Keep calm and carry on

16th September 2011 at 01:00
Paul Dix says adults must maintain their own discipline when faced with children who have lost theirs

As aN 11-year-old, I was regularly grabbed by the throat, screamed at and brutalised by my teachers. As specks of spit fell on my face they would try to scare and beat me into submission.

Desperate to control what I said and did, they used violence and verbal abuse casually. It didn't work then. It doesn't work now.

When I became a teacher, a head told me: "You can't teach people how to manage behaviour - you've either got it or you haven't." I have spent the last 10 years proving him wrong. In 2001, I gave up a brilliant teaching job to take behaviour training to a wider audience of teachers.

It is easy to demonstrate great behaviour management skills when things are going well. It is when the most aggressive, violent and damaging behaviours occur that the finest performance must emerge. I teach adults how to maintain their own discipline when dealing with children and young people who have lost theirs. How to sustain a poker face in the midst of chaos; how to control and direct the most difficult confrontations, using misdirection and references to previous good behaviour.

We demonstrate how to reward without spending money, how to teach behaviour to children who have never learnt how to behave, and how to hold firm boundaries without laying your relationship on the line. Most importantly, we show adults how to move through the eye of the storm without giving up. How to respond to being told to "fuck off" without throwing your toys out of the pram; how to get beyond defences and understand not just what is happening, but why.

But beyond the school gates, the behaviour debate remains too simplistic. Everyone has an opinion, usually one fuelled by emotion, anecdote and ignorance. These views are often framed by a system obsessed with control and punishment. From desperate politicians "cracking down on discipline" to tabloids which openly attack damaged children, the wider public debate ripples with aggression towards young people. Pure punishment, the more severe the better, is seen as preferential to reparation and rehabilitation.

Last week, a doctor felt moved to send me abusive emails about how my views were utterly wrong and that the best way to manage behaviour was regular beatings. The doctor in question had not set foot in a classroom in 40 years and had no interest in the teaching profession, but was moved to express his unfaltering opinion that my advice was "complete and utter bollocks".

If we don't explain how a more caring approach can work in the classroom, we allow the "hang 'em and flog 'em" brigade to peddle fear without being challenged.

Unfortunately, many tabloid headlines on behaviour follow a faux expose of schools written by ex-teachers and "whistle blowers". These people offer no solutions or ideas. They simply betray confidences, attack children and confirm the public's prejudices and suspicions.

The public deserves a debate with a higher intellectual and social purpose. We should show how the best teachers manage the most tricky and dangerous behaviour with skill, flair and a poker face that protects everyone.

These skills, techniques and attitudes should not be the preserve of the best teachers but discussed in wider society with as much ferocity as the latest "shock" media revelation.

Perhaps we would then see a change in behaviour not just in schools, but in prisons, workplaces and communities.

Next week, I take to the stage with my new one-man show, Changing Behaviour: the light at the end of your tether. This will bring practical approaches in behaviour management and change to many who do not work in the world of education, but are intrigued by it nonetheless.

I am sure that lay experts like the sweary doctor will still share their opinions with me. Fortunately, years of working with tricky children and trickier teachers have left me able to deal with the odd heckle.

It is time to silence those who peddle the idea that "discipline" is about control, power and fear. It is time that we had a behaviour debate that resists the search for "instant solutions", that refuses to label and accuse children, that rejects the idea that you improve people by brutalising them. It is time to stop people thinking that bullying others is an intelligent and effective strategy. It is time to take the behaviour issue beyond the school gates.

Take a bow

Paul Dix's one-man show, Changing Behaviour: the light at the end of your tether, is at the Elgiva Theatre, Chesham, Bucks, on September 23 and 24 at 7.30pm.

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