Why cruelty should be excluded from school

#kindbehaviour – a message in a bottle


It is obvious that we should punish children who don’t behave isn’t it?

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 meant emotional and behaviour difficulties and the children were the ones who had burst out of mainstream school. The children were statemented for so they were at the top of the pile of the children we call challenging when we what really we mean is ‘I can’t stand any more of this. Get out of my classroom!’ pupils.

Sanctioning certainly wasn’t controversial there but personally I found it useless in my classroom and rather weakly resorted to 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. That’s what the owner told me when I asked him if he’d forgotten 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 sentenced to prison.

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

How could they get away with it? Because it was no big deal, that’s the way to act against behaviour, isn’t it? Because I showed moral weakness in not reporting what I’d seen to the police. It was only sanctioning that went a bit too far. 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 and best 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 skeptical and when an expert tells me that they have the true answer to a knotty problem I raise an eyebrow.


Starting work in the special school I imagined 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. When I looked across the school and talked 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 assertive charm.

Since then

The MA was great, I did modules on special needs, science teaching and educational research methods. 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. to find out a bit more. I worked all the time, research to practice, practice to research.

I kept my raised eyebrow in place and tested what I found to destruction. But it didn’t go up in a cloud of smoke, it survived every test and here it is.


 The odd thing is, 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. It only seems to break down with the few children whose behaviour breaks through and the experts recommend reward and punishment or special school as the only way 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 kind and respectful way, friendly, generous and considerate.

Not as a friend, but friendly.

Kind enough to let children know where the non-negotiable boundaries are and giving them time 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 workrate and compliment them on it.

Thinking this way what other kindnesses can you spot in your day at work?

But 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?

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.

Remember all the kind things you do every day, based on 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 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, what things will look like when they get there. You ensure that they get realtime feedback on process and progress. You make sure they spent time reflecting on their own work and thinking about their thinking.

The name of this big idea is solution-support and I’ll give you a potted version* of it in my next blog for free.

Why not look out for #kindbehaviour and join in?

Thanks for your kind attention, keep the eyebrow raised.

* You will find the full version in my new book ‘Transforming behaviour in the classroom – a solution focused guide for new teachers’ 2016 in press; Sage





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