Positive thinking

18th October 1996 at 01:00
Schools are finding that negative behaviour should be countered by praise and rewards. Carolyn O'Grady reports

Gillian Shephard announced new measures to help schools deal with unruly pupils at the Conservative Party Conference last week. Schools will be required to draw up a "discipline code" of expected standards, and to say how they will encourage good behaviour. Schools will have increased powers to detain children without parental permission, greater rights in exclusion cases and the power to refuse to admit children whose parents do not sign a home-school contract.

Teachers in the Northwest are hoping to avoid the toughest options by developing "positive" approaches to discipline.

"Children can dig themselves into a hole and live in it," says Cheshire head Pat McDonnell, referring to some children's compulsion to misbehave. "They need to be helped out of the role they've created for themselves".

When she joined Smallwood Primary School in Sandbach as acting head, one of the first things Pat McDonnell did was to institute a policy which she calls "positive discipline". This behaviourist approach, and others like it, are being increasingly adopted by schools, and Pat McDonnell has found that it works.

Called assertive discipline, positive discipline or positive teaching, what these methods have in common is the skilful use of feedback, praise and rewards. They reinforce appropriate social skills and often set out a list of rules and sanctions.

But many aspects might make some parents wince. These include the lists of names with stars against them, certificates on the wall, badges that children wear and effusive praise.

Jeremy Swinson, a senior educational psychologist at Liverpool education authority, advocates a system developed in the US and called assertive discipline. "The emphasis is on acknowledgement of success rather than on the overt value of the prize itself," he says.

Pat McDonnell has been struck by how the method encourages children to rally round to help the child who misbehaves to learn better ways, because "they sense that he or she is desperate to get a certificate".

Frank Merrett of the University of Birmingham School of Education says: "One of our problems is trying to convince teachers that nagging is a waste of time. They should pay attention to what children do right not what they do wrong. " Mr Merrett and Professor Kevin Wheldall have developed in-service training packages for teachers in classroom behaviour management, called positive teaching.

He says: "Teachers will often say that they are positive in their approach to children. But generally they are positive about work, but towards behaviour they are negative. Children are only picked out when they do wrong."

He says fulsome, general praise when a child has no idea why it is being praised is, however, worse than useless. Take, for example, Charlie Brown who is always standing up and moving around the class when he should be sitting down. "Everytime 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's restless behaviour is being reinforced. He 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."

What should be done? "The teacher should see how long Charlie is capable of sitting down," advises Merrett. "Say it is three minutes. After two minutes, she goes to him and says 'I see you're getting on well' ." She does this every now and again and eventually Charlie will only occasionally need this sort of positive reinforcement. Merrett argues that done subtly and consistently over time, this approach will mean that sanctions will not be necessary.

It is here that advocates of different behaviourist approaches disagree. Jeremy Swinson is happy with rewards, especially class rewards, as these encourage children to put pressure on other pupils to be good.

He argues that some children, as well as reaping social and material rewards in terms of pupil and teacher approval, certificates or stickers, need to know that their bad behaviour will cost them.

Assertive discipline advocates a hierarchy of sanctions, adhered to with total consistency - some would say rigidity.

Alderwood Junior School in Liverpool introduced the system three years ago. Head Alan Wilson puts the emphasis on praise and rewards but has found sanctions necessary because his school has a large number of challenging children. 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. The kids found it unfair, as did the parents. We needed a more consistent, fair approach."

He says the rules need to be simple and few. Sanctions, called "consequences", are applied in small steps. They begin with the teacher noting the name of the child on her clipboard, but keeping as her main priority the use of praise to guide the child. If the misbehaviour continues during the same day (the slate is rubbed clean every day) the child works by him or herself for two or three minutes.

The next step is for the pupil to stay in at breaktime to write a "behaviour diary". The diary will be about which rule they have broken and what they should have done instead. The child then goes to see the head and the final step is a letter to the child's parents, who may be asked to come in.

Alan Wilson says: "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." Two children in the past three years have been excluded, which is below the city average.

Pat McDonnell at Smallwood, a small school with a lot of middle-class children, is particularly keen on working with the children to formulate rules and in evoking group pressure to keep them. By trial and error, she has found this succeeds.

She says: "We have books and a lecture video on different methods. We have said, 'we'll try this and see what works'."

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