How teachers can safely stop fights between students

In the course of a career, most teachers will inevitably need to deal with an ugly and violent confrontation between students. It may be a petty argument which has escalated to fisticuffs, or a case of outright bullying, but whatever the circumstances, the aggressive behavior needs to be stopped quickly and safely.

Most teachers are by nature quite heroic, and many would gladly risk personal injury if it meant preventing harm to their students. But before putting your own body on the line, there are a couple of general principles which should be noted.

First, be aware that there is a risk to the teacher – not only of physical injury, but also of legal action. Unfortunately, there are students and parents who are willing to charge teachers with assault or sexual impropriety if the intervention is overtly physical. So watch those hands, and if it does become necessary to step between students, try to use your whole body to separate them, rather than grabbing or pushing them.

Second, it is imperative to assess the situation before taking any further action. How serious is the conflict? Are there likely to be weapons involved? Is it simply two students squaring off, or are others likely to join in? Is there anyone around who can assist you, if necessary?

The first proactive step is to stay calm. A yelling, excited teacher is liable to inflame the situation rather than control it. Use a loud, clear and assertive voice to announce your presence, and get rid of any spectators. Address any students you know by name and give specific instructions, such as “Stephen, go back to class,” or “Emma, go and tell the principal what is happening here.”

In many cases, students are secretly hoping that an adult will tell them to stop fighting. Once they’ve shown their colors, they just need a way to back out with honor, and appealing to school rules is one way of doing this. Calmly and clearly remind the fighting students that if they don’t stop immediately, they will have an argument with higher authorities; namely, the school, their parents and possibly even the police. The students-fighters and spectators alike-need to understand that the aggression needs to stop because they are doing the wrong thing, and not because of your personal authority.

On rare occasions, it will be necessary to physically step in. Whenever possible, have help close at hand to lend assistance and to verify your actions. Try to be even-handed in your dealings with the combatants, so that they understand that your instructions and actions are not meant to apportion blame or to belittle one of them. Right now, at this moment, they both need to stop fighting.

Once the fight is over, escort the students to a safe, quiet location where discussions can take place. If possible, involve another teacher who knows the students and who can help to diffuse the situation. Arrange medical attention, if necessary, and offer support and counselling. Complete a written report of the incident and ensure that parents and administration are fully informed.

Fights between students are unsavory moments in any teaching career, and although stopping them is never an easy task, the steps listed above can, in most cases, limit the likelihood of physical or emotional injury to the students or teacher. But as always, prevention is better than cure, and teachers need to be constantly on the lookout for minor niggles which might develop into something more serious.