Credit where it's due

10th January 1997 at 00:00
Strong discipline means rewarding good behaviour as well as punishing bad. Carolyn O'Grady reports.

As incidents of aggressive behaviour in schools appear to be increasing and the number of exclusions rises, discipline has become a headline issue and more schools are turning their attention to it.

Some teachers are naturally good at keeping order in the classroom and encouraging a good attitude towards work. But schools are realising that discipline is not an area which can safely be left to the vagaries of individual teaching methods. A positive attitude towards behaviour and work is best maintained by a team effort, which in turn is the product of a whole-school policy and training.

Many schools have drawn on research and use training packages from local education authorities and other sources to create their own policies. Individual schools will have their own emphasis, but the main ingredients are remarkably similar. Common to all current approaches to behaviour, for example, is an emphasis on praising and rewarding. Schools may have a hierarchy of rewards, including certificates, points and prizes.

Traditionally, teachers have resisted praising pupils, feeling that it is wrong to reward them for doing what they should be doing. But it is now recognised that children need attention and many will behave badly if that is the only way of getting it. By nagging pupils a teacher can reinforce the kind of conduct he or she wants to discourage. What is needed is praise for good behaviour. It sounds simple, but is it?

"Teachers will often say that they are positive in their approach to children. In fact generally they are positive about work but negative towards behaviour; children are only picked out when they do wrong," says Frank Merrett of the University of Birmingham School of Education. With Professor Kevin Wheldall, he has developed in-service training packages in classroom behaviour management called Positive Teaching. "One of our problems is trying to convince teachers that they should pay attention to what children do right, not what they do wrong," he says.

Take, for example, a child called Charlie who is always standing up and moving around the class when he should be sitting down. Says Frank Merrett: "Every time he stands up the teacher will say 'Charlie sit down', but when Charlie does get on with his work nobody takes any notice, so Charlie is getting attention for getting out of his seat and, as it has become a habit, will go on doing this forever unless the teacher provides positive reinforcement."

So what should she do? "The teacher looks to see how long Charlie is capable of sitting down," he says. "Say it is three minutes. After two minutes, she goes to him and says 'I see you're getting on well'. If the teacher does this every now and again for a while, Charlie will eventually only occasionally need this sort of positive reinforcement."

He says it is very important that praise follows immediately on good behaviour. Random, fulsome praise given only when the teacher feels well-disposed towards a child is worse than useless. The child must be in no doubt about why he or she is being rewarded.

Even at secondary level, where you might suppose that street-wise young people would resent this unashamedly behaviourist approach, it can work. Though Frank Merrett concedes: "Sometimes you have to be discreet about praise. You may not be able to praise individuals in front of other kids in an obvious way. "

What is important, particularly with this age group, is the relationship between teacher and pupils. "There must be space between the teachers and the taught. Too many teachers try to be matey. It is important that a distance is maintained," he says.

But what do you do when a child will not do what it is told? Most approaches emphasise that praise must outweigh punishment, but they differ on the placement of the emphasis. Some systems argue that rewards and praise alone are enough to ensure good conduct; others emphasise that rewards and praise are important, but pupils must also know that there is a cost if they disobey the rules.

Imported from America, Assertive Discipline is a system which has influenced many UK schools. As well as stressing the need for frequent reinforcement of good behaviour, it puts great emphasis on a hierarchy of sanctions which are adhered to with total consistency. Many schools negotiate these penalties with pupils, arguing that this is more democratic and gives pupils a sense of ownership.

Alan Wilson, headmaster of Alderwood Junior School in Liverpool, introduced the system three years ago. He says: "We had the reward side of the system in place, but we were reinventing the rules each day. The effect was a lot of inconsistency over sanctions. The kids found it unfair, as did the parents. We needed a more consistent, fair approach."

The school kept the rules simple and few: keep your hands, feet and objects to yourself; obey instructions without talking back; put hands up before talking and don't leave your seat without asking.

Sanctions begin with the teacher noting the name of the child on her own clipboard, but keeping as her main priority the use of praise to guide that child. If the misbehaviour continues during the same day - the slate is rubbed clean every day - the child works on their own for two or three minutes.

The next step is that the pupil stays in at break-time for a very short time to write a "behaviour diary" about which rule they have broken and what they should have done instead. He or she then goes to see the head and the final step is a letter to parents, who may be asked to come in.

"Children can be set individualised programmes for perhaps a week with a target to meet which will earn them their way back, but very rarely are they excluded," says Alan Wilson.

The role of the head is critical, as is a school-wide policy. Indeed, in secondary schools, in particular, it would be impossible to implement such a system without a team approach. Records need to be kept in order that the hierarchy of penalties can be implemented and, ideally, a "referral room" set up where children go if sent out of class or if they miss a break.

A school also needs to make itself aware of its own weak spots, so that it can target those areas. Recently, Leeds education authority's Attendance and Behaviour Projects produced a computer database which logs incidents and analyses them. The kind of incident is defined by the school and might include bullying, calling out in class or aggressive acts. The system could show, for example, the times of day or specific lessons in which these incidents most often occur or whether incidents of bullying or late arrival are on the increase and in what circumstances.

Tools such as these can be criticised as Big Brother-ish, but sensitively used they may be invaluable in allowing schools to detect trends, specific patterns and also hitherto unrecognised prejudice on behalf of teachers if it is shown, for example, that certain ethnic groups are being disproportionately picked out.

But, in the end, it is the teacher who makes that difference. And an important ingredient in discipline often overlooked is example. Says Frank Merrett: "Teachers can't expect children to be punctual if they are unpunctual; to dress well if they dress sloppily; to hand in homework on time if it isn't marked on time. A teacher's presentation must be neat and the way they speak should be polite and respectful, if they expect these things from their pupils."

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