Pupil, control thyself

9th September 2005 at 01:00
It's a behaviour theory started by an American then tried successfully in Australia. Psychologist Ian McEwan believes it could work in Scotland

There is an approach to behaviour management much favoured in parts of Australia which will be new to most of us in Scotland.

The responsible thinking programme has been developed by an American educator called Ed Ford. Although it probably has as many detractors as advocates, there are aspects of the programme and approach that should interest us.

The problems of disaffection and disruptive behaviour, especially in secondary schooling, seem to be global. No one country or system has all the answers. So we need to look far and wide for answers.

The approach advocated by Ford is a constructivist one, characterised by these core assumptions: l Each person is responsible for his or her own behaviour.

* No one can make anyone do anything.

* Teachers can only give pupils information in the context of behaviour management. What they do with it is their choice.

* If pupils are given time to reflect on their behaviour, they are more likely to gain insight and make better choices than during and after punishment.

* The advocates of a constructivist approach would contest the element of punishment evident in most traditional models of behaviour management. They would argue that punishment models are less predictable than choice options in prompting the development of mature insight. The use of punishment is likely to create relationships characterised by hostility and resentment.

* Similarly, power plays between teachers and pupils about behaviour are almost totally counterproductive, consuming valuable time and energy and wasting precious teaching time.

Ford's work draws directly from a relatively little-known theory called perceptual control theory, developed by William T. Powers in 1973 (See his Making Sense of Behaviour: The Meaning of Control 1988.) Basically, perpetual control theory moves away from a model of conceptualising behaviour at the end of a causal chain and proposes that most behaviours are the result of a seamless chain of specifying, creating and maintaining desirable experiences.

In practice, errant pupils are faced with questions that are central to the approach. All staff are required to use these in the order suggested below: 1 What are you doing?

2 What should you be doing?

3 What happens if you break the rules?

4 Is that what you want to happen?

5 What do you want to do now?

6 What will happen if you break this rule again? * Advocates of this approach maintain that this "script" allows pupils those few precious seconds to reconsider their actions and make better choices, both in that moment of crisis and for the future.

Should pupils not change their ways (an active but poor choice), the next line in the script is "I see you have chosen to leave" or "You have chosen to go to the RTC" and they are then required to attend the responsible thinking classroom.

This is a separate classroom, usually staffed by a teacher and a classroom assistant, both specially picked and trained in the methodology. It is not arranged like an ordinary classroom; it has individual cubicles around the room. Pupils are expected to work in silence and in virtual isolation, and to produce a plan that will allow them to re-enter their original class.

The staff in the responsible thinking classroom can help (but are not often required to do so). Pupils are then expected to negotiate their way back into their class with the class teacher, using the plan as a negotiating tool.

Continued failure, resulting in repeated trips to the responsible thinking classroom would result in an "intervention", basically a problem-solving forum within the school involving management, learning support staff, counsellors, parents and the pupil. This forum would be familiar to many of us in Scotland but, interestingly, would not include any inter-agency representation.

Ian McEwan, a principal education psychologist with Dumfries and Galloway, is on exchange as a guidance counsellorpyschologist at Marymount College, a Catholic secondary school near Brisbane, Australia* Taken from Ford's 'Discipline for Home and School' (1997) Next week: RTP calms the school and reduces stress levels

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