People find it very difficult to judge the power of their response to a challenge.
However gentle the first tap, the replying hit would be harder, more painful. And the next harder still, and the next, ratcheting up. Somehow, mysteriously and even if they were doing their level best to give as good as they got, they couldn’t do it. An eye for an eye is rarely achievable, escalation seems to be unavoidable, it’s human nature, it’s road rage. You scratch my paintwork and I’ll kill you.
We’ve seen many cases of children suffering violence in places like secure units, residential homes and special schools set up with the specific purpose of educating and caring for children who behaviour pushes the patience of others to its limits. People who staff places like these know know what’s in the air, the children who get sent there are likely to be difficult, in your face, uncooperative, likely to fall out with each other, difficult to engage, hard to reach. They’re like all children can be, they can all be annoying at times, but with more intensity and focus and the need to push harder against boundaries to see if they really are what they seem to be, the guarantors of safety and care. Where education gives way to control and children are seen as being incapable of engaging their own resources to bring about new learning, where education is abandoned in favour of management, children suffer. And without doubt, adults suffer too, given no other option than relating to children in ways that impair rather than strengthen human relationships.
Organisations running these facilities quote their values when things get out of hand, remind us that they are bound by their ethos. They tell us that they’re shocked by what they themselves are doing, that it goes against their principles and that abuse will be rooted out. Staff are made to carry the can.
There’s something dreadfully cyclical here, a circle of insult. We seem to accept as a fact that when children are categorised at an early age as offenders, badly behaved and harmful, what happens to them is somehow their fault. We don’t seem sufficiently struck by the painful irony of adults modelling the one-sided use of power, control and violence being the accepted way to teach children to be gentle and forgiving.
Is there any way of breaking into the cycle of punishment, segregation and exclusion?
The procedures commonly enshrined in school behaviour policies is in line with official directives and the guidance of most behaviour experts. There is always a brief mention of values and rewards and a much longer, detailed description of how penalties and punishments are to be applied to mis-behaving children. The escalation is planned, in response to recalcitrance or lack of remorse, a ‘continuum of exclusion’ as one school describes it. It provides simplicity and stability in dealing with the complexity of children and their behaviour, a steady deck in a troubled sea. It’s so well established it’s taken for granted even though the huge field trial of its use across the educational board over decades show it to be inadequate to the task. If it really was the full and final answer inclusion rather than exclusion of children would be the outcome. As it is thousands of children are excluded from schools, abused in secure units and go on to reoffend – this is hard evidence of the need to do something different.
So far, doing more of the same has trumped innovation.
Several years ago a new behaviour tsar, Charles Taylor, was appointed by new Education minister Michael Gove in response to the sustained demand for better behaviour management in schools. Taylor was firmly committed to the status quo, all misbehaving children and their slack-jawed teachers needed was a lot more parade-ground drill. Make children learn the rules by rote and punish those who break them. Admittedly it didn’t come from his own experience of being at school at Eton or in the special school of which he was head teacher – he resorted to chats over tea and toast in his study apparently, but that’s another story.
There was no broad consultation leading up to this. Something a surgeon had written intended to prevent scissors being left inside patients Taylor cut and pasted to produce his version of the list. As an official expert he exhorted teachers to get their classes to chant it twice a day in every classroom in every school. Job done, he was promoted away and upwards to become Chief Executive of the teaching agency, having solved the behaviour problem. Now he is in charge of solving the reoffending problem for the minister of justice, the same Michael Gove. Maybe we’ll see the lists again, on the walls of secure units.
Meanwhile, he was replaced as behaviour tsar by Thomas Bennett, chosen by Nicola Morgan who replaced Michael Gove at the education ministry. Bennett too seems to be confident that the old ways are the best, children will become good citizens when we punish them. He does not seem to be unsettled by the fact that we abandon the teaching approach which is a good enough to get children to learn about everything else but not apparently about how to grow into their best cooperative, comfortable and kind selves. Again without proper consultation it has been decided that new teachers aren’t being properly trained in how to exert control, to regulate the good’uns and throw out the bad apples to more special schools, more PRUs and secure units, staffed by new and even more highly-trained behaviour managers, wherever they might be found.
Maybe. Is that really all we’ve got? A long-term exclusionary strategy to solve an immediate problem over the failure of inclusion? A strategy that has clearly failed in the past is to be relied on to bring success in the future?
There are people who are proposing radical alternatives to what is happening at the moment to bring the way we teach behaviour up to date. Things have moved on over the last hundred years and current social, educational, psychological and medical thinking at the very least cast doubt on whether reward and punishment is sufficient to meet the learning and mental health needs of growing children. In my own work, the solution-focused approach offers something new and hopeful for children punished to exclusion as a new pastoral pathway. In Wales the solution-focused approach forms the foundation of primary mental health care and it structures the NSPCC’s work nationally.
Positive psychology, led by Dr. Martin Seligman in combination with Dr. Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi’s concept of flow is breaking new ground and providing an alternative from that direction. The positive effects of exercise, relaxation and meditation on healthy academic, social and emotional development are being examined and talked about. From Australia we’re hearing about psychologist Dr. Sue Roffey’s work with the Wellbeing Institute and social worker Dr. Andrew Turnell’s ‘Signs of Safety’ solution-focused alternative to risk-centred planning for children in or approaching the care system is moving strongly into the U.K.
Meanwhile, quietly and confidently, there are numerous examples of developed professionals taking a reflective stance to develop ways of working that strengthen children’s health and inclusion. Headteacher John Tomsett’s approach to teaching older students by foregrounding their mental health needs is a good example.
If we were to look further, there would be many examples of good practice.
I think we should put them all together to build our communal voice in calling for change, starting today.