Students who are overly competitive can become easily agitated and engage in inappropriate behaviour during a lot of different activities.
This can make things extremely difficult for you as a teacher, as well as other students. These competitive students can often lose friendships and find themselves quite lonely, not always fully understanding what they’ve done wrong.
This can be challenging, but there are some strategies and tips that can help.
Stress fun over competition
When I taught physical education, I stressed this with every student and every class each day.
Spoiler alert: the competitive kids are going to be competitive no matter what, but you can do your best to alleviate some of your stress.
Before beginning any game, task, or son that had any kind of potential to bring out competitive energy, make sure you let everyone know that the goal is to have fun and build skills.
Also, stress the behaviours you will absolutely not tolerate and act on these. If anyone breaks them, they’re immediately out without any chances. Even if kids are still competitive by nature, they’ll at least recognize what you deem inappropriate and, hopefully act accordingly. And, all students will feel more safe and comfortable with strong rules for inappropriate behaviour and actions.
Let them see the whole game
There can be many different reasons kids can become agitated during games or sports. One of these is because there’s so much external stimuli going on around them.
Many students can feel anxious or overwhelmed if they can’t see what is going on behind them. I find this quite a bit with students who have experienced trauma in their lives, though it can happen for a variety of reasons.
If the student can see the whole game in front of them, they’re less likely to become agitated. For example, court games like badminton or volleyball are generally good for being able to know what’s happening at all angles. For sports like soccer, hockey, and so on, if they’re on defence, there’s a less likely chance that a lot is happening behind them than if they’re on offense.
Often, when too many things are going on around a student, especially if they have ADHD or anxiety, they will become highly irritated. Of course, I’m sure we’ve all witnessed these kiddos react inappropriately when this happens.
Often, using things such as noise cancelling headsets will help students. Or, working in a corner of the classroom in which other students and goings on can’t be easily seen. Working in the hall just outside of the room can also be helpful.
Of course, there may also be times in which excessive external stimuli is unavoidable. This may mean a student may have to do alternative activities in alternative areas for classes such as gym, music, drama, and the like.
While some students do need these major accommodations, I find most are fine if I let them know they can take a break at any time if they just let me know they need one.
Avoid timed drills
Things such as mad minutes, or kahoot, are super fun for lots of kids (and people like me) who thrive on fun competition and can generally manage our emotions.
However, it should come as no surprise that students who are triggered by competition will not do well with timed activities. These are things which can really begin to agitate them and cause anxiety.
I have a pretty big issue with timed things in general. Being fast at something doesn’t necessarily mean being better at it, other than things like, you know, racing.
But, when kids start to equate speed with skill, that’s when major issues can start arising if they aren’t as quick as their peers. Of when competition can get out of control. Of course, students may also start to make careless mistakes because they are trying so hard to work quickly instead of accurately.
Give the student a job
Depending on the student, there are some things you’ll want to avoid. Remember to pick the role you want to give to them appropriately.
If a child has a major issue with policing others and you know they’re going to be looking to nitpick their peers, then refereeing would be a terrible choice. Not only would they ruin the game for their classmates, they’d more than likely lose friendships in the process.
But if the student would thrive in a leadership role, then refereeing or being a “team lead” may be an excellent choice for them.
For students who can be explosive with peers, something where they’re not in a role of “power” would be a better choice.
Perhaps they could be in charge or retrieving balls that fly off the field, or supporting a student with limited mobility, or be a sideline “compliment cheerleader” who calls out positive affirmations to peers.
When the student isn’t directly involved in the game, or can see the “whole picture”, it can often help to alleviate some of their competitive nature and need to win.
Have the student stay close to teacher
Sometimes, we just can’t fully trust the student yet to consistently make good decisions. When their behaviour impacts their peers, that’s when we need to step in.
During times in which the student may display overly competitive and aggressive behaviour, it can be a good idea to have them remain close to you.
This is a positive for two big reasons. First, when they are close to you, you can prevent or intervene in any behaviours before they escalate. This can, of course, keep all kids safe, preserve peer relationships, and keep the student from being embarrassed.
Second, if you are with them consistently, you can begin to notice triggers and certain behaviours the student has. This can be very useful in working with them to identify what problems they are having and strategies for working past them.
Ensure they understand
We can repeat instructions over and over again, but if students aren’t paying attention, or don’t fully understand them, that’s going to do us little good.
Is it annoying when kids aren’t paying attention? Yes. Can we always help that? Nope. Plus, sometimes our students are paying attention, they just don’t understand what we’ve said.
After you explain something, check in with students, especially those prone to competition and peer conflict about what they understood the rules to be.
They may be getting angry with peers and causing issues because they genuinely do not understand the rules and perceive everyone else to be playing wrong. Of course they’re frustrated!
Checking in, even just quickly, to see if they understand exactly how to proceed properly can be extremely helpful.
Try to delay gratification
Often, many of our overly competitive students have a hard time delaying gratification. They want to win because it’s immediate and they enjoy the feeling it brings.
To help them better manage emotions, try to support them in delaying gratification.
This will have benefits throughout many of their areas of their lives, not just during times of competition or agitation.
The way I generally do this is to provide them with rewards, then start to extend the time of the task they have to complete before getting their reward. This will look very different for each student, depending on what they’re struggling with and what type of reward works best for them.
For example, if they struggle with playing well with peers, you could start with being able to take three turns in a game without peer issues, then give them something like five minutes to read their favourite comic book.
It will likely take you a bit of time at first to figure out exactly what the “sweet spot” is with how much they can successfully handle and what type of reward they actually care about. But, once you’ve figured this out, you can slowly begin to raise expectations as the student learns new skills.
Keep in mind that time frames for increasing expectations will also vary between students. Some may be able to be challenged with harder work each week, while others could take months. Don’t give up! It’s worth it when you see these kiddos grow!
Sometimes, one of the only things we can do to help kiddos who are fixated on one thing is to try to divert their attention.
This isn’t my favourite thing to do, as I don’t feel it develops skills the same way the tips above do, but it may be our best option sometimes.
If we can tell the student is going to “blow” and we’re concerned about the other students, maintaining the students’ friendships, and not allowing them to embarrass themselves, diverting their attention can be a good option.
Pointing out a rabbit in the field, asking them how to play their favourite video game, telling them you love their new sneakers, and so on are all ways you could try this.
I don’t recommend doing this consistently because then the student won’t really be developing the skills they need to overcome their tendencies to be over-competitive and become agitated. Instead, they’ll just be learning to avoid.
I suggest talking with the student after they calm down a bit and they can, hopefully, recall what triggered them and how it made them Fermin their body and mind. Sometimes they won’t be able to vocalize or feel this, so you may have to tell them what you saw and ask them questions.
For example, you could say “I noticed that you clenched your fists when Jimmy passed the ball? Do you remember this?” This may help the student to begin to self identify their triggers and why they get upset by them.
What do you think? Have you tried any of these tips? How have they worked? Let me know!
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