How Best To Tell a Kid Off

Thinking about my teaching and about some of my work with kids through different projects, I can share countless examples of times when I have needed to ‘administer a telling off’. This differs from general ‘classroom management’ and ‘behaviour management’ and this is outside of the domain of routines and rules. The telling off is after the event, after the infraction, after the error.

When I think back to my training, I received not a jot of information about what to do in this situation that we regularly find ourselves in: the rules have been broken, mistakes have been made, the kid’s messed up, and now they are sat there with you, and you are going to do something about it.

We don’t really talk about how we tell a kid off, even us reflective ‘tell it all on Twitter’ types. It feels somehow more voyeuristic and ‘wrong’ to publicly air what happens in these situations. I get the feeling that in these one-to-one post-error interactions, there is perhaps a wider range of interaction styles than takes place in any other professional interactions. With just you and the the child/young person, it is far more personal and (I would predict) idiosyncratic.

In these pep-talks, I don’t feel like a skilled professional who is trained to help children to see the error of their ways, in order that we can make sure that peace, order and learning remain our shared goal. Moreso, I feel myself to be some confused hybrid of Judge Judy, Sigmund Freud, Columbo, Nurse Ratchet, Miss Honey and  Malcolm Tucker.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not interested in this topic as a personal plea for assistance. I consider myself to be pretty good at it, in fact. I find it very interesting that this is an area of huge importance and familiarity about which there is no discourse. We don’t know what works. We don’t know what doesn’t. We don’t know what is effective for certain kids, or certain infractions, or certain situations and not others. We all tend to do what we do, and leave it at that.

Most mysteriously of all though, we don’t really know who is good at it and who is bad at it. I know that I don’t like the way I know some people do it, but that is not to say that it is more effective than what I do. I can’t prove this either way.

Nobody wants to be seen as someone unable to control their children, but nobody really will be found bragging in the staffroom about how skilled they are at extracting remorse, or forcing a kid to tears of realisation, or coaxing admissions of culpability and commitment to change. Likewise, nobody is recognised as being particularly skilled at encouraging kids to open up, to share and to vent. There is no merit system attached to it, because it is so individualised and private, and because we cannot identify whether any subsequent behaviours are a consequence of the telling off.

What is to be done? Well, having been chatting with Tom Bennett (@tombennett71) and Thomas Starkey (@tstarkey212), we were discussing the possibility for an exchange of telling offs.  We need a way to unpick the Art/Science/Craft/Mechanics (we just don’t know what it is!) of the Telling Off.

In terms of what I think would be most helpful, I would imagine filmed or sound recorded interactions with pupils would be the most immediately useful; should teachers be willing to share such things, and so long as those accessing it were engaged in the same respectful collaborative critical endeavour,

Yes it is difficult to share these things, for confidentiality, ethics and child protection reasons (necessarily so), but that doesn’t mean the topic should be avoided completely. There are ways that anonymity can be assured, and there is nothing to say that actually, parents would be against this, once it was explained and they were able to give informed consent. (We often don’t give them enough credit with stuff like this; they have a reason to want teachers to get better too!)

The more I think of it, and especially when I think about the predictable struggles all new teachers have with this, the more necessary it seems to have a sense of ‘what works’ in the one-to-one telling off.

If nothing else, for us all to reflect on it will help to shed light on it for us as individual teachers. Who knows, we might unlock some hidden universal truths (or possibly just Pandora’s Box…).

So let’s get a bit of chitchat started about how we could facilitate something like this in a way that is ethical, constructive, respectful and oriented towards helping all of us to make the best possible decisions in the way we work with children and young people.


6 thoughts on “How Best To Tell a Kid Off

  1. Since getting onto twitter I’ve read many things that have made me reflect on my own practice, however yours has deeply resonated with me. In over a decade of teaching I’ve not once had any CPD, training or discussion about my behaviour management strategies. Along with subject knowledge it is something that has been left to me to get on with. My first 5 years were trial and error and I quickly found what worked for boys didn’t automatically work for girls. In the last few years, working in a boys school, I’ve found my own style. I suppose it would be described as sanction and support. If rules are broken sanction occurs no matter what. This is time consuming and hugely stressful if you try to carry everything through. I do find myself slipping at times of high workloads, and that inconsistency is what usually generates poorer behaviour. After the sanction comes support. Some students don’t need it, they’ve just been naughty and the support is reminder of the expectations. Others are having a bad day and need a chat, a kind explanation if that happens they must try to stick to the rules and there are people in school they can share things with. Others need organisational help like allowing them to keep their kit in school and showing them how to use our washing machine, others need support from home and therefore a phone call or meeting with parents is needed. Following the sanction I always try to give the opportunity for a student to explain and then receive support so it doesn’t happen again, but I try not to be too flexible on the sanction as that can have wider consequences for my behaviour management. I’m not sure how this approach would work with girls, I think pretty poorly if I’m honest. I also wouldn’t prescribe this to other teachers, it works for me in the context of my school with the students I teach. The thought of recording my behaviour management actually fills me with dread, much more than videoing my teaching and sharing it with colleagues. I can’t put my finger on it, but because I haven’t been open for this area of my practice for so long it feels very intimate and private.

    1. I really enjoyed reading your views Sporticus. I am totally with you on that annoying fact about how behavioural follow-throughs can slip during times of high workload and I absolutely agree that this leads to a deterioration. I think it is fair enough to say that what works for you works for you – I tihnk that what works for me, works for me! – the interesting thing will be to see where there are alignments between teachers. Perhaps we’d discover some holy grail of the pep talk! Next time you have a peptalk, write about it after maybe?

  2. It’s an interesting issue, Jonny. I remember in my early years of teaching feeling my way with this (and getting it badly wrong sometimes) and then moving into my first pastoral role where one of my jobs was telling off pupil who’d misbehaved for someone else (when I wasn’t even there) and I found that REALLY difficult.

    I have to say one of the problems is that this is so personal and relationship- and context-specific. It’s also difficult to come up with hard and fast rules – I found what worked with one child on one day didn’t necessarily work with the same child on a different day.

    Knowing the pupils as individuals and building the most positive relationship with them (and their parents) so that when you DO have to reprimand you’re doing it in the context of a good working relationship makes a huge difference.

    I think it’s definitely something we should discuss. I can’t imagine a systematic way of researching it that would lead to ground-breaking discoveries and answers, though!

    1. Hi Jill. Thanks for such a thoughtful and considered comment. I think it is doubtul that we’d find hard and fast rules BUT i have a strange feeling as though we are missing a few little tricks which are generally applicable.

      I know that, as you say, we have different effective approaches with different kids. It’ll be interesting as well to see what the kids think of this. I know some of my kids seethe when I treat one child softly (with good reasoning) and them differently for the same behavior; the kids like the idea of equal treatment even if they don’t like the reality.

      1. Yes – I’ve seen multiple examples of pupils complaining when they perceive different students have been treated differently. It’s a tough one, but I do believe strongly that you should take into account context/circumstances, and take appropriate action even if you risk being accused of being unfair. Sometimes other pupils (and, in fact, staff) don’t (and can’t) know all the details of the context/circumstances, but teachers and leaders have to know they’re doing the right thing, even if others don’t see it!

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