When did we forget how to deal with bad behaviour?

30th November 2013 at 08:15


Reading my Twitter feed last night was sobering. I'd been doing some online coaching with a teacher who'd been badly let down by his school- a kid had thrown a textbook straight at him, hard, and his line management expected him to teach the boy the next day, no consequences to be taken- and I simply put out a casual line to that effect, pinching the bridge of my brow in weariness.


The response was probably predictable. Dozens and dozens and dozens of people tweeted and DM'd and emailed to say they'd been through similar experiences, or worse. The teacher who'd been punched by a child several lessons in a row, but wasn't allowed to call home, set a detention, or even park the student somewhere else. The teacher who asked for a removal, to be told in front of the class it was her fault for not controlling the room, and the child should stay. The teacher who was being stalked online by a group of student cyberbullies, but was just told they should 'use Facebook less'. Several teachers said they had left, or were leaving the profession because of this. On and on and on the messages came.


I train and coach and advise on behaviour all the time. I've carved out an odd niche for myself in the world of education, and I've been happily doing it for years, because in our profession we're nothing if we don't help each other. And I've come to a sad realisation: most of the poor behaviour in schools is either allowed or exacerbated by weak behaviour management systems and protocols. This is what I mean:


  • Children are responsible for their own behaviour, with obvious exceptions made where children have debilitating issues of mental health. In other words, in general, they should be made to account for their actions and conduct.
  • What we do after that, is our responsibility. And what we do with children can have an enormous effect on their behaviour. If we ignore their misbehaviour, or they find no obstacle to it, then they'll usually repeat it, on the grounds that doing what you want is usually more fun than doing what you've been told to do. Children are terrible at deferring gratification. Given the choice between trigonometry and drawing a knob on Gandhi's loin cloth, many discovery learners will prefer to reposition the Saint of the Salt March as Priapus. Most won't, but enough will to steer the lesson onto rocks
  • Most children will stop misbehaving if you deter them repeatedly
  • Many children will behave better if we reward them when they do, or as an incentive
  • If children see that their environment is governed by boundaries and structures, they feel safer, and prefer it, even thought their immediate gratification might be thwarted
  • Persistent recidivists need special attention and care. They should be taken away from the mainstream environment and given one-to-one provision. Keeping them in classrooms where they simply repeat learned habits of egoism is senseless.


With a few bells on, these are the Lego blocks of how behaviour should work in a school. Everything else should fit within this. It is so unlike rocket science it is ecneics tekcor. It's how parents and schools and communities have guaranteed conduct since we discovered we had opposable thumbs.


So why do so many schools stray from this basic structure? Or apply it so poorly? The reasons are myriad. Part of it is to do with the contemporary turbulence and uncertainty of what it means to be an adult and child, or what Frank Furedi describes as the crisis of adult authority. We are less comfortable with traditional roles of authority, and via a perfectly compassionate desire to promote equality, have lost the assumption of command over children, who so badly need direction. This uncertainty and loss of nerve translates into the structural sphere, where school systems are designed around models that treat students as equal participants in a system of authority- which is golden-hearted but tragically misguided. Other factors abound- the rise of the parent as stakeholder; Every Child Matters; a revulsion at the excesses of adult authority in the past; the cult of the individual and the death of traditional community identities. There are many others. But the result is the same: many children don't like being treated like children, having been weaned early on the milk of autonomy by parents who knew no better, or thought they were liberating them- and many adults have forgotten what it means to be an adult, having missed the road signs in their life that marked their coming of age. An extended infantilism ensues, personified by the parent at a school evening who once asked me to 'make it snappy because Eastenders was on soon.'


And of course there are other reasons, more universal. It is far easier to ignore poor behaviour when it doesn't directly affect you. If you can pretend things aren't so bad, it is frequently more pleasant to do so. I have often noticed how, when coaching teachers online, their line managers expect them to put up with situations that they themselves would never endure. 'See what he's like tomorrow,' is the advice of a coward who doesn't have to wonder if they'll be abused or attacked the next day.


For once, this isn't a Whitehall fix. This is something we need to tackle ourselves. Getting good behaviour in schools isn't difficult to plan- it's just damned hard to carry out, because it takes guts, unity and perseverance. But it's still a lot easier than living with bad behaviour.