In 1981, U.S researchers Betty Grayson and Morris Stein conducted a fascinating experiment focused on the decision making of muggers in New York City. They showed clips of 60 random people walking down the same city block in New York to 53 prison inmates convicted of violent assault. The prisoners rated the people in the clips for their ‘muggability’. What they found astonished them – the inmates showed a strong consensus for the kind of victim they would choose as a victim, based on non-verbal characteristics including the length of their stride and the way they held their shoulders. It was as if preferred persons had a sign on their back saying, ‘mug me’.

Observable behaviour – both verbal and non-verbal, contribute to what might be called our ‘personal style’. People read our personal style and decide how they will approach and relate to us, based on whether we are friendly and confident, mean and aggressive, shy and passive or hard to get a fix on.

Without suggesting that students in our schools behave like violent criminals, there is clearly something about the adults that work with them that can encourage challenging behaviour, sometimes even on the part of normally respectful children and young people. What is it that some educators, including early-career teachers, may trigger disrespectful behaviour in some students?

Here are some examples:

Being aware of how our personal style can attract the attention of ‘muggers’ in the classroom is one thing, but what can we actually do to reduce our muggability?

These ideas may help:

  • Introduce yourself, using a confident, clear voice
  • Keep your spine straight
  • Smile – mirror neurons make smiling contagious and it can disarm belligerence
  • Greet children or students by name and look to get to know them as people
  • Let the children or students get to know you as a person (even have them play quiz games to ask questions and find out more about you, the person)
  • Admit when you don’t know something, but don’t apologise – frame it as something the class can help you with, or as a shared challenge
  • Don’t talk for too long or too much off topic – remember that the average attention span is a child’s age plus 5 minutes
  • When the learning state of the group becomes negative, change it up – use strategies that change the learning state (see appendix) and be flexible where it allows the class to operate productively
  • Be empathic wherever possible – empathy is the number one connection-making and team-building social skill

You model the behaviour!

Remember that in teaching, positive relationships are critical for learning and everyone’s wellbeing. It is imperative that as a teacher, you model the behaviour (and, in particular, the way that respect is shown between people). This means treating every child with unconditional positive regard (even when you think they might not deserve it). This doesn’t mean that you don’t take a firm stance around disrespectful or disruptive behaviour, but it does mean not reverting to behaviour that you would not accept from students (such as displays of anger, shouting, threatening, sarcasm, public humiliation ….).

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