Behaviour management: myth or monster?



Children’s behaviour must be externally managed by one psychological approach – reward them when they get it right, punish them when they get it wrong. Behaviour has to be managed from the outside, children can’t be trusted to make their own futures and they have to be pushed, extrinsically motivated.

The worse the behaviour, the more forceful and unpleasant the punishment required.

Children themselves aren’t the target of the punishment of course and it’s not necessary to engage the child as a person, it’s the behaviour not the child that we want to change.

If punishment does not alter the child’s behaviour this is clear evidence of a deficit within the child, there’s something wrong with them.

The child’s inability to change is a symptom of some kind of mental disorder, justifying their exclusion and removal to a different form of provision, usually with a collapsed curriculum.

There is no alternative to the strategy of reward and punishment. We’ve got what we’ve got and have to make the best of it.


Strength-focused teaching and coaching are essential skills of that professional teachers use routinely in their academic and pastoral work.

Children are innately cooperative. Regardless of whether things go right or wrong, what we do next after any behaviour event depends on children’s resourcefulness and cooperation. We can and do depend on it.

When we conceptualise children as resourceful, successful and hopeful and treat them appropriately, we can focus together on strengths and solutions instead of on deficits and problems.

People are the best experts in themselves, regardless of their age.

Children are always in a state of change and build resources to deal with it. Harnessing their strengths and focusing on productive goals that are intrinsically motivating leads to further strengthening of their resources.

Children and their behaviour are inextricably intertwined. Treating them as doing their best even when the challenge almost overcome their resources protects their self-image as resilient people in a community of kindness.

Treating the problem as what it is, something to be solved rather than as a sign of something deeper and disordered makes it manageable. Problems always contain their  own solutions – our job is to look for them.

A practical alternative to psychological conditioning is inquiry-based teaching, cooperatively and creatively finding clues to the solution to a problem, doing more of what works until the problem evaporates. The child remains securely in school – no disorder, no collapsed curriculum.

The outcome of this process is children’s inclusion and success in their own community in school in place of exclusion.


Punish-and-reward, push-and-pull, is a multi-headed monster, it pops up everywhere, in school behaviour policies, government guidelines, expert advice, from the mouths of the kindest people and the strictest disciplinarians alike.

At its fiercest it causes thousands of children to become cast adrift from their friends and familiar surroundings, to lose their access to the full curriculum in their home community that is theirs by right. At its mildest it shows children the boundaries and reminds them they’re there, mild penalties for minor infringements.

But to stand in awe of this monster is wrong. It’s time we looked carefully at other options, at things that teachers and others who support children are doing day-to-day in other ways, out of fierce kindness and properly thought out care.

My own approach is solution-focused and I’m sure that there are other strengths-focused ways of working that teachers have developed that parallel it, maybe unspoken, maybe unformalised.

Let’s go looking for them, talk, spread the practice to balance up the power that the punishment focused monster wields. Or maybe to make it go away.

It’s time.


New book:  Geoffrey James (2016) “Transforming behaviour in the classroom – a solution-focused guide for new teachers” SAGE  available on Amazon as Kindle/paper editions


















The bust