Questions for errant pupils

16th September 2005 at 01:00
If all staff followed a behavioural script, classrooms would be less stressful, writes Ian McEwan from Brisbane

A behaviour theory is working wonders on some of the most wayward pupils in Australia. Could the same approach help Scottish schools?

Last week I looked at the work of the American educator, Ed Ford, and his development of the responsible thinking programme. It is based on the premise that young people do not respond positively to punitive models of behaviour management; if they ever did, it was at a cost of hostility and poorer relationships. Instead, each person is responsible for their own behaviour and the choices they make.

After working in a school where this approach is regarded as central to managing pupil's behaviour, I would say there are many advantages. Most schools have chosen to implement their own versions of the responsible thinking programme. These tend to be more flexible than Ford's rigid and mechanistic, original model.

Here, in Marymount College, near Brisbane, the version used is described as "not pure vanilla", which is one of those esoteric Aussie ways of saying things. Generally, it has the approval of staff. The discussion that took place before its implementation can only have been productive.

Adopting the system across the school should, in theory, ensure a consistent discipline. In the most recent external evaluation by a local university, in 2002, most teachers believed that it had calmed the school quite dramatically, reduced their personal stress levels and increased the available teaching time in classes.

The most attractive feature is the script that all teachers are required to follow (see box, right). This has the benefit (potentially) of a cohesive approach; pupils should therefore be addressed by the same script each time.

The message to pupils should be clear and consistent, with every encouragement given to developing responsible thinking. In reality, of course, there is much more variability than the original planning allowed for, as the management team in any school - Scottish, Australian or otherwise - will point out.

Many teachers here at Marymount don't use the system. They feel comfortable with their own classroom management techniques and take some pride in them.

The majority of teachers do use it, however, and within this group there is a lot of variation.

It does seem to be genuinely difficult to implement whole-school approaches to any initiative and, because of the emotive nature of behavioural problems, the following of the script - asking questions in the right order and every time - becomes quite personal. Arguably, this undermines the system and does not allow the pupil those few precious minutes to reflect on their actions.

Proper use of the questions also offers the teachers the chance to reflect on their actions and the gravity, or otherwise, of the situation.

Consistent application has a chance to help with the development of responsible thinking - any inconsistency is as likely to fail as the previous, punishment-based models did.

There is also the possibility that sticking rigidly to the process does not help teachers develop their own classroom management techniques. Critics within a school - the more "successful" teachers - would advocate this line.

It is, of course, questionable whether the development of responsible thinking is actually fostered by this process.

For many of the youngsters more familiar with the penal approach, the system seems to lack consequences. There appears to be a small core of pupils here at Marymount (1 or 2 per cent) who are impervious to the responsible thinking programme processes, and the system does not tap into their intrinsic motivation. These pupils may need outside intervention, which can offer different, more familiar, consequences.

For the vast majority of the pupils, who do have some intrinsic motivation about school, the programme has a great deal to offer; for those pupils who find themselves involved in visits to the responsible thinking classroom - approximately 25 per cent of the school population - one or two visits seem to suffice.

Over the course of the five-year school cycle in Australia, the use of the process diminishes with each passing year, which would suggest a certain effectiveness, but it may also be indicative of a process of general maturity.

More evaluation, ideally of a longitudinal nature, is required. But in the present climate, where behavioural matters are so high on the agenda, the responsible thinking programme could make a contribution to the debate.

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

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