Solutions for behaviour – skating on thin ice

Sixty second summary

Behaviour management in schools is made up of two parts.

One part is fairly uncontroversial, aimed at making the classroom a manageable and productive space and to encourage children to cooperate and comply. It’s about the rules and regulations and how they’re selected and applied. Classroom management is a necessary part of a teacher’s job and when is done well is positive and productive.

The other part is what we do with children who misbehave, disrupt, offend, their behaviour couched in different language to that which we use to describe error-making in the rest of the school curriculum. It is the highly coercive way in which we use punishment as we set about attempting to control children who don’t spontaneously fall into line. This second aspect has become a habit, strongly supported by some in an unreflective way, causing discomfort to others who see it at being at best anachronisitic and at worst intentionally cruel and segregationist, but nonetheless habitual with no real alternative in view.

In this article I propose a possible means of bringing this habit under the microscope and suggest an alternative way of working that supports ideals of education and social justice. It also offers a way of collecting resources and building a community of interest.

Are you interested in joining in?

Ten minute read

Where are we today?

We have a one-size-fits-all behaviour management system, unchanged for generations, which we use to handle every child going through school. It was set up long before the developments in social and natural sciences which give us new and exciting insights into the learning process and the way the learning brain operates as a dynamic, changeable biological powerhouse. It was set up when ideas about criminal justice were clear-cut and those about social justice lagged far behind.

The existing behaviour management system has twin aims;

1) To regulate and shape the natural behaviour of children so that groups are moved as smoothly as possible through the experience of schooling. What we do varies from school to school and class to class and is largely undisclosed and unexamined, but it does a good enough job for millions of children in school every year.

2) To identify and control the significant minority of children who do not conform to behavioural standards and school rules and regulations. It is designed as a process leading through increasingly harsh punishment to permanent ejection as the ultimate deterrent and is typically written into school behaviour policies as such. The children at highest risk of entering the punishment/exclusion track are those with a disability, living in Care, with special educational needs, who are are mentally unwell, or experiencing trauma or the effects of trauma. The adverse effects of exclusion are well known in limiting the life chances of children, but while some individual schools have adopted alternative inclusionary practices, in general there is no substantiated challenge to the ruling dogma that says punishment is an aid to learning.

What are teachers already doing to keep so many children working and behaving well in school?

Across the broad sweep of the curriculum it is not the hard-edged reward and punishment systems of behaviour management that keep children securely and productively in school. In my experience as specialist behaviour support teacher and a researcher I have not come across a single teacher applying reinforcement schedules according to a strict protocol firmly based on behaviourist experimental findings.

The classroom does not have the features of an experimental laboratory that allows for the proper control of experimental variables. This is recognized by psychologists and evidenced by the reproducibility problems that are being identified across the broad field of positivist scientific research. In the complexity of the classroom it is teachers’ skills of relationship, their empathy and flexibility and their professional drive that leads to the full inclusion of children.

Teachers respond to children’s individual learning needs by identifying the gaps in knowledge and understanding and then teaching to bridge the gap. If a child is struggling in maths and pesters the teacher for help, the teacher responds by teaching them maths, with a clear intended educational outcome of their work. For teachers, managers, parents/carers and the children themselves this is seen as good practice.

So why, when most children remain more or less happily in school, are tens or hundreds of thousands excluded for a day or more and around five thousand permanently excluded every year?

Across the academic curriculum when a learner makes an error we teach them. That’s our job as teachers.

When a child disrupts a class or misbehaves according to predefined standards they are making an error, they are not matching up with the pattern we have ascribed as being good. We expect a child to make errors in everything they’re learning and in the deep complexity of learning how to be a person, to behave in an what is seen as an acceptable way, they’ll make a lot of errors.

When we go about error correction as teachers we may well have diagnostic methods specific to the subject we’re teaching but we don’t slip into an analytical routine, asking why the child is making errors in say maths, what’s in her background, her family tree, her upbringing that made her into a miscalculator. It’s not seen as relevant in causing her error in maths or science or literacy. We put it down to a gap in her basic knowledge or in how she applies that knowledge and teach her appropriately. Interestingly we don’t subject the student to a punishment routine as our way of correcting her errors.

But when a student misbehaves in school that’s exactly what we do. We use our skills of amateur diagnosis to justify taking control of a child’s life for their own benefit, with an under-the-breath ‘this is going to hurt me more than it hurts you.’ We are likely to assert that the bad behaviour is an expression of a internal fault and label the child as ADHD, ASD, MLD, BESD, etc.– a disordered person.

