Behaviour - Every child needs the goalposts to be moved

While consistency is important, students perform best when teachers tailor sanctions to the individual, not the behaviour

Put yourself in the shoes of a child for a moment (if it's not too uncomfortable). Aside from expecting that the teacher will not physically abuse you, what is the minimum expectation that you should have of them when it comes to behaviour management?

At the very least, most teachers agree that we must be consistent. Children, like all humans, get confused if they do the same thing on successive days and get a different reaction.

If a child pokes Dwayne in the eye with a pencil on a Tuesday, for instance, and gets away with it (as the teacher says that Dwayne shouldn't have put his eye in the way), and then does it again on Wednesday and gets a detention, you end up with a confused child. "Sir seems to have relocated the goalposts on to another pitch entirely today," mouths Poor Tiny Tim.

Far better that the message students receive is consistent: the same result every day, so potential offenders are in no doubt as to whether Dwayne should be eye-pencilled or not. Consistency helps children to manage their own behaviour; if they are aware that they'll receive the same consequences for the same offence, they can carry out a brief "cost- benefit analysis" before deciding whether an offence is worth committing.

The problem with consistency, though, is that it can sometimes run up against the equally important concept of fairness with an unpleasing friction. It can seem unfair to enforce the same consequences for the same action on all children when you're aware that one child is having an awful time at home and that this is the reason for their behaviour.

So should you ignore fairness to maintain consistency? It's a difficult question. One solution comes from John Murphy, national director of academies at Oasis Community Learning. One of his cardinal rules for managing behaviour is that "real fairness comes from the explicit understanding and acknowledgement that different children have different starting points". He argues that although consistency is vital, to be truly fair we have to differentiate our behaviour management according to who's in front of us.

For Murphy, fairness trumps consistency and, looked at practically, his advice makes a lot of sense. As teachers, we can often feel that consistency is making us act unfairly. What we should be doing is adjusting our behaviour policy to every child's unique circumstances, trusting ourselves to allow consistency to be overruled if the situation warrants it.

So, fairness, not consistency, should be the minimum expected of teachers when it comes to behaviour management. And yet fairness is often forgotten. The following golden rules should help you to avoid some prime examples.

Don't set whole-class punishments

The majority of the class may well have run you ragged but two of them were just trying to do their work. If you punish them for the behaviour of others, you are not only being unfair but also making a rod for your own back. You are not showing the offenders that the path of righteousness gets you out of lessons on time; you are giving the message that there's no point behaving properly in your class. You are also punishing the good two for the excellent example they were setting to more errant students. They may not bother next time.

Judge each situation on its own merits and attempt to do this as objectively as possible

It is poor practice to allow your decisions to be informed by what happened yesterday, and one of the worst things you can do is to allow a child's reputation to affect your judgement. It may be that Tom is often in trouble but this time he really didn't do it, and if you allow his reputation to creep into your decision, you are teaching him that there's no point in behaving well as adults never believe you anyway.

Don't rely on your position or status

The temptation to indulge in the phrase, "Because I said so! I'm your teacher!" can be overwhelming, as it is tiresome continually having to justify yourself. But it is reasonable for a child to ask you to explain things. This doesn't mean that you enter into extended dialogue, nor that you negotiate. But explaining things shows that your judgements are reasoned and, although the student may not like your decision, fair.

Say sorry when you get things wrong

We are meant to be modelling the behaviour we want to see. You would expect them to say sorry. It's only fair that you do.

Phil Beadle is a teacher, broadcaster and co-author of books including the recently released Why are you Shouting at Us?, written with John Murphy

In short

  • The minimum expectation a child should have of their teacher when it comes to behaviour management is consistency.
  • Consistency enables the child to learn boundaries and to manage their own behaviour.
  • However, consistency can sometimes mean you have to act unfairly - a child with an understandable reason for misbehaving should perhaps be treated differently from one with no extenuating circumstances.
  • In this instance, fairness should trump consistency, with teachers differentiating their behaviour management strategies to the individual student.

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