What to do when a student argues back

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.


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