What you give you get back

#kindbehaviour – a message in a bottle


It is obvious that we should punish children who don’t behave isn’t it? We call it by different names but sanctioning is punishment is intended to be unpleasant otherwise it won’t work.

Behaviour expert Mr. Bennett said in his Top Ten Behaviour Tips (TES June 21 2015) ‘The idea of sanctioning against behaviour we’re seeking to discourage, and rewarding that which is good, would appear to be uncontroversial. But the chattering classes can find offence in the smile of a kitten.’

That’s how things are.


Twenty years ago my first fulltime teaching post was at a residential EBD special school. This kind of setup was new to me then as it might be to you now. EBD is emotional and behaviour difficulties and the children were the ones who had burst out of mainstream school. The children were statemented for EBD so they were at the top of the pile of the ‘I can’t stand any more of this. Get out of my classroom/school/county/sight!’ children. They travelled from all over country to get to this special place.

Sanctioning certainly wasn’t controversial, as in most schools it was seen as necessary and even more given the special natures of the children. Personally I found it useless in my classroom and rather weakly resorted to being reliably fair and detailed classroom management to prevent rioting and focusing on keeping calm rather than getting even. Nearly all the senior jobs were held by men, most of the class teachers were women. The management was top-down ‘get on with your job or fuck off’ style. I’m not meaning to be rude, that’s what the owner told me when I asked him if he’d forgotten about the pay rise he’d promised me the year before.

Uncontroversial? I felt chattering coming on when I witnessed the principal wind a boy’s arm so far up behind his back he screamed. Other chatterers investigated the school for historical abuse soon after I escaped and several of the senior behaviour experts were sentenced to prison.

Why? Because in the view of the court making a child who had wet his bed during the stand on an upturned bucked through the night in his wet pyjamas and in view of other children was cruel.

How could they get away with it? Because it was no big deal, that’s the way to act against behaviour, isn’t it? If a bit of punishment doesn’t do the trick, step it up, onto the bucket you go. It was only sanctioning after all. It was a private business set up in the middle of a field, the boss was the boss and the chattering classes couldn’t be offended because they didn’t know. Well not until the police turned up. And most of all, there’s no alternative is there? If you don’t punish you’ve got no weapons to use.


We can assume that punishment-and-reward is the only tool we have against bad behaviour because that’s what the experts tell us. But should we check the assumption?

I’m not sure whether all teachers are classed as chatterers but as a teacher I’m sceptical and when an expert tells me that they have the true answer to a knotty problem I raise an eyebrow.


In special school I assumed that all the rest of the staff were trained behaviour experts, in and out of the classroom. They weren’t, in fact some were not trained in anything at all. Looking across the school and talking to other staff I couldn’t see what I was supposed to do about the behaviour side of my teaching. I needed to find out and I asked the boss if he’d fund an Open University master’s for me. ‘Fuck off’, he said with his usual charm.

Since then

The MA was great, I did modules on special needs, science teaching and educational research methods over three years. But the detail of what went on inside the classroom to deal with behaviour was still controversial to me at least. I did a Ph.D. over eight years to find out a bit more. I asked my new employer if they would fund it. ‘No’ they said, politely. I worked all the time, research to practice, practice to research, a teacher researcher.

I kept my raised eyebrow in place and what I found I tested to destruction. But it didn’t go up in a cloud of smoke, it survived and this is what I’ve learnt through over 20 years of preactice, reflection and research. It’s not about ‘managing’ behaviour, it’s about learning. It’s not about telling children what to do and not to do, it is aobut teaching themselves to look towards their own skills of self-management, to uncover and strengthen their own resources and to recognise themselves as agents of their own change. .


 Oddly, it’s something you are doing already if you’re a human. You do the management things that all the experts recommend to make your classes run smoothly, with humour and patience and the gift of being a trusted adult among children. All this only seems to fail with the few children whose behaviour bursts through and the experts recommend reward and punishment or exclusion and special school as the only ways forward. But that’s controversial, because I found out that there is a previously hidden alternative.


When we’re at our best we can see through the superficial disorder of a busy classroom to the children themselves in a respectful, friendly, generous and considerate way. Practicing kindness.

Not a silly, indulgent, ‘bunny hugging’ kindness, but a kindness that respects children for what they are – young people finding their way in the world.

Kind enough to let children know where the non-negotiable boundaries are and giving them enough time and guidance to practice keeping within them.

Kind enough to tell them when they have made an error and teaching them how to avoid it next time.

Kind enough to ask them to produce work that more accurately reflects their potential rather than their enthusiasm to get home on a sunny Friday afternoon.

Kind enough to notice their everyday good humour and fine work and compliment them on them.

Looking in the mirror.

What kindnesses can you spot in your own day at work?

When the steady and structured kindness that is experienced by the well-behaved majority seems to fail, do we only have punishment, detention, loss of privileges, isolation, public humiliation and exclusion for the badly-behaved others? Do we really need to do these things to children, for their own benefit?

No. Do more of what is already working, without splitting behaviour from learning. We don’t have to be cruel to be kind. We can just be kind to be kind.

Remember all the kind things you do every day, based on your knowing that children are packed with resources, they are always capable of doing well and they come into your classroom hoping to have a good day and do even better, just like you do. Remember the honest relationship you have with them and how you stay true to it. When a child makes an error you teach them through it, don’t you? You look carefully for what’s working well and do more of it. You make sure a student knows where they are going and what things will look like when they get there. You ensure that they get feedback on process and progress in the moment of action. You make sure they spent time reflecting on their own work and thinking about their own thinking.

And if you need to provide more structure to your teaching children of how to be, you could turn to solution-support, the solution-focused approach to changing behaviour.

And in case all this talk of kindness gets misinterpreted I’d just like to say that I’m no pushover, I can chew nails with the best of them, and intentional cruelty to children is something that drives me to …… to ask questions and to write.

(You can find a brief guide to solution support here. You will find a fuller version in ‘Transforming behaviour in the classroom – a solution focused guide’ published by Sage early next year)



One response to “What you give you get back”

  1. Padrigeen says:

    Thanks for this; I look forward to reading the book.

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