Is bad behaviour a survival strategy?

Jackie Ravetis a lecturer in education at Aberdeen University

Maintaining discipline in the classroom is considered to be a central function of the primary teacher. Traditionally, this has been associated with the regulation of pupil behaviour by teachers in order to facilitate learning and socialisation.

Underpinning this traditional view is the idea that indiscipline is the result of a problem "in" misbehaving pupils, and the associated idea that teachers must therefore "manage" the behaviour. Discipline has been broadly constructed as the imposition of extrinsic control, and has been closely linked to teacher power and authority over pupils. Rules, rewards and sanctions are widely used to enforce this.

However, this traditional notion is being challenged by a raft of research which suggests that the child-deficit view of indiscipline is grossly simplistic. There is considerable evidence to confirm that the school and classroom context, as well as factors beyond the school, can influence, if not create, indiscipline. This has led towards an "interactionist" analysis where pupil behaviour is linked to the classroom context and cannot be fully understood without consideration of pupil points of view.

Pupil descriptions of, explanations for and evaluations of their behaviour can furnish teachers with significant insights into the underlying dynamics of disengagement from learning, and augment teachers' necessarily narrow and adult-centred perspectives. Parents also have much to contribute.

Research suggests that teachers who fail to take these perspectives into account are likely to overlook the factors of greatest relevance and importance to pupils and parents when planning interventions. This may be why behaviour management strategies are ineffective. Teachers who do not consult fail to appreciate the way that low-level misbehaviour (mucking about, daydreaming and so on) masks underlying confusion, boredom and upset in relation to learning.

Certain forms of indiscipline might be construed as a "survival strategy".

For some pupils, "mucking about" is a way of avoiding recurring stress and failure. Similarly, teachers under pressure can develop survival strategies that run in parallel. They become trapped in a constant, exhausting round of nagging and ineffectual intervention.

An alternative approach is for teachers to work in partnership with pupils and parents, and involve them in discussions about causes and solutions.

This can enable teachers to make better sense of the behaviour. It also signals to pupils that the teacher is willing to listen and take their concerns seriously. Pupils and parents are then enabled to take joint ownership: teacher management shifts to joint responsibility and imposition to negotiation.

This approach transforms our notion of discipline entirely, and suggests a more holistic, respectful and "inter-subjective" conception. This transcends simplistic assumptions and the attribution of blame.

Are We Listening? Making Sense of Classroom Behaviour with Pupils and Parents, by Jackie Ravet (Trentham Books, pound;16)

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