Thursday, July 12, 2012

Dealing with an Angry Student: Tips for Avoiding the Power Struggle Trap

In today’s schools, angry and even aggressive classroom behavior seems to be affecting all teachers equally; troubled and/or angry students are no longer a concern just for special education teachers. Being prepared for managing this challenging behavior is by far the best word of advice that any teacher can follow. When teachers are unprepared for, and easily influenced by, these kinds of behaviors, they often mirror the angry behavior. For instance, the child yells and the teacher yells louder. Mirroring the child’s distraught behavior is the surest way for finding ourselves immersed in a power struggle with the student. On this blog post, you will find some guidelines for a safe intervention, so that you are not caught up in confrontations and power struggles with students.

1.     Do not take the angry behavior and/or hostile remarks personally. Students who fling foul language and threats at the teacher are trying to get a reaction from the teacher. Simply put, the child is doing his best to upset you. When you react angrily, you give control of the interaction to the student. I understand that this is easier said than done, so you have to make a conscious effort to keep your composure. A good rule of thumb is to focus on behavior rather than on words: calmly remind the student the behavior expectation that he should be following at that moment. State this once, if the child persists, you keep talking about actions or behavior. Avoid excessive and/or unproductive talking (dialogue that does not help in resolving the situation); the less everybody talks, the better.

2.     If the student becomes loud, you deliberately lower your voice and speak slower; doing this usually helps in calming the child. In addition, avoid being sarcastic and using verbal put-downs such as labeling the student. For example, saying, “You are such as trouble maker!” or “You never listen to anyone!” Keep your interaction with the student positive and your messages free of damaging “contaminants.”  By remaining positive and serene, you are modeling to the child the kind of behavior that you want from him. You do not need to tell the child that he needs to calm down; you will get a calmer behavior from the child by showing him how calmness and relaxation look (i.e., deep and regular breathing, low tone of voice, slow speech rate, small hand and arm gestures, a relaxed posture, and walking slowly).  Your immediate goal while managing the difficult interaction should be having the child mirror your behavior and language, rather than you mirroring what the child does or says. You are the adult in the room; lead the child into a calm and relaxed state.

3.     Change language that criticizes the child’s character or personality into language that criticizes the child’s actions or behavior. For example:

·        You are so stubborn! - Your behavior is stubborn.

·        Why are you this oppositional? -  Why are you behaving in such an oppositional way?

This kind of language allows us to keep the discussion focused on actions and behavior. Why is this important? Character or personality is a fixed and stable trait; on the other hand, behavior is both changeable and controllable. Focusing on behavior allows us to present the issue to the child as an action that he can change and that he can control. Keep reminding the student that he is in control of his behavior, and that his behavior is his choice. An additional benefit of using choice language (e.g., “You can either work on your math workbook or sit in the back of the room until we can talk. It’s your choice”) is that, if the child remains oppositional, because it was a choice neither the teacher nor the student “loses face.” That is, you never imposed or demanded anything from the child, so, he cannot contradict you. From the child’s perspective, if he complies, he did it because he chose to, not because the teacher forced him to commit.

4.     Do not force the issue, much less in front of the class or other students. Trying to force and/or to coerce the student is an angry strategy, with the only difference that, this time, the angry feelings are emanating from you. Similarly, force is a power strategy, and because of this, you are the one creating the power struggle. Chances are that the child is going to resist your power move, and even worse, other students may join the child in his struggle with such a powerful opponent: you. In a verbal confrontation, the student ends feeling stressed; the class ends feeling stress; and you end feeling stress, so, who wins? This is what experts in conflict management call a lose-lose solution to conflict. By setting up your classroom discipline with force and coercion, you are creating long-lasting feelings of mistrust in your students.

5.     Be careful to not get drawn into arguments with the student. Make clear to the child that you are not going to argue. Instead, calmly repeat what you want the student to do using behavior specific dialogue. Directly tell the child that you are going to talk with him only when he is calm. If necessary, move away from the child. This simply technique will keep you poised.

6.     If the child is losing self-control, he needs clear and specific directions about how you expect him to behave. Present your directives to the child using behavior specific language, for example, saying, “I need you to sit in the back of the room for five minutes so that you focus on cooling down.” Encourage the student to take some time and make clear that you will talk with him once he feels calmer.  With this statement, you are influencing the child in believing that he is going to feel calmer; it is just a matter of time.

Related to this blog post…
Keeping the Peace: Managing Students in Conflict Using the Social Problem-Solving Approach- The printed edition of this book is now available on Amazon. (A preview is also avaiable.)