I recently saw a question on Twitter relating to teacher’s ‘go-to’ phrases in the classroom, the time-tested tools that, with the benefit of experience, you know will work in particular situations. I decided to take some time to reflect here on a handful of ‘go-to’ tools that I have used during my time in pastoral care.
Before I get into that though I just wanted to say a quick thank you to all those who read, shared and contacted me about my first post on this blog. It was incredibly rewarding to have so many people speak to me through Twitter and I hope that you will see some benefits from reading this post too, whether you are shiny and new or carrying bags of experience!
All of the strategies/tools I talk about below are gleaned through personal experience and are mostly anecdotal – clearly some will either not apply to you or your context but I hope that even if that is the case they may prompt you to reflect on your own ‘time-tested’ strategies.
Nobody goes to work to deal with student fights/confrontations but the reality is that they happen whether it’s once in a blue moon or once a day. In a previous school my experiences were very much in the second of those two camps and I was given some advice, that I developed through my own experiences, which helped in managing those often fraught situations. As a member of the pastoral team whether you are in charge of behaviour, a Head of Year, Assistant Head of Year, Mentor etc. you are clearly much more likely to be called to deal with these issues, usually as a result of a vague radio call or an out of breath student/staff member knocking on your door or grabbing you from the corridor.
When I first started out as an Assistant Head of Year and I was called to these situations my temptation was always to get there as fast as possible and this is something I eventually realised didn’t help me to de-escalate a situation. I always phrase this advice when talking to others as taking a considered approach to considering your approach. The time it takes you to respond to any situation can be used productively by considering how you will respond/deal with the particular problem when you arrive. When I reflected on what happened when I sprinted to a situation to deal with it I found that I’d arrive and then be firefighting from the get-go. If you give yourself time to think as you are en-route you can consider what you are going to say when you arrive; How will you break up the students? Can you stop into an office on the way there to get support? How will you disperse a crowd that’s gathered?
As a side-note if ever you do find yourself trying to break up a fight alone(not something I would encourage) it’s often the case that one participant wants to be there much less than the other. A tool/phrase I’d often use would be to figure out who was the one who wanted to be there least, direct my attention to the aggressor and instruct them very clearly and authoritatively to walk away(often repeatedly) after getting into a position where the other student is safer, usually behind me. Again, never something I’d encourage, but sometimes we find ourselves in these positions due to the nature of the role and it’s good to be prepared.
2. Taking statements
Pastoral roles are weird. You can go from delivering an assembly, teaching a maths lesson or meeting a parent into investigating the latest incident in the long running case of ‘The Toilet Terroriser’. I’m fairly sure if I ever wanted to join the police I’d have plenty of investigative experience to talk about!
I think this is a really difficult part of the job – we all go into education based roles because we want the best for children and as a result we are often predisposed to believe them and believe that they wouldn’t wilfully break rules. It’s often the case that when you are dealing with incidents that you will be taking statements from students whether it’s just for evidence for later or as part of exclusions packs etc. Children naturally don’t want to get into trouble and sometimes these are less statement and more interrogation and it’s good to have some tools in the locker that make this process less painful for you. Nothing is worse than spending a good chunk of your day taking statements and then somebody contradicts what’s been said and you have to go all the way back to the beginning.
Tool 1: Question their loyalty
If you’ve never heard the phrase “I ain’t snitching on my mates” or “I ain’t saying nuffin” count yourself lucky. The best way I’ve found to counter this is to remind students that there are x number of other students all sat, or about to be sat, giving statements to members of staff. Ask them if they can be sure that they are all saying the same thing, ask them if they are sure that their ‘mates’ aren’t going to try to get out of trouble by saying somebody else did it.
Tool 2: Remind them that this is their one opportunity
I always lead with the mantra with students that I’d be much happier to find out something had gone wrong the first time I asked and that if I spent more time on something because I was lied to then sanctions would always be worse. When taking statements I always make sure to let students know that the statement they give is the statement that I will work with and that any time you change what you say will make you much less likely to be believed in the future.
Tool 3: Have a lengthy statement in your drawer from a previous incident
“I didn’t see anything” signed by John Smith on the first line of a piece of paper is always frustrating after giving a student the opportunity to give their version of events. On some occasions when students did this I would ask them if they were happy with the length of their statement and then take a lengthy statement out of my drawer from a previous incident(usually 2 sides), show it from a distance and then inform the student that other statements that I’d taken were significantly longer and much more detailed. It’s all well and good writing one line if you think that’s what everyone is doing, when presented with the idea that others might be writing a lot more it sometimes prompted a more honest account.
Tool 4: Write statements yourself
This one is particularly for situations where you know it may escalate to an internal/external exclusion, will be used in parental meetings etc. but I think is good practise. As time-consuming as it is, I’d always encourage you to take and write statements yourself from students. It’s usually the case that when they are tasked with writing them themselves they conveniently leave out details we already know about and are less likely to tell the truth. You want to be in a position where you can prompt for answers but not ask leading questions “Was somebody in the toilets? If I check the CCTV will I see somebody walk in?” rather than “Jeremy was in the toilets wasn’t he”. More than anything this will help to ensure that statements are clear, contain the level of detail needed and are in a logical order for anybody else who may read them. By writing them yourself you also have the opportunity to re-question once certain comments have been committed to paper to see if a student even remembers what they’ve just told you!
