Behaviour - Can schools justify the use of physical force?

The decision to restrain or coerce a student will always be controversial, but here two experts debate whether or not it may sometimes be necessary

Tom Bennett & Paul Dix

Tom Bennett: Yes

I managed nightclubs in London's West End for years and the wisest security man I ever knew told me his secret: "A good bouncer wins a fight by making sure it never starts." Surprising but sage advice. "But what happens when it does start?" I asked. "Win," he said.

In eight years of working in that Wild West, I lifted my hands only once - in self-defence. In school I have multiplied that number by 10. As my pugilistic Yoda said, as soon as you lift your hands you've lost, in a way. But life doesn't present clear-cut scenarios of good guys and bad guys.

Now, using physical force must, and should be, a last resort in schools, because by that point you've crossed the Rubicon. You've shown that the concerns of your opponent are no longer important and that all that matters is that they are thwarted. Discussion is, by default, over. It's a terrible place to be.

And yet it is a place we need to occupy, albeit rarely, because perfect moral battlegrounds exist only in fairy tales. Physical force has to be used in situations where not using it would result in a worse scenario.

For example, in nightclubs, we would often pre-emptively expel known pickpockets and sex pests before they harassed or attacked other customers. Sometimes they went quietly; at other times they raged. In classrooms, equally, there are times when I know that I need to get a student out of the room before they kick off. I see trouble brewing even though no punch has been thrown. It's a question of professional judgement and it's impossible to quantify.

Another example: two students are arguing in a corridor over ancient and imagined slights. Naturally, the world and its mother are eager to draw as much sport from this incident as they can.

However, I know that an audience is the last thing this title fight needs - having an audience increases the participants' bravado and cuts down on their escape routes. It makes combat much more likely. So, despite protests, I bar the door and dam the crowd, like a budget Leonidas.

A third example: I am walking along a corridor and a student is bounding towards me. I could break step and allow him to pass, or I could continue and see what he does.

Clearly, he has no right to expect me to leap away or to push me aside, and nor would I do that to him. But if I move out of the way, then he will have successfully intimidated me and I will have allowed it, which means he will repeat the process whenever he next feels like bullying someone, and possibly escalate his behaviour. Far better for him to find out that the world will not bend to his whim. So I stand my ground and let him make his decision.

Violence is ghastly in almost all circumstances. But force is morally neutral. Used for evil, it is evil. Used for good, it is good. A good teacher tries to win fights by preventing them from happening. But sometimes you have to be bold.

Tom Bennett is a teacher and author of The Behaviour Guru. Read more from Tom at bit.lytombennett or follow him on Twitter at @tesBehaviour

Paul Dix: No

Using lawful, proportionate restraint when it is necessary to keep children safe is a hefty responsibility for any teacher. When restraint is used to control behaviour, a line is crossed. Physical intervention is not a panacea for controlling violent behaviour. If it was we would still be beating children.

Some children who are restrained shrug it off. It is just part of their daily personal chaos. Others escalate restraint incidents for pride: "It took five of them to hold me - I mashed up the glass door as they carried me out." Some take their revenge in damage to personal property, others have dads who do not share your enthusiasm for physical discipline. In the toughest areas, when the family can see that you have crossed the line, the game changes. The stakes have been raised. Waving government "guidance" won't help you when Big Phil wants a "quiet word". I know many teachers who drive to work because it protects them from implicit threats made after incidents in school. Others have received explicit threats of violence. We are teachers, not police officers.

Some of the pupil referral units I work with, which contain the most potentially violent students, never use restraint to control or modify behaviour. The principal of one outstanding unit told me it had restrained a student only once, and that was for his own safety. These units deal with the trickiest students I have met. The issue is the culture of the institution, the leadership and the skill of the staff. If you have reached the stage where children are regularly restrained in order to get them to "do as they are told", you have a problem with the culture of adult behaviour. The "them and us" attitude that accompanies the use of restraint for control permanently taints relationships and corrodes discipline.

For teachers who are not as physically capable as their students, intervention is never an option. Alone in a classroom, a slim, 5ft teacher is no match for Lofty O'Connor, 6ft 2in and built like a baronial boys' lavatory. The teacher who taught me most about managing behaviour was just this small. Working with extremely volatile 15- and 16-year-olds, she would never raise a hand or voice. The seam of trust ran deep. She searched for relationships while others grabbed for wrists.

Children die in restraint. That is why we can never be casual about its use. One person's "last resort" is never the same as another's. Some people are too quick to react, others too slow to help. Of course, children also get hurt when people stand by and do nothing. We need specialist training with the right philosophy. Most training around physical restraint is seriously flawed and derived from systems used by prison officers, the police or the military. It is usually a bastardisation of all three. The National Health Service can teach us a great deal about how to use restraint with care and dignity when it is essential.

Teachers who are properly instructed in managing behaviour value their training in restraint as an essential part of their first aid kit - it is there to keep children safe. But they have far more effective and humane strategies for dealing with escalating confrontations or children who will not do as they are told.

Paul Dix is lead trainer at UK company Pivotal Education and author of The Essential Guide to Taking Care of Behaviour

What else?

Steering a path through the minefield: how to navigate Department for Education guidelines on the use of physical force.


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Tom Bennett & Paul Dix

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