By now I am sure you will have had at least occasional moments of conflict with individual pupils or particular classes so it seems a sensible time to revisit ideas around managing behaviour with a specific focus on conflict resolution.

When I say ‘conflict’ I am not necessarily talking about major incidents in the classroom. I am thinking about moments that begin as relatively minor incidents (e.g. a pupil getting out of their seat when they shouldn’t have) and that quickly escalate into situations that are getting in the way of your work as a teacher and/or the pupils’ learning.

Let’s start by identifying a pupil or class that you currently feel you are ‘in conflict’ with. Reflect on the current relationship and make a note (mental or written) of:

  • who is involved;
  • what is happening;
  • how you are feeling;
  • a particular incident that has resulted in conflict in this relationship.

As you read on, use these notes as a context to think about the thoughts I now offer.

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When you think about pupils’ behaviour in your classroom, what are your red flags?

It is very difficult as a new teacher not to react to the behaviour of pupils in a personal way…

  • You have worked hard planning a lesson and thinking about good activities for pupils to do and now they are not doing as you ask!
  • An individual pupil is ignoring you, how dare they!

The list goes on …

The difficulty is, as soon as the pupils’ behaviour has ‘got to you’, then it is far harder for you to make decisions about what your response is going to be. It is highly likely your response will be a trigger for the situation to escalate and conflict to occur. Can you think of an example when this has happened?

Do pupils know your red flags?

When a relationship with a pupil, or class, is strained if pupils are aware of what makes you react they are highly likely to put this to good use! In such situations it may be worth thinking about who has ‘the control’ in the classroom:

If your buttons are pushed and you react who has the power?

If your buttons are pushed and you don’t react who has the power?

Can you approach situations differently and thus resolve, or even prevent, conflict?

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Looking at the image above, how might you interpret this pupil’s behaviour? Imagine it is a pupil that is currently making your life difficult – what interpretation would you give to them putting their head on the table?

  • He is doing this on purpose to disrupt my lesson!
  • He isn’t showing me any respect!
  • This is so rude!

Based on your likely interpretation how would you have responded and what would that response probably have resulted in? An escalation of the situation? Conflict?

One way of analysing a conflict situation is to use a means of analysis known as FIDO:

  • Facts (what happened?)
  • Interpretation (what did I tell myself?)
  • Decision (what did I do based on my interpretation?)
  • Outcome (what was the outcome?)

What might this have looked like in the above scenario?

F – the fact is that the pupil has his head on the table (nothing more, nothing less)

I – I told myself this was a sign of bad behaviour (again?)

D – I confronted him and told him off

O – he responded badly, he wouldn’t do what I asked, I shouted, other pupils joined in, the lesson was completely disrupted, …

Try and analyse the conflict situation you have recently experienced in the same way.

So what could have happened differently?

To me the key is the ‘I’ stage – the escalation of a situation can come from the interpretation of the situation and the response based on this interpretation. For example, as soon as, in my head, I link behaviour to previous behaviours of a pupil my red flag can be raised and the remainder of an incident can follow an obvious (and familiar?) script.

Now, I am not saying that the behaviour in the example above wasn’t inappropriate – it may be there was a genuine reason for the head on the desk (ill-health, stuck on the work, …) but it is equally plausible that the pupil was trying to offend and misbehave! If I make the decision, however, to not interpret the behaviour then it quickly changes the dynamics of a situation and possibly the outcome.

What could I do differently?

In some cases it might be as simple as assuming nothing and just asking a pupil if they are alright. The pupil is nonplussed as the response is not what they were expecting; you are not agitated, there is nothing to react to, the situation de-escalates and the pupil re-engages with the lesson.

This is the ideal scenario, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t! Either way it is a better starting point and will not instantly lead to conflict.

What happens if the pupil continues with their unwanted behaviour though, or makes an inappropriate comment when I speak to them?

The important thing is to continue to avoid:

  • interpreting their behaviour;
  • your buttons being pushed;
  • responding in a reactionary, uncontrolled, way.

Try to ask the following questions of either the scenario above or the recent conflict you have been involved in:

  • What is the outcome you ideally want?
  • What is negotiable/non-negotiable in the situation?
  • What type of re-framing might help?
  • What is your strategy (words/body language/when and where to tackle it)?

When thinking about the latter two questions, it might help to consider ideas behind restorative justice:

‘Too often educators have only learned to administer punitive forms of discipline. Punitive forms of discipline do not reduce misbehaviour but instead tend to breed resentment and further misbehaviour. Restorative justice focuses on relationships …’ (www.schoolclimate.org)

Some ideas around restorative justice focus on:

  • a culture of mutual respect;
  • the behaviour as a bad choice, not the student as a bad person;

So what is of interest here to my situation above or the conflict scenario you have been thinking about?

Try to consider how the scenario might play out differently if you focus on the behaviour not the pupil, have ‘mutual respect’ at the forefront of your mind and you refuse to interpret the pupil’s actions based on previous experiences:

  • What did you say? What could you say instead?

Try out some alternative comments on a friend and ask them to think about how different comments might make them feel and how they might respond.

How can these ideas help you make a choice about what to do at each stage of a conflict that allows you to remain in control?

I am not suggesting that you will never need to use some form of punishment for a pupil, but starting with restorative measures as a primary intervention model with traditional/punitive still available as a last resort can be a really helpful way of thinking to move forward.

The absolute key to all I have said here is to not build up a view of a class or pupil that you take into each lesson. Easy to say and harder to do, but if you go into a lesson expecting conflict there is no doubt that is what you will get. If you go in expecting something different then who knows what will happen!

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