Behaviour management: Why consistency is not the holy grail

Good behaviour management is all about collaboration and participation – schools need to adopt a flexible approach that will allow them to take individual circumstances into account, argues Tom Nedev
26th April 2019, 12:03am
Consistency Isn't Key To Behaviour

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Behaviour management: Why consistency is not the holy grail

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archived/behaviour-management-why-consistency-not-holy-grail

The expression on the faces of my fellow passengers in the quiet carriage made it clear that I’d exceeded permitted noise levels. I’d only sighed, but clearly, I had done so too loudly.

My sigh had been triggered by a single word in a school’s Ofsted report; a word that, within the world of school behaviour management, is used with an almost mind-numbing persistence: consistency.

I don’t think it is possible to have a conversation about behaviour management in education now in which that word does not appear. It has been, since the Elton Report in 1989, and continues to be, the behaviour management holy grail.

In his 1989 report, Lord Elton recommends in relation to behaviour that headteachers ensure “standards are consistently applied throughout the school”. In the second most significant government commissioned review of behaviour in English schools (Steer, 2005) it is suggested that “the consistent application of good behaviour management strategies helps pupils understand the school’s expectations and allows staff to be mutually supportive”. And in Tom Bennett’s 2017 independent review on behaviour in schools, it pops up an impressive seven times.

It has become so ubiquitous it is now meaningless. Overuse of the word runs the risk of an oversimplified response to behaviour, one in which consistency is ill-defined, misunderstood and not particularly useful.

I do agree that clear boundaries are necessary and helpful to both staff and pupils. And I do think that a school should have a core set of expectations of staff and pupil behaviour, linked to its mission to help drive its ethos and culture. Clearly communicated expectations help shape schools as a social environment and provide helpful signposts for children and young people to enable both social and academic success.

Mythical properties

I even think that the predominantly behaviourist model of positive and negative reinforcement has some value, doing a very specific job at a certain point in time. In particular, helping to create some kind of operational clarity and structure when it may have been absent.

Where I have an issue is that the latter has become seen as the only model by which this mystical element of consistency can be achieved, and indeed consistency has come to be defined as such a model.

This is, in my view, to rob a school of its ability to best-fit a behaviour model to their context. Instead, they are sold the off the shelf model of “consistency” and everyone expects it to work. If it doesn’t, you just failed to be consistent enough, right?

It’s a gross - and dangerous - simplification.

Good behaviour management is about participation and collaboration, which sees all members of a school community involved. When behaviour change is most needed, the crucial arbiters of change are the pupils themselves. Behaviour management should not be something that is “done to” but “done with”. It is about a system that is immersed in the context of the school, that can evolve with the times and the cohorts.

The current definition of consistency prevents all this: the rules are the rules, deviation is weakness, change is unthinkable. We seem to forget that consistency has a multitude of applications: it is possible to be consistently inconsistent, we can indeed consistently hold to the same rules no matter what, we can consistently treat children with respect (which may warrant an inconsistent response while holding fast to a consistent set of rules)...the possibilities are endless.

I am sure that many children do just fine in the current system of consistency - and that is often the argument made: look what happens with consistency, great behaviour!

By the many, maybe. But would they be any different in a different system? Could they be better? Are these not the children who will behave anyway?

My concern is the more vulnerable young people. They may need alternative, complementary approaches, a tiered model that demonstrates a school’s approach to behaviour support - one that is not simply “management”. This is becoming more necessary with an increase in “inappropriate behaviour” driven by unmet mental health needs. Where consistency reigns, that does not happen. To be “fair”, we set children on a path to exclusion.

The challenge is to achieve a flexible consistency. Where flexibility allows us “to take account of individual circumstances” (Elton, 1989) and to ensure that while “rules should generally be consistent and understood and followed by all”, they “should retain flexibility and be interpreted with individual needs in mind” (Cole,Visser and Upton, 1998).

When I reflect upon and try to describe what effective behaviour management looks like, I think there are far better “C” words that can be used. It is worth considering whether your school’s approach is collaborative, clear, certain, complimentary, constant and caring for starters.

These are words that are more purposeful, more beneficial as a starting point for any school rethinking its approach to behaviour; words that convey less a sense of the automaton and the mechanistic, and more a sense of the human or humane.

Tom Nedev is a teacher and trainer

This article originally appeared in the 26 April 2019 issue under the headline “Why ‘consistency’ is not the holy grail’ 

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