Our thinking and our behaviour are always in anticipation of a response. It is therefore fear-based.
So Ofsted recently and correctly highlighted the issue of low-level disruption, and we’re continuing to see wildly varying responses to their report. Unions, bizarrely, have challenged Ofsted’s points. Teachers however seem to be in general agreement – for the first time perhaps – with what Ofsted are saying.
Behaviour management is exactly that – management of behaviour, both good and bad. The goal is to tilt the balance of behaviour in the direction of the former. I think, however, there are some myths about student behaviour, and we have to challenge both the myths and those who espouse them.
First and foremost, remember this – part of ‘growing up’ is understanding where the boundaries of what is acceptable are and testing them. Here’s an extreme analogy – how do you definitely know what causes pain? The only way to know what pain feels like is to experience it: being hit, being burnt, electrocuted, whatever. Once you have that experience you don’t want to have it again. It is in a similar scenario, but it in a much softer sense, that boundaries of behaviour have to established.
When do students know that something is wrong? By telling them, and reinforcing that by an inconvenient action. In the first instance it’s getting the student to feel some responsibility for that action. Then it is making it clear that the behaviour is not acceptable (and why), then reinforcement the boundary of behaviour should increase in severity if it continues to be challenged. Of course, this has to be within the acceptable realm of social norms. Now that used to be corporal punishment; I’m no advocate of that, but I hope you can see my point.
The appeasement theory of behaviour management seems to be prevalent at the moment, offering some sort of concession to students (because they do not fully understand what is acceptable behaviour) in the understanding that a positive response will be proffered by said student. A concession to the student does not reinforce the boundaries, it only weakens them. The classic, and again extreme, case is the appeasement of Hitler in regard to his theories of ‘Lebensraum’ in the 1930s. By conceding the Sudetenland to the Nazi regime, Chamberlain and the allies actually signified to the German authorities that they could be pushed – which is exactly what they did, with hugely negative consequences. The boundaries of acceptability were place in the favour of the Nazis, and we all know what happened then.
School is that strange environment where behaviour that is unacceptable on the street – verbal abuse, damage to property, intimidation and violence – has to be managed. Not that these things should be accepted but there has to be an understanding that they will happen because students are not just learning in the academic sense but the social one as well. But it is precisely for this point that boundaries have to be set and reinforced so that students know what is acceptable in the big wide world! Appeasing behaviour uses the excuse that we should accept that students do not have a perfect understanding of social norms and thus we should concede a little to their ‘needs’. Wrong, wrong and wrong again.
Let me give you another analogy – “If you behave, then you can…”. I hear this a lot in supermarkets and shopping centres, but most often in classrooms (usually the reward being the chance to go on computers), bribing children to behave acceptably. This only sets behaviour as a necessarily evil. Likewise rewarding students for doing what is a minimum expectation – being on time, bringing equipment, writing the date and title in their book, that sort of thing – all it does it say to the student that these things are not the norm socially, and thus the boundary is reset in favour of the student.
Reinforcing behaviour boundaries properly in an environment where appeasement prevails is extremely tough – “Mr X lets us use our mobiles/have our coats on/sit where we want” – but that is no excuse to give up and go with the flow. It is a bloody hard job but it is probably the only one that is more important than helping the student achieve good grades.
Why? Imagine the student that you are appeasing going into the world of college, university, work, what ever. Haven’t done that piece of coursework? Fail. Repeatedly late? Sacked. Swearing at your superior? Disciplinary. Don’t revise? Unlucky. At school, we set the acceptable boundaries of behaviour not for our benefit but for the students. Students want to challenge boundaries, and if we let them get a positive response for this, when we push them one step closer to failure in life.
One final point. This is especially the case for students with SEN. How we reinforce the boundaries may have to differ from non-SEN students, but they still need to be put in place. SEN students particularly need a safe and routine enviroment in which they can be comfortable and accordingly be successful – anyone who’s read The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night Time will know this. If we allow the borders of social acceptability to be weakened, then we are letting them down.
Stop making excuses for students. Give them an environment of routines and expectations and they will flourish, just like any adult human being would.