When a child misbehaves and sets off down the exclusionary path, we intentionally hurt them because they are the doer of the behaviour, even as we recite the mysterious mantra ‘I like you but I don’t like your behaviour.’

It’s what the theory tells us to do – punishment must be unpleasant to have an effect and it will interrupt existing behaviour. The unwanted behaviour will temporarily disappear and when it reappears as we know it will, the behaviour policy instructs us to punish again and more cruelly.It’s psychological not pedagogical theory but it’s there as pedagogical practice.

Except that in our kind, reflective teachers’ hearts we know this isn’t right and true. Not all of us maybe – but many of us.

Why do we keep on doing it?

Two reasons spring to mind.

One is that we’re gripped by a long-standing habit. Habits are hard to break and self-righting, like lifeboats. There is a great deal of evidence to show that using reward and punishment to attempt to cause new learning and consequent behaviour change is inappropriate to the intended learning outcomes of the approach. Coersive methods produce compliance, when we publically aspire to develop something different in students; their independence, resilience and self-motivation, Dweck’s growth mindset if you want to use her terminology.

This particular habit is very powerful and shrugs off challenges. It’s a very simple to operate a habit, just allow it to switch on and let it run, no thinking needed.

A second reason is that people tend to attribute their own errors in behaviour to factors outside themselves, but the errors that someone else makes to a fault or inadequacy within that person, discounting external factors. This is known by social scientists as the attribution error and we hear it in everyday talk when a child says ‘It’s not my fault!’

If you get in someone’s way when you’re in a busy shop, you know you weren’t meaning to be awkward. It was just too many people in a small space and you’ve got two children to keep hold of; not your fault. But when someone blocks your path, you know they’re just selfish or not looking where they’re going or a bad parent for not controlling their children properly. If you wanted to sort the problem out, you’d be better off speaking to them than just standing there fuming; asking if they need help or could just shift a bit so you could pass by. Because of course they make the same error looking at you, it’s your personal fault not theirs, it’s the business of the shop or the height of the shelf.

How we solve the problem effectively is to put everything together; whether we have the nerve to speak to them, what we notice about their height relative to the shelf, how much of a hurry we’re in, how hungry we are, how hard it is to keep children in sight, in fact using our expertise about ourself in our life as it is to come up with a plan of action, a solution.

That’s all very well when we’re talking about grown-up people in shops.

What has it got to do with children and their behaviour in school?

As teachers we might not be aware of the attribution error in a formal way, but we know that children’s learning is affected by internal and external factors. When a student makes an error we don’t necessarily put it down to a deficit in the child. It has been well demonstrated that as children get hungry they behave worse and their learning can suffer too.

We might allow for that in the last half-hour before lunch and not put it down to a willful intention to muck about or deliberate refusal to pay attention to the task in hand. At the same time we don’t give up – ‘I know it’s nearly lunchtime and we have just enough time to get this right’ – knowing that the student is the only one who can balance their hunger pangs with their drive to be successful and with your hope that they can keep going.

You’ve framed the task in a particular way by acknowledging their low blood-sugar levels are real and by time-limiting the effort needed. ‘A bit more work and then you’re there.’

But there is also the possibility that the behaviour, messing about and losing focus, catches us and we get drawn into the control and punishment routine. If the child gets labelled as a repeat offender, it becomes more likely they’ll be seen that way and good teaching goes out of the window, along with their attention. And they might only have been hungry all along.

What can we do to improve things?

A habit can be interrupted by consciously questioning it as it starts to swing into action. It’s more likely to give way if there is another clear group of ideas and actions to use instead and keeping the focus on solutions rather than on problems offers a distinct alternative.
Build a resource base of the evidence demonstrating the strengths and limitations of both the reward/punishment approach and the solution-focused approach and where they are most effective in community and educational terms. I am setting up a new website for ‘Solutions for behaviour’ to host the evidence base.
Keep it simple. The idea is not to abandon classroom management as a structured and learnable aspect of behaviour management but rather to recognise its scope as a teacher-centred process and combine it with practical and pragmatic student-centred work. Overall don’t try to push the whole existing structure over, go one step at a time where change is useful and most likely to stick.
Build a community of practioners and academic thinkers to communicate, apply and evaluate this new resource. The ‘Solutions for behaviour’ website will provide the village street where we can meet to exchange ideas.
Are you interested?

It’s my best hope that you are. Let’s get going.