Arguing with children is pointless @bennewmark

“Write down the date and title now, Nick. If you haven’t started in thirty seconds you’re getting a C1.”

“Nick you haven’t started your date and title.”

“Calm down. I’m just starting. I’m getting my pen.”

“Right that’s a C1, Nick. You’ve been in here five minutes and you haven’t written anything down.”

“I just got here and I told you I’m getting my pen!”

“You’ve been here five minutes!”

“No I haven’t!”

“Yes you have!”

“Alex hasn’t written anything yet and you haven’t said anything to him!”

“So what? I told you, not Alex!”

“So how come Alex doesn’t have to write anything?”

“That’s a C2 for arguing.”

“I’m not even arguing. This always happens in your lessons! You give Cs for nothing! Does anyone else think Sir gives Cs for nothing?”

“That’s it get out!

“What? I’m being sent out for getting my pen?”

“You’re getting sent out for not doing what I told you and for arguing back!”

“I’m telling my mum you sent me out for getting my pen.”


This is a re-blog post by Ben Newmark and published with kind permission.

The original post can be found here. See more posts here.

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Scenes like this are all too common and benefit nobody. Why are we drawn into exchanges like the one above? Why shouldn’t we be? What should we do instead?

Why we do

Children misunderstand instructions both genuinely and deliberately.Children who don’t want to work will look for excuses not to. They know that if they pretend not to understand what’s been asked of them they can put off compliance and that this can be used as ammunition later. “I didn’t know what Sir meant. He didn’t explain it.” This causes arguments as frustrated teachers re-iterate explanations that were quite clear to begin with.

Children don’t always tell the truth.Teachers fail to appreciate the capacity of some children to bend and even break the truth. When confronted with a bare-faced lie or a wildly inaccurate interpretation of events it’s natural to challenge it robustly. This isn’t usually helpful as it is rare that a child will retreat from a position even if it becomes ridiculous.

Teachers expect children to respond logically to coherent arguments and evidence. As educated adults we live in a reality in which logical arguments beat irrational ones. Children don’t always share this reality. I’ve seen a student watch himself on CCTV committing vandalism and still insist that it wasn’t him.“I don’t care you still can’t prove it was me.” It’s tempting to keep on arguing in the hope that something you say will result in a dramatic confession (“Damn you Newmark! Enough of you and your fiendish inquisition! You know you got me bang to rights! It was me that kicked in the door! And it was me that set off the fire alarm last term too!”) This never happens. Jake actually said something along the lines of “You can’t prove I’m the only one who with a ripped green Adidas top.”Even if unequivocally proven wrong children with nowhere left to go will often simply change their grievance, ensnaring their teacher in a whole new fruitless, pointless argument. “There’s other kids stealing bikes and you don’t do nothing about that!”

When teachers argue they get angry and act on prejudice.The longer teachers argue with children the angrier they get. When this happens they start behaving irrationally and make assumptions based on the child’s behaviour in the past. (“I’m not totally sure it was Danny tapping, but someone is and I’ve seen him do it before. Even if it isn’t him this time he should understand my reasons and accept what I’m shouting”) As much as we might like them to most children will never see things this way (and nor should they). Poorly behaved students are often the most passionate and angry when they’re accused of something they haven’t done because this happens to them quite often.

Angry teachers threaten sanctions they don’t follow up on.

When teachers argue and get angry they ramp up sanctions and, in the heat of the moment, threaten things they really don’t have the time to follow up on. I know because I’ve done it. Once I threatened a boy with a detention every Friday if he said one word back to me. He called my bluff and did. It was a miserable half-term for both of us. If teachers don’t follow up on sanctions then students will continue to argue with us as there isn’t a powerful incentive not to.

“Winning the battle but losing the war.” Why we shouldn’t argue with children.

We shouldn’t argue with children because even when we win we lose. Classes that see their teacher regularly arguing with students become less respectful because well-managed classes don’t argue. Even when a teacher wins an argument children usually won’t recognise this; to them it is just a loss of control. Arguing brings teachers down to a childish level and encourages students to speak to their teacher as they would a peer they disagree with. Arguing amplifies initial disagreements and damages relationships as both sides say things they wouldn’t have had there been no conflict.

What we should do instead.

Make sure all instructions are really clear. This minimises needless conflict. Once sure instructions are clear then sanction if they aren’t followed but don’t bow to the pressure to justify.

“That’s a C1 because you didn’t write down the date and title.”

“I just got here!”

“If you haven’t started writing in thirty seconds it’ll be a C2. Please start.”

Act on what you know is the truth and don’t waste time trying to convince children to see things your way.
“It wasn’t me!”

“Yes it was. Please choose to stop and start the question so we can avoid this going any further”

Be the adult. If you know a child did something wrong then deal with it calmly but don’t try to convince them to accept your reasoning.

“Leah I’m not arguing with you. You’ve been given your sanction. Have a minute to think. If you choose not to do it then these will be the next set of consequences.”

Only act on what you know happened not what you think did. This can be really frustrating but is fairer and leads to less confrontation. If you do need to know exactly who did something wrong then investigate calmly later, not in the heat of the moment. If you make a mistake remove the sanction and apologise.

“All three of you have to come back at break-time so I can work out who damaged the textbook. We won’t be discussing it till then.”

Follow up on sanctions but allow cool off time and avoid punishing secondary offences.

Don’t make empty threats. If you do students will argue with you because they’ll think they can talk you down. After issuing a sanction give the child enough time to reflect on their options and if possible, don’t punish the initial reaction unless it is outrageous.

“The C2 means you have a detention at break. If you don’t write the date and title it’ll be a C3 and a lunch detention. I’ll give you a minute to think about it.”

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