Solutions for behaviour – Behaviour and Snake Oil


                             Sixty second summary

If we were designing our approach to helping children behave well in school today, we wouldn’t start from where we are now. The reward and punishment approach has been subjected to a long field-trial, a natural experiment, which shows up its limitations. It produces segregation of a large minority of children and promotes exclusion. It’s largely unchallenged and is vociferously supported by its proponents, but may be no more than an undesirable habit. It’s under-researched and poorly described theoretically at classroom level.

It’s a good time to go back to first principles and to take a look at what we could do better, to escape the loop we’re in now. There is an alternative to this approach that acknowledges recent developments in diverse scientific fields and it should be trialled, researched and assessed for it’s value as an additional practice in schools. What we have now is problem-focused problem-solving, very valuable in its right place. What we might add is solution-focused problem-solving, a powerful new force for learning and change.


                             Ten minute read

A welcome to you

I’m writing this for you, as you set off on your adventure into teaching today and tomorrow.

It might be you first year in harness or your fifteenth, duration is irrelevant.

What is highly relevant is your perspective on teaching.

If you’re like me and come into the work with an open mind, susceptible to the energy of new ideas and knowingly vulnerable to change in the interest of transforming your practice towards the best it can be, then we’re talking.

If my naming this piece ‘Behaviour and Snake oil’ caused a little flare of interest and you’re still reading, because you think behaviour and how we approach it is something worth questioning, then you’re very welcome to stay and reflect on some issues with me.

But if you thought this piece was going to be the promotion of one perspective, The Truth, over what’s written on the a bottle of Snake Oil, if you’re perfectly at ease with the status quo and A/E/G then you may as well pick up your Fender Strat and leave.

If that sounds a bit discriminatory – well, it is. We seem to have arrived at a place where those determined characters who declare The Truth to be One Thing hold the centre ground and respond to those who offer Another Thing by shouting at them in the hope they’ll go away. This has the effect of keeping things as they are. It doesn’t matter how reasonably an alternative is presented, it’s clearly rubbish and not even to be nodded at, so there! they say.

So thanks for coming along to all of you, goodbye and good luck if you’re leaving. You can pick up a leaflet as you go, no charge. Or not.

Rockin’ all over the world

It’ll take a few moments for things to settle down and we can go from there once we have a quiet space. I’ll just note this on the board;

The threshold concept: Changing behaviour – from the inside or the outside?

If we started thinking from scratch about children’s learning, the kind of behaviour we hope for, it’s likely that we’d come up with lots of ways we could go about growing children into happy co-operators making the most of school. Taking a bold approach we wouldn’t be in awe of other professional groups but stand confidently on our own ground as educators.

 What have we got now?

There are two main approaches; (1) centred on the use of unequal power and authority by the adult to bring about behaviour change from the outside, (2) centred on the resourcefulness or agency of the child to navigate change from the inside.

(1) Behaviour in schools at present is dominated by the Rossi-Parfitt approach to rock and roll. The argument goes like this; we’ve got reward and punishment, it’s simple, it doesn’t need much thought to do it because it’s habitual and it’s popular. So we’ll keep on rockin’, no change.

It’s so well established that it seems like a natural truth, whereas it’s actually no more than an accident of history. A century ago behaviourist psychology seemed to offer firmer ground than mentalism when it came to the inscrutable nature of the mind and it appealed to school managers and their managers. Rats running around mazes could stand in for children in schools. Corporal punishment was legal and in use until 1987 and transferring to other forms of punishment, shocks for rats, could be seen as liberal treatment for offensive children.

With little grasp of its theoretical foundations but their own experiences of school in mind, reward and punishment was advocated by ministers of state and their civil servants. These were the levers that teachers must use to regulate children in schools of all types and phases, referral and secure units, approved schools (until 1969), borstals (until 1982) and special schools, all the way up to mainstream schools.

