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How to encourage 'active' good behaviour

Rather than simply asking pupils not to misbehave, we should encourage them to display active good behaviour and give those who do the recognition they deserve, says one headmaster

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Rather than simply asking pupils not to misbehave, we should encourage them to display active good behaviour and give those who do the recognition they deserve, says one headmaster

In a recent assembly, I spoke to pupils about the significance of "active" good behaviour. It felt like an idea that must have belonged to someone else, an initiative that I was borrowing from elsewhere. At the same time, it was something that was obvious and clearly important.

Most people are good most of the time, and some are good all of the time, especially when your measure of good behaviour is "not doing anything wrong". But, for a society to thrive — and schools are all micro-societies — you must seek active, not passive, good behaviour.

The difference can be easily demonstrated in a school, where passive goodness is likely to lead to a lack of responsibility and a failure to engage with an ethos of improvement. 

Developing a positive culture

We would all agree that dropping litter is poor behaviour. Passive good behaviour is demonstrated by the person who does not drop litter, but active good behaviour is shown by the person who sees the litter, picks it up and puts it in the bin (or even better, recycles it).  

Passive goodness does nothing to improve the environment, while the action of removing the rubbish is positive in itself, especially for the influence that it can have upon others. Developing this kind of positive culture requires us to shift people's mindsets.

But how does this transfer to the classroom? Well, we would all agree that the pupil that calls out and disrupts the learning of others is showing poor behaviour, while a silent classroom may well be full of people who are being passively good.  

In the learning environment, the person demonstrating active good behaviour is the learner who engages in the lesson, asks and answers questions, takes part in debate, leads others and helps to develop the best learning ethos possible for everyone in the room.

Giving recognition

In order to create the necessary mindset shift required for active good behaviour to take root, teachers must make sure that they recognise those who do demonstrate this type of behaviour. For example, it is really important that we celebrate the pupil who provides emotional support to a fellow pupil who is struggling with confidence. And it is crucial that other pupils and parents are also made to recognise the efforts of these learners. 

Those pupils who run fundraising events need to get the same kudos that is traditionally given to the school football captain, or the lead in the school play. Even the pupil who carries the books for a friend on crutches, who tidies the mess at the end of a lesson or returns the tracksuit left by the sports pitch needs to know that this effort is worthwhile and appreciated.

The real measure of the person and of the community of which they are a part is whether they are prepared to be actively good — to have strong values to which you will adhere to, whatever the pressures and expectations of others.

Active good behaviour is not something that just happens. It requires constant reinforcement. Most of all, it needs to be at the heart of the school’s values, and once it is established, it can be utterly transformational in the way that people behave towards one another and their environment.

Chris Townsend is the headmaster of Felsted School in Essex

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