Secure in their behaviour

18th July 2008 at 01:00
Ask a teacher which theory governs how they manage children's behaviour and they will often be hard put to give a coherent reply

Ask a teacher which theory governs how they manage children's behaviour and they will often be hard put to give a coherent reply. Yet reflect on the observable practice, and the dominant model will have behaviourist undertones. This suggests we can influence a child's behaviour through the consistent application of rewards and sanctions.

Via this process, we can make children reflect on their actions with a view to them developing an understanding of what is good behaviour. If we look at how most schools and classrooms are organised, we can see such a model permeating our practice.

The dominance of the behaviourist model is such that it is accepted without question - in fact, to question it or propose an alternative is to risk the wrath of colleagues who have been brought up on punishment and reward (is this a Freudian slip or should that read reward and punishment) as the only game in town . "well it worked for me".

The logical outcome of such a tacit appreciation of how we modify a child's behaviour leads schools to implement systems which are built upon rewards, for example, certificates, stars, badges, awards, prizes, and so on; and punishments, for instance, detention, punishment exercises, exclusion, loss of "golden time", and so on. All these rewards and punishments are based on the premise that the child can understand his or her behaviour and modify it in response to stimulus.

However, recent research shows that a child's brain does not develop fully in an environment devoid of secure parenting. The associated model, known as Attachment Theory, suggests that the behaviourist model in schools cannot influence a child who has not formed a secure relationship in their early years. If we reflect upon what adults are doing with children under three, we can characterise good parenting as being caring and empathetic.

So such things as neglect and abuse, overt family conflict, hostile and rejecting relationships or death and loss can disrupt the secure attachment a child requires to develop properly. By the time such children come to school, they are not in a position to understand or control their behaviour: the dominant models in schools are doomed to fail, as they assume all children are the same and have had the same parenting.

So what can schools do? The bottom line is that we need to teach them the same way as in a secure attachment environment - emotional regulation, impulse control and empathy - all the things that parents naturally teach their children aged 0-4. The most important thing for insecurity is relationships, so schools need to recreate a secure attachment relationship with at least one substitute person (not the teacher).

Yet what do we often do? We apply sanctions with no reference to the parenting they have had, often resulting in exclusion (the opposite treatment the child needs). This is not "fair": it is discriminatory. Yet the logic of treating everyone the same and the application of sanctions in schools is so dominant, it is almost beyond critique.

What do we do? The answer lies in training and educating all in our schools. Recent evidence from those who have undertaken such training is exciting, and the change in children who were deemed to be out of control when using traditional behaviour modification techniques has been spellbinding.

The premise here is that it's too late by the time we get to secondary: we need to focus our attention on children in the early years and make up for any attachment deficit. We need to claim them as ours and treat them with unconditional positive regard. Associated with this is the need to teach and support parenting skills which will transform their children's lives.

Don Ledingham is acting director of education and children's services in East Lothian.

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