The power of praise

17th November 2000 at 00:00
The tawse is part of a bygone era of school punishment but discipline still has to be maintained. Douglas Blane reports on positive approaches to class control

Crime and punishment: all kinds of deterrents against bad behaviour are less effective now than formerly; after-school detention is often unworkable in state schools and letters to parents are often ignored The headteacher of a school near Dumfries who admitted regularly beating his pupils so hard with a riding crop that he left "red marks, weals and bruising" was found not guilty of assault. "I hope this will be an encouragement to other teachers trying to uphold discipline and good behaviour," he said after the trial.

That was in 1979.

Just over 20 years later, a headteacher in Wales received a three-month custodial sentence, suspended for a year, for slapping the face of a boy who was trying to punch her.

It is not just technology that has drastically altered our schools over the past two decades. Society's attitudes have too. Despite the House of Commons holding a debate on the restoration of corporal punishment as recently as 1997, sanctioned and systematic beating of schoolchildren now belongs to a bygone era.

The majority of teachers are glad of it. However, they are also concerned by the absence of effective deterrents in schools for bad behaviour, the increase in allegations of assault against teachers - many of them malicious - and the lack of coherent guidance or adequate resources from national or local government for dealing with disruptive pupils. There is also the widespread perception that youthful bad behaviour is a rising tide that no one can stem.

Earlier this year, the Department for Education and Employment published guidelines south of the border on promoting "positive handling strategies". These recommended that schools should develop policies and fund training on how to deal with difficult pupils and that organisations which offer training in restraint techniques should be nationally accredited. No comparable guidelines exist in Scotland, and while some teachers say they would welcome training in safe techniques for handling unruly children, others are sceptical.

"When you train someone in physical restraint," says Ronnie Smith, general secretary of the Educational Institute for Scotland, "there's an implied expectation that they will intervene if need be - just as there would be if they were a trained first-aider. But we've had teachers in court for doing little more than taking a child by the arm to escort him from a school dining room.

"It's extraordinarily risky to lay hands on a pupil in any context, and we'd be very cautious of anything that encouraged the view that teachers were there to physically intervene."

David Eaglesham, general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association, is equally dubious. "In general our advice to members is don't lay hands on any child at any time for any reason," he says.

"There may be a few exceptions - such as if they are about to hurt themselves badly - but we definitely wouldn't advise getting between two children who were fighting. By all means try to stop them, but use your voice, not your hands."

The powerlessness of teachers does not end with their being unable to intervene physically. All kinds of deterrents are less effective now than formerly. Letters to parents are often ignored. After-school detention is often unworkable in state schools. Exclusion is a long and difficult process which is actively discouraged.

So what is to be done? Perhaps the time has come to shift the emphasis from what teachers can't do to what they can, from troublemakers to children who behave well and from punishing the wrong-doer to rewarding the well-behaved.

According to those schools that have tried it - such as St Peter's Primary in Galashiels, which was awarded "very good" in all 22 categories covered by the school inspectors' report (TES Scotland, September 15) - the effects on pupils and their teachers can be remarkable. However, there is no magic formula.

"About four years ago we introduced a policy of promoting positive behaviour," says Iain Duncan, headteacher at Bannerman High school in Glasgow. "In many ways it has worked well. The pupils are keen to get praise slips and the parents like them too, as well as the letters home saying how good their child has been. One woman even told us she'd had the praise slips framed as a Christmas present for her son - which must have been quite a surprise if he'd asked for a bike!

"Earlier this year, though, a number of our teachers felt the children were becoming less manageable again and we decided something more had to be done."

Ideally a behaviour management system could be set up that would run smoothly for years without maintenance or alteration, but that is not realistic, explains depute head Ina Clark.

"A lot of teachers these days have been working for 30 years and more and the job has changed greatly in that time. Teachers who actually expect a bit of questioning from children tend to cope better nowadays than the teachers you used to get, whose response was usually 'I'm telling you, so just do it'. Older staff need their skills updated and new teachers have to be trained."

On the day before the new school year began, instead of enjoying a last day of freedom, all the Bannerman High teachers and those from the school's associated primaries were asked to attend an in-service course on promoting positive behaviour, run by consultant Geoff Moss. The effects of that one day have been dramatic. The number of demerits issued to pupils has decreased greatly and the assistant headteacher responsible for first-year discipline has yet to receive a single referral for bad behaviour.

"I don't think the children are any different this year," says Miss Clark, "so credit has to go to the teachers."

