Stop locking horns with argumentative students!

Stop locking horns with argumentative students!


Let's face it - some students are experts when it comes to arguing!

They've honed their technique. They may have had hours of practice. They are gold medal standard debaters!

While some pupils wouldn't dream of challenging adults, others will automatically and impulsively backchat, query or question those in authority. Which can mean frequent and frustrating interruptions and lost learning time for everyone, as well as dreaded dead-end confrontations.

Why dead-end confrontations are bad for you

If you've ever been in a dead-end confrontation you'll remember it - it's an argument where one side is guaranteed to lose, there can be no win: win. The added cringe factor to dead-end confrontations is that all too often, they are played out in public, in full view of an audience - making it doubly difficult for either party to back down for fear of losing face. 

Why do staff take the bait?

In addition to their champion arguing tactics, some students manage to supercharge confrontations by working out exactly which buttons to press to get a reaction from staff.  Pupils do this by making a personal comment, or perhaps a well-timed quip; somehow they just know what to say and when to say it to guarantee an explosive response.

When our buttons are pressed we feel threatened... and when we feel threatened our primitive brains kick in and override our ability to think logically.

This instinctive, immediate and automatic reaction can't be turned off - we need it to survive. The problem is, whilst we're in survival mode, we aren't thinking strategically, meaning we get stuck in reacting to students in unhelpful ways.

It's an easy trap to fall into. We are only human!

And when it works - they've hit the jackpot. When staff take the bait and react angrily or emotionally, that feels powerful and exciting to the student, which drives them to repeat their behaviour over and over again.

But, I want to let you into a secret - there's an elementary universal truth about arguments...

...it takes two to tango. 

An argument cannot be performed alone.

It just doesn't work. 

Try it! A one-sided argument where nobody responds or retaliates quickly fizzles out!

Think of an argument as a game of table tennis. Each player throws out an insult or comment and then waits for the return shot to be batted back. Then player one takes another turn and it's over to player two,  and so on.

Ping.  Pong.

Ping.  Pong!

The argument only gathers momentum because it flows back and forth with both parties contributing and inputting.

As adults, it can be pretty tricky not to get drawn in. We are all guilty of instinctively or automatically responding. We dont always think through our response because we're not thinking rationally.

Having the last word

Sometimes we even secretly believe that the grown-up should have the last word - just because they are the grown-up. The trouble is, when were up against a world-class arguer, this plan is tragically flawed (because the pupil baits us with follow-up comments.)

Also, most adults are on a schedule, they have other important stuff to do - like teaching the class. Conversely, pupils have both the time and energy to dual to the death! There is nothing more pressing than winning the argument. Nowhere else they'd rather be.

It's easy for verbal battles between staff and pupils to develop into a habit, almost like an expected part of the daily routine.  The adult issues an instruction, the pupil back chats, the adult repeats the instruction (maybe a little bit louder), the pupil comes back with their response (maybe a little bit louder too).  Others watch.

Ping - pong!

Its a slippery slope to losing credibility and respect.

Plan ahead

To break out of this destructive cycle, we need a pre-planned strategy - a way to stop the argument in its tracks. A previously determined formula which means that both adults and pupils can get out with dignity.

Remember - when our buttons have been pressed and we're in survival mode it's too difficult to think clearly and come up with a strategic response; we must do this ahead of time. We need to plan for the next time a student challenges us, so we've got a calm, rational, effective way of closing down the argument.

And it's actually pretty logical...

...think back to the table tennis analogy. 

What happens if at any point during the match, one of the players simply puts the bat down and walks away?  The game is over.

And that's it. 

The minute you sense a pupil is attempting to engage you in a verbal battle of ping pong - consciously make the decision to close down the argument and put the bat down. 

Stop engaging. Stop getting drawn in. Stop playing.

You'll be amazed how rapidly the argument burns out.

Backing off is not the same as backing down

In case you're wondering, stopping play is not the same as giving in or letting them win. It's simply the adult making a mature decision, not to go down this dead-end path where at least one of the players will not come out well.

If you've been used to instinctively retaliating or getting sucked into arguments, this strategy will feel alien at first. It takes practice, but it works!

You need a stock phrase you can automatically go to when your rational brain is fuzzy because your buttons have been pressed.

For example, a phrase I've used many times to close down a confrontation is, 'We'll talk about this later.'

This simple sentence (when delivered in the right way) communicates clearly that I'm not getting into this conversation now, I'm putting the bat down. 

If you want to know exactly what to say next time a pupil disrupts your lesson - so you feel confident and in control, you need Back on Task - proven scripts that anyone can use to shut down arguments and get the focus back on learning.

Key takeaways

    • Some pupils have world-class arguing skills
    • Children usually have more time than adults to carry on an argument
    • Sometimes adults think they should have the last word
    • Refusing to get drawn into an argument is not the same as giving in
    • Anyone can learn scripts to use to shut down arguments and refocus on learning




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