Primary pupils who have acquired a reputation as naughty or difficult struggle to have any good behaviour recognised by teachers, according to new research.
These children are often held up as negative examples for others, making it hard for them to break out of their predetermined role.
Academics from Manchester Metropolitan University observed reception classes in four local primaries. They found rules for good behaviour were repeated often, and obedience was recognised through a range of reward systems. But misbehaviour was publicly denounced.
"Classroom discipline was predominantly a public matter, conducted in plain view of the class," the researchers said. "This had serious implications for children's status and reputation."
Individual acts of misbehaviour were often viewed as evidence of an underlying problem. This led to children developing reputations among staff for particular types of behaviour: some were deemed "self-centred", others "manipulative".
"Once a child's reputation has begun to circulate in the staffroom, dining hall and among other parents, it may be very difficult for their behaviour not to be interpreted as a sign of such imputed character traits," the researchers said. "Children who have acquired a strong reputation may, therefore, find it harder to be recognised as good."
Teachers often exacerbated this situation by holding up marginalised children as a counter-example to the rest.
"In some instances, children were quite clearly made an example of, for the edification of the class," the researchers said.
Links were also regularly made between discipline and achievement, and teachers tended to relate their emotions to their pupils' behaviour. So one teacher praised her class for "sitting beautifully and making me happy". Another said she was sad because a pupil was not listening to her.
"Being good is also connected, therefore, to pleasing adults and winning their approval," the researchers said. "Children who find themselves to be failing in behaviour terms may also feel themselves to be judged more comprehensively a failure as a person, friend or learner."
The researchers said the teachers presented pupils with an idealised version of the "proper child", encouraging them to mimic the behaviour and emotions of this ideal.
In order to be seen as good, therefore, children need to play a predefined role: "Some children may find it more difficult than others to identify and then meet the conditions for behaving like the 'proper child' that adults want them to be," the researchers said.
"The mismatch that some children may experience between their out-of-school realities and the proper child that is conjured in the classroom may be one source for more visible disaffections that emerge in later years at school."
- Do not intervene too early with explanations and solutions for problematic children.
- Remember that apparent delays and deviations in development can often disappear with time.
- Be aware of tacit expectations and how failure to meet these can be seen as a deficit.
- Decide if praise and reprimands should be given in public.
- Consider reducing the number of references to emotions in classroom dialogue.