3. Responding to classroom incidents/on-call or referral systems
Whatever your context you will likely have some sort of on-call or referral system in which a class teacher can request the support of another member of staff(usually a teaching/pastoral middle leader or SLT). As strange as it might sound I always enjoy being on-call, if you take it as an opportunity to spend an hour walking around the building, popping into lessons and being given the opportunity to interact, and build relationships, with some of the most difficult students in your school then it can be incredibly rewarding. The days where you get 10-15 calls in an hour though I will say aren’t as rewarding!
When I left my previous school a member of staff chose that moment to tell me that they thought I was too nice to students when I was called to on-call incidents. I apparently didn’t shout enough – something that I have seen as an expectation before. Some staff expect that when you arrive you are there to bring a child to the verge of tears to make them understand the error of their ways. I’ve always seen my role in these situations as the opposite – a child has gotten themselves into a situation that they either regret or will likely regret if given space away from it and it’s my job to facilitate de-escalation. The scenario I’ve listed below is an example of a go-to approach/structured response that I used to address a specific problem.
Scenario: The student who won’t leave the room
At a previous school there were a spate of students refusing to leave the room when a member of staff was called to remove them. It’s all well and good me saying my role is de-escalation but if the student won’t even leave the room to discuss their behaviour – how can I help them/the member of staff? This was one of the biggest frustrations I faced early on in an Assistant Head of Year. After a few failed attempts(and questioning if I had the mettle to work in pastoral care) when faced with this issue I stuck to a particular script that worked on one occasion and after noticing it worked a majority of the time after that. If I’d asked a student to leave and they refused(whether politely or not as politely I’d like) I’d inform them that I’d give them a minute to consider whether that was a sensible decision for them to make and then tell the class teacher I was popping to deal with a call next door or similar. I’d return in exactly one minute and if the student still refused I’d move into the room and crouch down next to them and very quietly say something similar to the following:
“I know there is a reason you don’t want to leave the room but I cant help you in here, I need to be able to talk to you outside of this environment. Nobody in this room knows what I’m telling you at this point, for all they know I’m telling you that if you don’t leave the room you will be permanently excluded, let them think whatever they want. Let’s get out of here and go for a walk so that I can help you.”
I can’t remember a student refusing to leave the room with me after I started to implement that strategy. Sometimes it’s because they have their excuse to not lose face in front of their peers, sometimes it’s because you’ve moved into their space and aren’t just a figure at the door telling them to get out or they realise you aren’t going away!
4. Take a walk
I’ve spent a lot of my time in pastoral care working in particular with boys, having spent 2.5 years at a boys school, and one of the things that I found useful in a lot of situations is going for a walk. Whether it’s to calm them down or get them talking, the different environment and the fact you are moving helps to change the situation positively. It’s something that is spoken about quite frequently now, putting boys into low-pressure situations where it’s easier to talk because you aren’t sat directly across from each other in which can sometimes be awkward or uncomfortable. I’m fairly sure I remember John Tomsett blogging about talking to his sons in the car for the same reason – it’s much easier to open up in a seemingly lower pressure environment.
I tend to also like to go outside if I offer a student the chance to take a walk – a lap around the building, sitting on a bench on the way etc. We all feel a little bit better for getting some fresh air and it’s something I’d suggest you try if you find yourself in a situation where you are trying to get a student talking or calm. Again – to be judged according to your context – I wouldn’t take a student outside of the building if I felt they might be a danger or at risk of running off site.
I will also say that now being back in a mixed-sex school I’ve found that the strategy works equally as well with girls to calm them down but not as well for fostering conversation where they seem to prefer the opposite in my experience. As I said at the start of this post – all anecdotal – try it out for yourself!
The final strategy I want to talk about is perhaps the simplest but it’s one that changed the way I first deal with upset/angry students completely. I can’t for the life of me remember when or why I started but my instinct says I read something that made me say “Oh… well that makes a ridiculous amount of sense”.
Think back to any time you’ve dealt with a student who is worked up, agitated, angry or upset. They may be tearful, pacing around or shouting. One thing that is usually common is that their breathing is erratic and contributing to their agitated state. Equally, students who are currently focusing negative energy or aggression towards an outburst need to have their focus directed elsewhere and onto their breathing is an excellent switch.
I can think of a myriad of recent examples where changing a students focus to their breathing before attempting to address a situation has completely altered the outcome. It seems small and potentially insignificant but I can’t credit it enough. If you find yourself in a situation with a student who you feel could benefit, tell them to focus on you, whether that’s looking at you or closing their eyes and listening to your voice. Tell them you are going to ask them to take a big breath in through their nose, they need to hold it and then release when you say after a couple of seconds “Big breath in through your nose, hold it, out through your mouth” and do this 5-10 times. Change your wording then to “big breath in…and out” and then eventually to just “in..and out” before you ask them to keep going without you saying anything. You should see them visibly begin to calm through the process and then, I’ve found, it’s much easier to try to get to the bottom of the situation.
I hope there will be something of use for you in there if you’ve taken the time to read the post – I’ve said previously that I feel incredibly lucky to have had barrels of information and advice shared with me through excellent and experienced colleagues during my time in pastoral care and I’d love it if you left your own advice, or go-to tools, for colleagues here or on Twitter. Tweet or DM me on Twitter @connoracton if you’d like to discuss anything in more detail!