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October 2015: What to do when a student argues back.

Most teachers have been there. You make a perfectly reasonable request of a student (“Please put the game away, Kevin, it’s work time,”) and for the third time this week, Kevin begins drawing you into an argument in front of the rest of the class (“No – it’s not fair! When Mr. Jones was in, he let Kate have the game, so…”)



Arguments like these can escalate into a conflict that's played out in front of the entire class. So how do you successfully handle these kinds of situations? Here’s our guide to stopping arguments in their tracks.

1. Don't argue


Okay, that’s easier said than done, but under no circumstances start arguing with a student about what is or is not fair. Or what the supply teacher let happen when you were out of class last Tuesday afternoon. Or exactly what constitutes work time. Or anything at all.



Here's why:

  • It is highly likely that the student comes from a family where arguments are the norm. That means they’re probably better at arguing than you are. They're gold-medal standard arguers.
  • The pupil is arguing to draw your attention away from their original behaviour, not to debate some perceived inequality. Don't fall for it.


2. Depersonalise


Make it clear that the conflict is not about you and the child, but about the school rules. For instance, “I’ve told you to put the game away,” feeds the argument. “The school rule is that there are no games during work time,” makes it clear this is not a personal conflict between you and the child.



Here's why:

  • The student walks away at the end of the day without the feeling that the argument sprang from some personal dislike.

3. Issue an instruction.


We’re going to follow up our reference to the school rules with a clear, firm instruction indicating what the student should do next.



Bad:“I’ve told you to put the game away – do it now!” This personalises the conflict and, as a bonus, escalates it into a power struggle. It invites the classic response that, “You can’t make me”. (You can’t.)



Good:“The game needs to go away, now, thank you.” The required behaviour is clear and the direction is assertive. Not referring to yourself or the student in the sentence downplays the sense that one side will 'win'.

4. Be a brick wall.


Every time the student continues to argue, calmly, but firmly, restate the rule and instruction, repeating exactly the same wording. No deviations. “The rule is that there are no games during work time. The game needs to go away.”



This will end the argument. Here's why:

  • Because it takes two to tango. It is impossible (and infuriating) to argue with someone who firmly but politely repeats the same line.
  • The student will learn that there is no point in arguing with you, because it doesn’t lead to any progress. It isn't any fun.

Staff meeting activity


Here is a 10 minute activity you could deliver during a staff meeting. At the end of the meeting, staff will have a clearer understanding of how the use of language can escalate or de-escalate a situation with an argumentative student, and how this may influence how their class perceives their classroom management. To use this activity, download a PDF version of the newsletter, using the links at the bottom of the page.

Requirements


You will need the following materials:


  • Copies of page 1 of the newsletter (download the PDF version of the newsletter below).
  • Large pieces of paper (A3 / A2).
  • Pens.
  • A computer with an internet connection and an interactive whiteboard or projector (optional)

The activity


  • Explain that your staff meeting behaviour focus will be looking at effective strategies for handling students who use argument as a means to deflect attention from their original behaviour (the primary behaviour).
  • Give the example of an argumentative student who refuses to sit at the correct table for a maths activity. When challenged by the teacher, they say they're not going to move, and argue that it's unfair, because they were allowed to sit there yesterday when a supply teacher was in.
  • Remind your staff that the whole class is watching. Get them to list as many reasons as possible why engaging in an argument with the child will have a negative outcome.
  • Split your staff into two. Get one group to identify successful strategies for managing the situation; get the other group to identify the worst possible approaches they could take (have some fun with this). Bring the groups together to share their ideas.
  • Now ask your staff to reflect on how some of these strategies (both effective and otherwise) would affect how their class perceives their effectiveness as a teacher (for example, in terms of their classroom management, overall fairness, professionalism, their position as a role model etc.)
  • Now distribute the newsletter and share the ideas it explores. Alternatively, visit our YouTube channel and play the video that accompanies this newsletter (see the resources section of our website).


Now put up copies of the first page of the newsletter on display in the staffroom, so staff members can refer to them at a later date.




Downloads


Don't print this page! We've produced a much more attractive version for printing and sharing. Use the links below to download a copy of the newsletter in PDF format, and use this for print and distribute the information to your staff.




PDF version of newsletter (colour)




PDF version of newsletter (black and white)




Our YouTube channel