Breaking the Teacher-Student Conflict Cycle: 5 Steps You Can Take Now

Look to the grown-ups first! The key to improving student behavior is changing the way teachers and administrators react.

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teacher student conflict cycle

Devon enters your classroom with his head down and his stride slow. You look at him and say, “Good afternoon, Devon.” He responds by dropping his head even lower and walking faster to his desk. He says nothing.

You’re disappointed by his behavior. Devon doesn’t usually greet people, but it’s a skill you’ve been working on with him. You wonder if something happened to Devon in the hallway or earlier in the day that may have upset him. You approach him at his desk and ask, “Devon, why didn’t you greet me when you came into class?” He looks straight ahead and tersely mumbles, “‘Cause I don’t feel like talking to you!”

How do you respond? Whether you’re an administrator or a teacher, it can be a tough call. Will you:

  • Walk away.
  • Ask him softly, “Why don’t you feel like talking to me today?”
  • Tell him sternly, “I expect a greeting whenever you enter my classroom.”
  • Pat him on the shoulder and say, “That’s OK.”
  • Laugh it off and tell him he’ll be happier when the class period is over.
  • Roll your eyes, mutter “Typical!” and ignore him for the rest of the period.

This situation, like any difficult or less-than-pleasant interaction with students, illustrates the many behavioral choices grown-ups have when responding to students’ problem behaviors. How the adults in a school react can determine whether a situation or behavior worsens, improves or simply never changes. As educators, when we learn to manage our own responses, we can become positive agents for change.

Recognizing the Conflict Cycle

If you react to Devon by rolling your eyes and turning your back on him, you simply mirror the same disrespectful behaviors he demonstrated. Now Devon might feel you “dissed” him and become even more defiant. Suddenly, what began as a seemingly innocuous incident escalates into an all-out confrontation. This back-and-forth, or action-reaction cycle, is a process that researchers Nicholas Long and Mary Wood refer to as the conflict cycle, and it goes on every day in classrooms and schools across the country.

According to Long and Wood, crisis is the product of a student’s stress that is kept alive by the actions and reactions of others. When a child’s or teen’s feelings are aroused by stress, he or she learns to behave in ways that shield him or her from painful feelings. These behaviors (aggression, avoidance) may be undesirable, but they protect the child from distressing feelings. Others (parents, teachers, peers) perceive the behavior as negative, and they respond in a negative fashion. This negative response produces additional stress, and the youth again reacts in an inappropriate matter. The spiraling of behaviors causes a minor incident to escalate into a crisis.

The conflict cycle follows a pattern: First, there is a stressful event (a failed test, rejection by a peer) that triggers a negative or irrational belief (“That teacher hates me!” or “Everyone at this school is against me!”). These negative thoughts trigger negative feelings and anxieties, which drive inappropriate behavior (talking back, cursing, being sarcastic, etc.), provoking adults, who may then mirror those negative behaviors. The adult reaction increases a student’s stress, triggers more intense feelings and drives more negative behavior. This cycle continues until it escalates into a no-win power struggle.

Addressing the Cycle

For most administrators and teachers, the biggest challenge to correcting inappropriate behavior is staying out of or breaking the conflict cycle. When a student is in your office and yells, “I don’t have to listen to you!” the natural urge is to yell right back, “Oh, yes you do!” But matching the student’s inappropriate actions only starts the cycle spinning. Then, the goal becomes winning the argument rather than teaching an alternate behavior or correcting the problem. And that’s a lose-lose proposition.

Avoiding the natural instinct to respond aggressively when faced with an aggressive student, however, can be difficult. That’s why it’s important to recognize your triggers. Be aware of your emotional hot buttons. What can a student say or do to send you shooting straight over the edge? When a student violates a value that you hold dear—being kind to younger children or being honest, for example—it can provoke a strong response. Prepare for those situations by practicing self-control strategies that calm your nerves—deep breathing, counting to 10, positive self-talk, etc. Consider having teachers share their own strategies in a group conversation. This is a frustration every educator encounters.

What Educators Can Do

With so many factors potentially influencing a student’s behavior and reactions, there is only one thing that is certain: You have the power to control your own behavior. The better able the adults in the building are to stay calm, maintain a professional demeanor and remember that students’ behavioral mistakes are teaching opportunities, the better your school environment will be. Here are a few tips to share with other educators and to use yourself:

  1. Control Your Voice
    Using a soft but firm voice is less inflammatory than a raised voice or sarcastic tone. Speak slowly and calmly.
  2. Relax Your Body Language
    Keeping a relaxed posture and using non-aggressive body language can also defuse escalating tensions. No pointed fingers, swinging arms or invading personal space.
  3. Avoid Making Judgmental Statements
    This may be the most important thing. Don’t attack the student personally, ever. Keep your comments brief and focused on the inappropriate behavior rather than arguing about who is at fault or what should have happened. Stay focused.
  4. Allow Cool-Down Time
    This can help you as much as it helps the student. With this strategy, you give the student a couple of minutes to reflect and think about how to turn his or her behavior around. You’re not forcing a conversation. This is time you can use to calm yourself or to make sure other students are doing what they need to do.
  5. Use Praise and Empathy
    Even when a student has misbehaved, there is always some positive you can acknowledge. To take the Devon example above: Yes, Devon refused a greeting and was surly, but he got to class on time and has all his books. Start there. You might also choose to start your interaction with an empathy statement that shows a student you understand his or her perspective.

It makes a tremendous difference. When a teacher skips over this step, students are likely to perceive him or her as quick to criticize and slow to recognize accomplishments. In short, if students see teachers as “not on their side,” their authority and effectiveness are already diminished.

When the adults in a school begin to shift their perspective on negative student behavior and work to break the conflict cycle, it opens up a world of possibilities for your school. Mistakes become teaching opportunities, and student consequences are less a punishment than an opportunity to learn, a chance to improve. And along the way, your school becomes a more positive place for students and teachers to learn and work.

This article was adapted from Well-Managed Schools: Strategies to Create a Productive and Cooperative Social Climate in Your Learning Community (Boys Town Press, 2011).