The educational effects of the behaviourist approach, whether intended and desired or not, were sidelined because the focus of the treatment was on behaviour change by conditioning as had been demonstrated in the experimental psychologists’ trials on animals. Most animals don’t have the kind of personalities that lead them to refuse to cooperate, living in a cage and given electric shocks when they press a food button. Maslow’s hierarchy is unknown in the rat’s universe.

Complicating this apparent simplicity a good relationship between teacher and pupil was recognised as essential by the earliest inquirers, Lord Elton and his panel of experts, into what engenders good behaviour. The effects of rewards and punishments on the quality of the relationship were not considered and were and are largely unknown1. Certain characteristics were desirable as learning outcomes for the main part of the curriculum, such as engagement, self-regulation, self-discipline and resilience. For children who behaved badly these were put aside. They were not to be the intended aims of behaviour management from this perspective, focused on external discipline and extrinsic motivation.

The outside-in approach also explains the odd fact that schools have been pushed to treat children’s growing and maturing as people as something that can be scripted and taught, with the social and emotional curriculum, delivered to children in massed ranks.

And when things have got too difficult for schools to manage, cognitive behaviour therapy might be available; this requires the child to develop insight on the connection between their bad behaviour and their distorted thinking, to accept that their thinking is in fact distorted and to be willing to cooperate and change, to develop more positive cognitive processes. If the patient does not express their motivation they won’t be taken on.

Do you think this will work with children you know?

(2) Despite the widespread use of external control and discipline there has been another note to be heard, when you listen carefully. It’s embedded in what most teachers actually do with all children and only depart from when led away by unwanted behaviour into taking all the power into adult hands.

They’re both well-organised and kind at the same time, keeping the child at the centre of their work.

In the 20th century, Carl Rogers developed the idea of person-centred psychology and its application to education. Rogers died in 1987. Martin Seligman, born in 1942 and 35 years old when Rogers died has carried the baton to the present, with his development of positive psychology. At the core is a refocusing away from children’s deficits and towards their strengths.

When a school is identified as attempting to manage behaviour without punishment it makes the deficit-focused behaviour experts jump up and down with fury, because this represents a rejection of the Truth. It’s a paradigm shift and such a big realignment in thinking can cause a nasty headache. Opponents of this shift tend to characterise it as no more than an acceptance of blind optimism and a ruling out of failure and negativity but as well as being a cartoon representation this misses the point as far as education is concerned.

As children grow and develop they are bound to make errors. My own practice and research2 has shown that by treating what is called bad behaviour as a learning error and paying attention to the child’s resourcefulness and natural tendency towards what Rogers called self-actualisation, change happens from the inside. The learner’s agency brings it about, reinforcing their desired strengths such as autonomy, resilience and self-discipline. In my work this has led to the prevention of exclusion of children at high risk.

It’s time to stretch our legs and walk into the world again.

What might we do next? Starting from scratch as we are, we could try jumping paradigms. When child gets one thing wrong in their behaviour, it doesn’t mean they’ve got nothing right. Find out what it is. When we think of children as resourceful, successful and hopeful we can go looking for growth and change knowing we’ll find them.

We’ll be Solution Detectives, searching for clues to success.

And if the child needs a higher magnification glass?

They might move on to solution-focused brief therapy. Which means doing more of the same, more of what works, based on the same three beliefs.

Simple. But more than Rossi-Parfitt.


Next steps

Be solution-focused and do the research – extend Payne’s (2015) investigation. Use the solution-focused approach in schools and evaluating the outcomes from multiple perspectives, including students and their carers/parents, teachers and other staff.




(About 1650 words)


1) Ruth Payne (2015) Using rewards and sanctions in the classroom: pupils’

perceptions of their own responses to current behaviour management strategies, Educational

Review, 67:4, 483-504, DOI: 10.1080/00131911.2015.1008407

To link to this article:


2) Geoffrey James (2016) ‘Transforming behaviour in the classroom – a solution-focused guide for new teachers’ London: Sage

Available on Amazon