In this two-part series for volunteer professionals, our Lawyers in Schools team have put together some advice on managing student behaviour. Find out how to facilitate a successful discussion in the classroom with these top ten tips.
Establish ground rules at the beginning of the session.
Ground rules for discussion might include ‘respecting each other’s opinions’ and ‘not talking over one another’. It’s best practice to suggest the first one, but then ask the students to come up with the others – it gives students ownership, showing that you respect them and want to listen to their ideas from the beginning. If a student breaks a rule, gently remind them about the ground rules.
Use the sort of questions that will encourage discussion.
Open-ended questions – questions that start with ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘why’, ‘when’, or ‘how’ – are good. Questions that start with ‘should’, ‘would’ and ‘could’ will encourage students to voice their opinions, and ‘devil’s advocate’ questions can lead to some lively debates!
Don’t dictate your own opinions; encourage debate.
Stay neutral; you don’t want to be accused of indoctrination. Don’t state your own opinion; instead, disguise it along the lines of ‘some people think…’.
Invite the students to explain what they think of each other’s opinions. Be objective and try and facilitate learning. Remember that young people have to listen to adults’ opinions all the time.
Keep it balanced. Try to ensure that all sides of an argument get a fair hearing.
Try to draw everyone’s opinions out.
Try and make sure everyone has the chance to voice their opinion – but don’t pick directly on students unless you have built up a good rapport with them.
Even then, tread carefully, because there may be a good reason why a student is being quiet – the matter being discussed could be particularly sensitive to them. Giving students a few minutes in pairs to come up with a couple of answers to a question is a good way of engaging quiet students and may give them the confidence to speak out.
Don’t force students to read out loud.
It’s possible that some students will have language or literacy difficulties, or lack the necessary confidence. Ask if there are any volunteers to read and if not, just read it out yourself.
Don’t say someone is wrong directly.
Invite the group to comment, if appropriate, or ask probing questions and guide the student towards the correct answer.
Stay objective and be aware of people’s cultural or religious sensitivities.
Keep the discussion on track.
The students will be very interested in you and may have many questions unrelated to the topic in hand. A little off-topic conversation might be good for building rapport, but keep it brief and try and link it back to the session. Don’t be afraid to limit a student’s airtime if they are dominating the discussion or going off topic.
Use active listening skills.
Acknowledge that you’re listening with a nod, and try to summarise what someone has said afterwards.
It’s OK to say ‘I don’t know’ to a question.
If someone asks you something and you don’t know the answer, say you will try to follow up on their question the next time, or ask them to look into the answer for when you next see them. Students find it very refreshing to learn that professionals don’t know the answer to everything. The class teacher might be an expert in their subject area, but it is unlikely they could answer every question on the topic in hand.