Less easily quantified - but no less marked - is the improvement in teachers' morale that has occurred as a result of having the difficulties caused by bad behaviour acknowledged and practical techniques provided for raising behaviour standards.

"I was a bit cynical at first," admits history teacher and assistant principal teacher of guidance Lorna Hanning, "not because I've anything against promoting positive behaviour - in this school the role of guidance is a positive one and discipline is the responsibility of the assistant heads - but I've been teaching for 20 years and wasn't sure I'd hear anything new. But I found it a really dynamic, motivating day that put a smile on our faces and made us feel that, yes, we could do the job for another year."

Valerie Cumming, principal teacher of home economics, is equally enthusiastic. "It was really good to get reinforcement of your own beliefs about teaching: we have a right to teach, children have a right to learn, it's important to use rewards, and so on. But we also got a lot of practical tips, such as how to manage the noise level in a classroom by teaching the children different voices - partner voice, group voice, class voice - to be used for different types of activity."

Every department at Bannerman High is now carrying out an audit of the techniques the teachers have found most useful - some appear to have adopted all of them - and the information will be analysed and used to update the behaviour management system for the whole school.

"Without a doubt," concludes Mr Duncan, "the most important message is that children won't necessarily know how to behave when they come to school, but we can teach them."


Direction and feedback

Clear instructions and appropriate feedback - supportive for children who are on track, corrective for those who are not - are essential components of assertive discipline. In preparation, teachers should devise a classroom behaviour plan which identifies what will be taught and how, broken down into components and learning outcomes.

"To begin with you need to be conscious of what you are doing," says Geoff Moss, "and work at it before it can become automatic. The clearer your directions and the more consistently they are taught, the sooner the change in behaviour."

Disruption often occurs in changing from one classroom activity to another, so these potential "hot spots" during a lesson need to be anticipated and clear directions given. It is helpful to consider these under five headings, using the mnemonic "print".

P - the purpose of the activity. Tell the children what they are trying to achieve.

R - resources. Tell them what materials they will need and where to get them.

I - in or out. Tell them what movement is required or whether they should stay in their seats.

N - noise level. Tell them how much talking is needed, who to talk to, which vocal level - partner voice, group voice, class voice - to use and how to attract the teacher's attention.

T - time. Tell them how long the activity will take them.

Once an instruction has been given, the teacher should look for pupils who are complying and then support their behaviour, such as saying:

"This row has all got their books out. Well done."

A range of incentives can be used to encourage task behaviour. One of the easiest and most effective rewards is to give children a smile.

Putting assertive discipline into practice Being assertive is normally a matter of stating clearly and without aggression what you want from others. In the classroom, a little more is needed: if children do not have the skills needed to follow the instructions, it does not matter how clear they are. So the necessary skills must be taught first and, once they have been learned, then clear instructions which call on those skills can be given.

Voice levels The teachers at Mintlaw Academy have paired off and are practising "partner voice", or rather most of them are. A few haven't quite got the hang of it yet.

"I can still hear you at the back," says Mr Moss. "Quieter please. Remember, no one should be able to hear your voice except the person right next to you."

Speaking softly is not a skill that comes naturally to teachers - or children, for that matter. "So we have to teach them," says Mr Moss. "Instead of just insisting they talk quietly - you know, 'Shh, Shh, Shh' every few minutes - we teach different voices for different activities, such as working in pairs, working in groups or talking to the whole class. There's also complete silence, which we'll want sometimes in the classroom, and a playground voice, which we almost certainly won't."

Once the children have been taught the different vocal levels, unambiguous instructions can be given for each activity, such as: "You'll be working in pairs for the next 10 minutes, so use your partner voice."

Attention please!

One of the most important directions a teacher gives is the signal for attention, because if that is not followed, virtually no teaching can take place.

"How do you usually attract your class's attention?" Mr Moss asks the teachers.

"I go 'SHADDUP!' " "Yes, that's one way. Another is to hold your hand up and count down from five to zero, which is good because it gives the children time to finish what they're saying or doing.

"If all the teachers in school use the same method, it's even more effective," adds Mr Moss.

Rewards Whole class rewards are good incentives: award class points for good behaviour. When enough points have been accumulated a class treat should be organised, perhaps a game, a quiz, watching a video or an outing.

"This is effective," says Susan Kirkwood, Bannerman High school's drama teacher, "because it gets them working with you and together as a class."

For further information about courses, or an 'Assertive Discipline' video, contact Geoff Moss, tel 020 8944 616

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