to see your reaction. The situation can be easily inflamed by peer pressure, with the student's friends eager to see how far the face-off will go.

Clearly it is not appropriate to respond in a way that inflames the situation, nor can you keep ignoring this type of behaviour. It is important to consistently give the clear and non-negotiable message that you, as the adult in the room, are in charge and that you are not prepared to accept the student's attitude towards you/school/learning etc. The key skill here is to remain calm and confident and to avoid a response which can be interpreted as either passive or hostile.

Practical tips

In remaining calm and confident it is essential that you are in control of your own emotions. Use strategies such as:

  • self-calming
  • being aware of personal space
  • verbal language
  • non-verbal communication (body language)
  • a carefully planned approach to the problem.

In trying to resolve the situation, give the student plenty of opportunities to think about his or her attitude and thereby begin to make some better behaviour choices. In any verbal interaction try to adopt a no-blame approach and avoid using statements that begin with 'You!', eg 'You just can't help yourself, can you?' Instead, try to engage the student with a more empathetic message of how his or her behaviour is affecting you and/or the rest of the group; for example, 'When you look at me like that I feel that you just don't care…'

In the heat of the classroom, when all eyes are on you, it is often a good idea to speak with the student, ideally so that others cannot hear and to use the tactic of the one-to-one meeting. Used when a student continually displays unacceptable behaviour, these meetings must be on your terms – ie when you are calm and away from an audience (be aware of school policy when speaking one-to-one with students) and – vitally – when you are totally prepared, which should include preparing a variety of possible resolutions.

The meeting should be carefully structured, allowing you to clearly state exactly what the problem is and why you cannot permit it to continue. Describe the problem as you see it and use specific examples of when it has occurred. Allow the student to make a contribution to the discussion. You are not trying to place blame, but rather problem-solve. Conclude the meeting with a clear agreed plan which clearly states how the student might begin to make changes, and most importantly, how you will be helping him or her to succeed. Set a time frame and review the progress as agreed. End on a positive!

In many circumstances students with attitude have got themselves into the situation through peer pressure, anxiety or simply not knowing how to respond to you. Your proactive responses showing that you genuinely care about the student and your consistency and calmness in the classroom, together with the use of specific one-to-one problem-solving meetings, can often help the student to change their challenging attitude into acceptable behaviour.

Written by: Dave Stott

About the Author

Dave Stott has 30 years teaching experience including seven years as a headteacher. He has worked in mainstream and special schools, and Local Authority behaviour support services. Dave is now a writer, consultant and trainer.

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