A Framework for Managing Teacher-Student Conflicts
An assistant principal shares advice for new teachers on when to handle student misbehavior on their own and when to seek help.
Growing up, you may have been taught to take deep breaths and count to 5 when faced with a stressful experience. This advice was meant to calm you down so you could control your emotions and address the situation appropriately.
Counting to 5 continues to be a useful strategy if you’re a teacher. Picture this: You’re checking homework when you approach a student who says they didn’t have time to complete the assignment. This situation warrants a conversation, but where it starts, who it involves, and how it ends can make or break your relationship with the student. So what do you do? Time to take a deep breath and count to 5.
For new teachers, it’s important to feel empowered but also to know when to ask for help. In order to assist teachers in handling day-to-day issues, such as a student failing to complete an assignment on time or exhibiting disruptive—and non-dangerous—behavior, I created the 2-3-4-5 Method. The numbers signify the number of people who should be involved in the conversation and the steps to take when presented with a common school day issue:
- 2: Teacher and Student
- 3: Teacher, Student, and Parent or Guardian
- 4: Teacher, Student, Parent or Guardian, and Guidance Counselor or Dean
- 5: Teacher, Student, Parent or Guardian, Guidance Counselor or Dean, and Administrator
A Look at How This Works
Let’s look at a common example: A student is caught using their phone to text during your class, which is against school policy. What do you do?
2 People: Start with a conversation involving just you and the student. First, kindly ask the student to put their phone away in class. Second, privately inform the student you’d like to talk with them privately after class. During this conversation, you should find out why the student was using their phone. Let’s say the student informs you they were texting a friend they’re arguing with. Now that you know the reason, validate their feelings, showing that you understand what they’re going through, and highlight that you are starting with a private talk because you trust they can fix the problem on their own.
Be sure to reiterate the school policy and come to an agreement that phone use will not be tolerated moving forward. Document this conversation and advise the student that if the behavior continues, their parent or guardian will be notified and invited in for a meeting.
3 People: Two days later you catch the same student texting again. The next conversation should involve you, the student, and their parent or guardian. After class and away from their peers, remind the student of the previous agreement and tell them that you’ll be setting up that meeting.
During the meeting, you should notify the parent or guardian of the school policy and go over the previously documented conversation and the agreement you made with the student. All parties should come to a joint agreement on how the situation should be handled moving forward. The student might suggest that you can hold onto the phone if they’re caught using it during class again. The parent agrees that they will pick it up at the end of the day.
4 People: The following week, you again catch the student using their phone in class. You calmly walk toward their desk and ask for the device, as agreed upon previously. The student refuses to give you the phone. The next conversation should involve you, the student, their parent or guardian, and the guidance counselor or dean.
After class, notify the guidance counselor or dean of the previous meetings and steps taken, and request their presence during an upcoming meeting, where all parties should discuss the policy, the reasons behind the student consistently violating the policy, and next steps since the student has failed to comply with previous agreements.
The parties agree, based upon a new suggestion from the student and parent, that the student will drop the phone off in the guidance counselor or dean’s office at the start of each school day. Be sure to document this conversation.
5 People: Five days later the student refuses to hand the phone over, and you catch them texting in your class. Now the conversation should involve the previous parties and an administrator. Notify the administrator of the three previous meetings. During this meeting, disciplinary action will be set, and all parties agree that the child will no longer be allowed to bring their phone to school and that the parent or guardian will keep it at home since the student has shown they’re unable to follow previous agreements.
As you can see, appropriate steps were taken as the teacher kept control of their classroom while maintaining a positive and respectful relationship with the student. Other examples of situations that may start off with two people include academic concerns such as missing homework, poor test grades, and failure to complete assignments on time, and behavioral concerns like disruptively talking to peers in class, talking back to the teacher, or sleeping in class.
Sometimes, teachers have to bypass the one-on-one conversation stage due to the severity of the situation. For instance, physical violence or threats thereof, mental health or substance abuse concerns, and/or use of racial or offensive language may need to be brought to other people’s attention immediately. Whatever the case may be, be prepared to act accordingly and in the best interest of your students. Just remember, when faced with a stressful situation, take a deep breath and count to 5.