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How to manage behaviour at the school gates

Written by Paul Dix

Patrolling the line between school and community takes some skill, sensitivity and courage. In many schools, the perimeter gates attract unwelcome visitors: excluded students, drug dealers, students from rival schools, older teenagers in cars, etc. Teachers are rightly unsure of their jurisdiction on the street outside their school and nervous about their authority being openly challenged by those who do not recognise it.

In the classroom, the management of behaviour is complex, but at least you control the environment and your audience is limited. At the school gates, or on the street outside, the game is very different. Here, interactions happen with a larger and more diverse audience in an environment that you cannot control or predict. Your own behaviour is being scrutinised and students can feel that you are encroaching onto territory where they are used to greater privacy and freedom. How do you enforce school rules on the edges of your ‘patch’ and keep your dignity intact, whilst also ensuring students arrive and leave school safely?

Just as you can nurture a positive atmosphere in the classroom by standing at the door welcoming students or reinforcing positive behaviour at the end of the lesson, so you can also have an impact at the school gates. Students read your physical and verbal language as they pass by; it will set the right tone if you are calm, confident, and positive, smiling, speak softly and can reinforce students who follow the rules. Patrol like a cartoon policeman and you will attract negative responses and aggression. Your behaviour has the greatest single impact on how safe students feel. Your management of behaviour needs to be proactive; rather than ignoring the group of unwanted visitors, go and talk to them. With a non-threatening approach, engage them in gentle conversation. Resist the temptation to get into an unproductive argument about why they shouldn’t be there – you are unlikely to be able to move them on. Your proximity may be enough to divert them from disruptive behaviour, your friendly conversation enough to embarrass them into keeping a distance from the schools gates tomorrow.

As students cross the line between school and community, some will take the opportunity to show their distain for the school rules or see it as an opportunity to verbally attack staff from a distance. If you observe students breaking the rules as they run out of school at the end of the day, record what has happened and follow it up, personally. Students who exhibit ‘chase me’ behaviours as they leave may want a very public confrontation. Don’t give it to them. Accurately record what is said and done and be the first face that they see when they arrive in school the next morning.

The school gates are not the best place to hold lengthy discussions about behaviour or to immediately challenge behaviour in front of others. There may be much more at stake for students than usual; losing face in front of their school peer group may be a minor embarrassment compared to the shame of losing face in public. Different expectations are at play; you may be able to call Jade’s name across the playground but shouting it across the road may elicit an entirely different response. You will certainly come across students who you don’t teach and responses that you can’t predict. Have pen and paper to record those incidents in which you choose not to intervene and have a planned strategy for the times that you do intervene.

The key is to get in and get out quickly, efficiently and with everyone’s dignity intact. The end of the day is not a good time to start dealing with incidents in detail but neither is it appropriate to ignore poor behaviour. Take an indirect and non- threatening approach to the student, inviting them to speak to you away from their friends.

‘I have seen you lighting a cigarette/pinching Denise/throwing litter/breakdancing on the Headteacher’s car. I am not going to discuss this with you now. We need to meet in reception before school tomorrow to find out how to best deal with this. Which way are you walking home now?’

The thought of managing violent confrontation in the street makes many teachers reluctant to volunteer for gate duty. Managing physical confrontation is complex and potentially dangerous. If a fight breaks out in the street outside the school, you have to make very difficult decisions very quickly. Do you call for more support immediately or ask students who are leaving the site to return to your school’s reception? Is it safe to intervene? If it is, do you intervene verbally or physically? With younger children, a gentle physical intervention may immediately ease the two apart – with older students, the risks are higher.

Find out the students’ names before you approach them. Casually ask a child who is some distance away from the action for this information and it may be readily given, demand it from the protagonist when you arrive on the scene and it will put you at an immediate disadvantage. Consider how you are going to deal with other students crowding, and in some cases, encouraging the fighters. Are there other adults who can disperse the crowd? Resist the temptation to rush to an instant judgment on blame but use the strongest tones (near but not at the limit of your voice) and instruct the fighters to stop: ‘Patrick, step back. Step away Mark. Hands down’. Treat the fighters equally but separately: ‘Kylie go with Mrs Wallis, and Sheena come with me’.

The fall-out from a fight can be exacerbated by assumptions of guilt, ‘Fighting again, Darren? Right I’m going to send you home’, or by unequal treatment of students: ‘Go and clean yourself up Shona. Eleanor, it’s the head’s office for you’. If your verbal intervention has no impact and you decide to physically intervene, accepting all of the risks that this entails, explain exactly what you are doing as you do it, out loud: ‘I am holding your shoulders and turning you away. This fight has finished. Move back, keep your hands down. I am holding you to stop the fight’, while constantly checking the physical pressure that you are exerting. Putting yourself in the middle of a fight does carry risks and all teachers are keenly aware of tragedies at the school gates, but ‘standing and watching’ is not an option that you should always choose. As the crowd disperses, hold a couple of key witnesses behind to record their version of events in isolation, taking time to reach your judgments on appropriate sanctions or referrals.

Showing commitment to the management of behaviour at the school gates carries risks, but has a number of positive benefits for the individual teacher. Once you have established yourself not simply in the classroom but also around the site, the ‘pay off’ will be significant and positively affect each working day. When students realise that you are going to intervene (or record and chase) rather than ignore them, they start to correct their behaviour before you arrive or at least smile knowingly and wait until you have passed! Instead of walking into regular and unpleasant negative exchanges with students, you take the opportunity to have positive interactions as you move around the school. Cover lessons will become easier, break and after-school duties calmer and more enjoyable. Students will be more used to having you around and you will be more relaxed in their company. Everybody benefits. You could, of course, spend most of your working day avoiding informal interaction with children, but then you would be in the wrong job, surely?

© Paul Dix

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