Some pupils have world class arguing skills.
In the blink of an eye, they can turn your straight-forward request into a highly charged, public show down.
It all happens so fast! Like a spider spinning a web to catch a fly, some students expertly reel you in – slowly and cleverly (and oh so publicly) in front of their peers.
Before you know it, you’re locked in a battle of verbal ping pong, where neither of you can back down.
(By the way, if you are looking for practical solutions for what to do when a student answers back, take a look at our article.)
When you issue a direct instruction to a pupil, there’s always a moment of choice: a decision whether or not to comply with that request. ‘Shall I do it or shall I not?’ There may be a pause and possibly an obvious unwillingness to do as you say straight away.
In psychological terms, this reluctance to comply is known as reactance.
The Wikipedia definition of reactance is: ‘a motivational reaction to offers, persons, rules, or regulations that threaten or eliminate specific behavioural freedoms. Reactance occurs when a person feels that someone or something is taking away their choices or limiting the range of alternatives.’
What you say or do next will be a deal breaker.
Frequently, the pupil’s hesitation to comply instantly is interpreted by the adult as defiance (which it sometimes is!) This leads us to feel like our authority is being threatened. We don’t like it.
And we all know that in a perceived threat situation, humans have two main instinctive reactions: fight or flight. Driven by our instinctive responses, our behaviour then, is likely to fall into two categories:
Option A: become more aggressive / demanding / increase eye contact / repeat demands more firmly in a bid to regain a sense of control (fight)
Option B: retreat, pretend not to notice, back down or ‘let them off’ to avoid confrontation (flight)
Here’s why these two approaches don’t work.
Option A causes resentment and damages trust – and can actually escalate a negative encounter, firing up the student to become aggressive too. Option B makes you appear weak, meaning that the pupil is even less likely to do as you ask, because they don’t believe you’re strong enough to follow through.
The solution is counterintuitive.
It involves choosing to give time and space or ‘take up time’. This technique relies on the adult displaying a level of self control and confidence (which can be real or faked!)
- Issue the instruction confidently and assertively, e.g. ‘Tom, it’s time to put the toys away now, thank you.’
- Give take up time: move away from Tom, and shine the spotlight elsewhere. Adopt a neutral tone and stance and deliberately go and engage with someone else, well away from Tom.
By creating physical distance between yourself and Tom, you’re removing the pressure to comply. You’re also communicating that you’re so certain that the instruction will be followed, there’s no need for you to stand over him and watch it being carried out.
Backing off, not backing down.
Giving time to comply also facilitates language processing time (did you know that for some pupils, instructions can take up to 7 seconds to process?)
And, as an added bonus, you’re giving yourself time to take a breath, look calm and in control and think about your next move.
9 times out of 10, when the pressure is off, even the most oppositional pupils will get on with what you have asked them to do. There may be some mumbling and grumbling (IGNORE!) but they’ll just do it, because the opportunity to draw you into an argument has passed.