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“I need you to put your phone away and participate in the lesson.”

“I’m texting my mom.  You can’t make me stop talking to my mom”

“Give me the phone.”

“No, you can’t take my phone.  My mom needs to tell me something.”

“I can take your phone.  Hand it to me right now.”

“No.”

“Yes.”

“My mom said I don’t have to give anyone at school my phone.”

“Your mom’s not here.  Our rules are clear.  Give me the phone.”

One thing I know from experience is that a middle schooler can play this game all day.  In fact, sometimes they want nothing more than to engage in this kind of debate with a teacher.  A colleague of mine has great advice for staff members in this situation.  Don’t pick up the rope.

An exchange like this can quickly become a tug-of-war, a fight for power and control.  But it is impossible to play tug-of-war if you do not pick up the rope.

I am not advocating allowing defiant and insubordinate behavior in your classroom.  I am simply suggesting that engaging in an extended debate with a frustrated student generally just results in a frustrated adult.  The more frustrated we become, the less likely we are to resolve the issue well.

Time is an underestimated tool in the behavior management toolbox.  Walking away and not engaging a student is a short-term way to disengage and allow for the possibility that the student will respond appropriately.  If they do respond appropriately, you can decide later what follow-up is needed.  It may be as simple as a conversation, or it may be a classroom or office consequence.

If the student does not choose to respond after redirection, again, don’t pick up the rope.  Each behavior issue is unique.  Some can be ignored until a later time and then addressed.  Others are more severe and require an immediate response.  In those cases, remove the student from the room, or if necessary, remove the other students from the room.

I am not saying this is easy.  I am not saying I have been able to walk this talk every time I have found myself working with a student.  As a teacher, there were plenty of times I picked up the rope.  As an administrator in charge of discipline, I picked up the rope as well.  And almost every time, I made the situation worse.  Cooler heads really do prevail.  When I was able to ask a student to sit or read or work for a while in a supervised location away from other students, and away from me, we were usually able to come back later and talk more calmly.  Sometimes they needed the time to cool off.  Sometimes I did.

The end of the school year can be tough for classroom management.  Students are getting excited for summer.  So are the adults!  When tensions rise, my advice is to not pick up the rope.

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