Dear Kid Whisperer,
I have come up against a behavior with my 8th grade students that I don’t know what to do with, and that behavior has multiplied in one of my class periods to the point that it puts a stop to all instruction almost every day. I call it strategic arguing. I have four students in my fifth period class who have realized that they can stop me from teaching if they argue with me. I can see it in their eyes- they’re messing with me. What do I do? I have to teach, and I don’t want to be messed with. -Jay, Phoenix, Arizona
It certainly is disheartening when you are being successfully manipulated by people who haven’t even completed puberty yet. It’s even worse when you don’t know what to do about it. It’s worse still when a change of career starts to seem like a viable solution.
You have accurately assessed your situation: Yes, these kids have your number. They are trying to manipulate you to get out of work AND to get an entertaining teacher who gets angry instead of teaching.
Here’s how to take fifth period back.
First, absorb this fact: No one can make you argue with them without your consent. The minimum number of people that it takes to have an argument is two.
JUST DON’T BE ONE OF THOSE TWO PEOPLE!
A kid trying to argue is not an argument. It is just a silly-looking person talking. He isn’t getting what he wants as long as you keep teaching and don’t appear to become frustrated, because frustrated teachers are fun to watch and reinforce negative behaviors.
Here’s how I deal with arguers. Notice that when I do exactly the right thing, the argument attempts get worse! That’s because the kid is not getting what he wants (see above) so he’s trying harder to get what he wants using the behavior that worked up until the moment I started using this strategy (see below). The argument will stop as soon as the student notices the pattern that his attempts never get him what he wants, and that there will always be consequences for belligerent behaviors.
Kid Whisperer: I will be working from page 235.
Kid: Why are we doing this? I’m not doing anything ‘cause doing things is stupid.
Kid Whisperer (while walking away and teaching the other students): I don’t argue.
Kid: What? $#@% this. You’re being weird. What’s wrong with you, stupid?!? I’m the king of this class. Bow down to me!
Kid Whisperer (while helping another student who is acting like a decent human person): And what did I say?
Kid: My IEP clearly states that I am incapable of not being an obnoxious jerk, so therefore, you are my slave and shall accommodate me thusly!
Kid Whisperer (while taking a drink of coffee and delivering group instruction): And what did I say?
Kid: That you don’t…what? This is so dumb! I’m not doing anything you say!
Kid Whisperer (while still teaching and not looking at Kid): …And what did I say?
Continue teaching as you repeat the above question over and over. Never deviate from it while the student continues his attempts to bait you into an argument. Any belligerent behavior, such as the swearing witnessed in this example or extended argument attempts, indicates an opportunity for the student to practice behaving in a non-belligerent way later, during non-instructional time, or coming up with a list of non-obnoxious things to say to the teacher. Or both. That student’s social life can be put on pause until he learns the proper behavior for the classroom.