Five behaviour resolutions for 2021

Planning to start your year with jogging and eating better and learning French? Try some behaviour-based resolutions, says Jarlath O’Brien
4th January 2021, 8:00am
Jarlath O'Brien


Five behaviour resolutions for 2021

Forget new year's resolutions to eat better, sleep more (fat chance), take up a musical instrument or learn to speak another language. I'm aiming for resolutions much closer to home. 

If, like me, you're looking to improve your work on behaviour, here are some suggestions on where to start:  

Avoid all-or-nothing situations

These are more common than you may think. All-or-nothing situations are ones where we raise the stakes - for the child, not for us - to such a level that we think we are significantly increasing their motivation to do the right thing. We say to a child that they can't go on a reward trip unless they have a period of time, arbitrarily decided by us, in which their behaviour and/or work is blemish-free, for example. 

The unintended consequence here is that, in my view, it increases the chance of failure, as the child may judge failure to be a near certainty, so they take matters into their own hands and go out with a bang at a time of their choosing. 

Another example might be where we say "This is your LAST chance!" Is it? Really? I once worked with a student who often said "You always say this is my last chance", when actually I had never said it to him. He must have heard it often enough in his school life for him to reflexively think that.   

Abandon offsetting

"Offsetting" is allowing a child to work off a sanction with the promise and delivery of good work and/or behaviour in the future. In my view, it is unhelpful. 

It allows a child to evade responsibility for the initial behaviour that led to the sanction, and reduces work and behaviour to the status of a transaction. Staying out of debt with the Bank of School becomes a balancing act, and teaches children the price of work and behaviour, but not its value.

Involve parents properly      

Saying "Right, I'm calling your parents!" in response to a situation is a threat. Communication with parents shouldn't be used in this way and can escalate situations unnecessarily (a bit like all-or-nothing demands). 

If asked by a child if I am going to call their parents, I always try to play it straight. I respond that I let parents know when things are going well, and when things are going badly. I tell them because they have a right to know, not to increase the discomfort or pressure on the child.

Stop public shaming

Traffic-light charts (more commonly seen in primaries) or putting children's names on the board to record warnings (typically in secondaries) are both tactics that rely on the public shaming of a child to improve their behaviour. But they are more likely to lead to deterioration in behaviour, in my view. 

Not all children respond to public shaming with overtly negative behaviours. Shaming can result in outward displays of negative behaviour (known as "attacking others", sometimes literally), but can also prompt introversion, self-hatred (known as "attacking self", certainly my default response to being shamed), withdrawal (such as when a child walks out of a lesson or refuses to come in), or shame denial, where a child outwardly appears to revel in the notoriety of being on the red light or having their name on the board, but is denying the shame.     

Question the repetition of sanctions

Consistency and certainty are the two most commonly used C-words in the behaviour lexicon. We love them, and there are some good reasons to value them in our approaches to improving behaviour. But I worry that we are not critical enough of our consistency and certainty. 

It is one thing to lean on a tariff-based policy that says if a child, any child, commits Misdemeanour X, then Sanction Z applies, but if we don't then look to see how effective this approach is, then we are not supporting our children as well as we might. 

It is entirely legitimate to question the effectiveness of a sanction if it is being used repeatedly with a child and is not leading to improvements in behaviour. It is not good enough for us to hold the position that we are treating all children equally (being equitable is not the same) and that, if the child is not improving, it is because they are not learning quickly enough. 



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