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Emotional rescue

Read Paul’s article below which was first published in the TES Magazine.

As you read through the article, try to reflect on your own practice. Consider your own emotional responses in the classroom. Do you give students a route map to your negative emotions?

Emotional Rescue

Every teacher has been faced with difficult students who know just how to get under their skin and escalate an already difficult situation into an impossible one.

But even the most challenging behaviour can be managed with flair if the teacher’s response is ritualised, safe and emotionless, with a flash of positive reinforcement at the right moment.

How we perceive inappropriate behaviour in teaching STEM subjects is crucial. If we think of it as a personal attack, a sign of a society in decline, a symptom of an uncontrollable generation, a product of poor parenting or of 24-hour news media, then it will be difficult to stop emotion getting in the way. See it for what it really is - a young person testing the boundaries, trying to provoke an adult or trying to relieve the boredom of the day and it will be easier to hold on to your rational understanding of behaviour.

The them-and-us culture is a problem in UK schools and the link between the behaviour of the students and our emotions is at the root of it. We can find ourselves defining and reinforcing this link on a daily basis. Think how many times you say: “You are making me angry”, “I am irritated by your behaviour today” or “If one more person asks to go to the toilet I am going to scream.”

By doing this, we’re giving students a route map to our negative emotions. We give the most challenging students hand grenades that they can lob in at the most inappropriate moments. When Chantelle refuses to clear up her equipment, for example, frustration creeps into our tonal and physical language and exasperated appeals to the staffroom further cement our feelings that “these students are uncontrollable”.

Save your emotional response to behaviour for when things are going well. Let your students see your enthusiasm for learning, love of teaching and delight in their success. Show them the passion of your positive response.

When you must intervene with challenging behaviour, things need to be different. Don’t waste emotional energy on Marlon’s broken test tube or Chelsea’s disregard for the Maths resources. Instead give them a ritualised and planned response.

If your students choose to behave inappropriately, give them what they really don’t like, an almost mechanical response. Remove their fear or excitement from seeing an adult start to react, or the adrenalin from watching them explode. Land your sanctions softly and you can protect what is most important: your relationship with the student and your own emotional wellbeing.


Challenging behaviour is not improved in the long term when it is met with emotion. When it is met with dull, mechanical structures that leave no room for argument or emotion, challenging behaviour becomes less seductive. It underlines the rational connection between inappropriate behaviour and sanctions. The teaching team has instant consistency; they are protected from the constant emotional drain and everyone has more energy for reinforcing appropriate behaviour.

There are a number of critical elements, the combination of which, when performed with confidence, makes it almost impossible for the student to skilfully return serve, divert the conversation or escalate the situation.

Before you intervene, ratchet up your self-awareness by imagining the student’s parent on your shoulder. Adjust your verbal, tonal and physical language as if the parent were watching the situation unfold. In conversation, shift the behaviour to the past tense as soon as possible: “I can see that you have had a problem getting started,” rather than “You are having a problem.” State the behaviour that was witnessed and explain the consequence of that choice.

The moment you land the sanction is the pivotal moment of any exchange. This is when the student will protest, argue or attack with most vigour. It is the moment when the student will tempt you away from the conversation that you want to have and try to lead you into a conversational cul-de- sac. They may say: “I hate Maths, tell me why I should do this?”, or else risk a secondary reaction with a slow smile cracking across the face or the infernal pen tapping to divert you from your course.

Don’t be tempted to chase the secondary behaviours at that moment, deal with them later. Reinforce the behaviour you want and quell the first signs of confrontation by immediately using a previous example of the student’s good behaviour. “Marlon, do you remember yesterday when you helped me clear up the lab/gave me that fantastic design/resisted stabbing Darren? That is the kind of behaviour that I need to see from you today. That is the student I believe you are.”

This is difficult to argue with. It defuses their protests and injects humanity into an otherwise mechanical interaction. It allows that moment of emotional panic (when the student realises they are going to have to do something that they don’t like) to subside and firmly separates behaviour, negative emotion and identity. It allows the student to leave the conversation feeling that their teacher still likes them and leaves the relationship and your dignity intact. Rehearse it and it will be quick, efficient, and fair, allowing you to get on with using your positive energy to inspire.

As we teach young people that consequences are not personal retribution, we begin to erode the them-and-us culture. The aim is to leave students feeling responsible for their behaviour rather than angry at their teacher. You don’t have to have a personality transplant to be effective in managing behaviour. You might, however, want to suppress your natural instinct to react with emotion. You may want to show Marlon that although others may respond to his behaviour with hostility, you are playing a longer game.


Reflecting upon the article, write down one thing you are going to change about your own behaviour in your teaching space.

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This article is from the free online course:

Managing Behaviour for Learning

National STEM Learning Centre