You must accentuate the positive

6th June 1997 at 01:00
Ensuring good behaviour is basically a question of clear-headed management based on appropriate rewards and consistent sanctions, says Dirk Flower

School governors and headteachers - grappling with the requirement to prepare a policy for the promotion of good discipline - need to consider the underlying principles of discipline management as well as the issues and attitudes within their particular school.

I believe that each school needs a set of rewards that are relative to the developmental stage of its children. Younger children will respond more to extrinsic and social rewards; older children who are developing self-discipline should be reminded to praise themselves for appropriate behaviour.

Governors need to consider the principles that should underly punishment. To be effective, there must be consistency. Whenever unacceptable behaviour occurs, then the punishment should follow as soon as possible.

Punishment in schools is often inconsistent and delayed. What teachers and governors see as appropriate may not be seen as punishment by pupils; some students will see a punishment as way to gain status in their peer group; others, because they are not getting positive attention, will behave unacceptably to gain attention.

Sometimes teachers feel that giving a punishment is not fair because a particular child is having to deal with difficulties at home. This reduces the effectiveness of school discipline in that it sets up different rules for a few. I recommend that the child receives the punishment as any other child would, but after several such punishments, a meeting is arranged to find ways to help.

Schools need to balance between group and individual rights and responsibilities. If the individual's rights are paramount then the group's needs are often not met and vice versa.

Governors need to encourage children to internalise self-discipline by providing clear limits and experiences within which children learn to make appropriate and inappropriate decisions and experience consequences. The reward system should be separate from the punishment system. In some schools staff remove rewards if a child misbehaves; this tends to reduce the child's motivation to behave appropriately.

When a school defines acceptable behaviour, various issues need to be considered: * The culture of the school and the ways that relationships are built between staff members, between pupils and between staff and pupils, should encourage a feeling of community throughout the school.

* The school discipline plan needs to focus on positive rather than negative behaviour. When students see the environment around them as positive, they are more likely to respond accordingly. I have found that if schools set up a reward system in which children are being noticed two or three times more positively than negatively, then they are less likely to get caught up in a negative cycle.

* Teachers need to have guidelines for dealing with a child who has completely lost control and is not responding to verbal commands. In some schools the teacher removes the rest of the class from the student, and in others the student is taken out of the class.

* The level of physical contact between pupils and between staff and pupils needs to be established. If a child is out of control, does a teacher physically restrain him? Is pushing and shoving allowed but not punching? When does a shove become a punch?

Effective schools focus on shared values. The governors and headteacher spend time focusing on the rules, making sure that they can be clearly communicated by staff to students. They develop about five easily remembered rules that cover expected behaviours.

I have also found that effective schools include the students and parents when developing shared values. So when the rules are established, the staff, parents and students have been consulted and the rules promulgated throughout the community.

Effective schools are usually clear on what consequences will be given for particular behaviours. The explicitness of these consequences means that before a student engages in unacceptable behaviour, he or she makes a choice, knowing the consequences. When dealing with such behaviour, the staff and parents can assist the student to make a more appropriate choice in the future.

I have found that effective schools are more positive than negative, particularly towards the more disruptive students. Their appropriate behaviour is noticed two or three times more often than their misdemeanours. In such schools the responsibility for conflict between teacher and students is left with them. They are expected to meet to discuss the problem and have the option of mediation.

Effective schools put emphasis on building relationships with students. The depth of the relationships indicates the commitment to helping the student deal with difficult situations so that they are more productive in the future. If the relationship includes parents and the school community. There can be amazing responses when a child runs into difficulties.

In my experience, ineffective approaches are caused by:

* Rules that are vague

Where schools have too many vague rules that are not understood or consistently applied, teachers and students are unclear as to whether a rule has been broken.

* Punishments that are not defined

Some schools have the philosophy that teachers need to have flexibility. They do not advertise the consequences effectively if a rule is broken and make those consequences variable. The general message given to students is that they need to keep testing the teachers to find out what the rules andconsequences are.

* Inconsistency

Teachers enforce the rules in different ways because there is no established understanding among teachers about acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. The students then test each teacher to find the limits. Those teachers perceived as weaker are placed under more pressure as they get tested more often.

* Teachers who are too severe

If teachers believe that students should fear them, they need powerful sanctions to impose their will on the students. This approach means that the student behaviour becomes subversive and less personal responsibility is taken.

* An overly hierarchical structure

When senior staff take all responsibility for discipline, other teachers overload them. The senior staff develop skills and relationships with the students while the other teachers become less skilled or de-skilled. The students become more and more difficult until the school faces a crisis.

* Dirk Flower is an educational psychologist who helps schools develop effective behaviour management.Tel: 01923 282 750

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