All-or-nothing threats won’t reward us with lasting change

13th April 2018 at 00:00
Putting students in the last-chance saloon won't secure long-lasting changes in behaviour, says Tes' behaviour expert

“You always say this is my last chance! You don’t mean it!” boomed Joseph from the other side of the playground – not for the first time.

My colleagues and I worked with Joseph for five years and it is true that, at times, he found our school a difficult place in which to be successful (you can learn more about Joseph from a previous Tes article,

While my colleagues and I spent plenty of time supporting Joseph to improve his behaviour, not once had I uttered that phrase to him. I think he must have heard it many times before in previous schools for it to have stuck.

“The next time you do that, you’re out” or “No more slip-ups or you can’t go on the class trip” are examples of what we call all-or-nothing demands – and they are a glass hammer in your behavioural toolbox.

Such demands are straight out of the pop-behaviourism playbook. They amount to an escalated form of the “Do this, get that” message that tries to incentivise by reward, or “Do this, avoid that”. The aim is to incentivise the child to behave by making the stakes so high that they will be coerced into improving their behaviour.

Short-term changes in behaviour

There are a number of problems with all-or-nothing approaches. Firstly, in common with other punishment-based tactics, they will, at best, secure some short-term compliance. You certainly won’t get lasting behaviour change. Secondly, we can hold children to higher standards than the rest of their class by putting them in such a position. This is unfair, and children keenly feel unfairness, whether perceived or real. Thirdly, they have a high probability of placing the child in an almost unwinnable position; the child may feel that failure is inevitable, so they may prefer to go out on their own terms and at a time of their choosing.

Our logic here is clumsy. We think that by bringing the child to the metaphorical cliff edge, we will shock them into improving their behaviour. But this rests on the notion that whatever happened before was a simple matter of premeditated choice. The underlying issues haven’t gone away and we may have made the situation worse by increasing their stress, thereby increasing the chance of failure.

As with all behaviourist tactics, we reach for them because they are easy and simple. They require little or no change from us – just dangle a reward or threaten a punishment. The rules to be followed or work to be completed have no value in this tactic. As a result, the child is likely to only do the bare minimum to keep you off their back.

Surely we aspire to more than that from our students, don’t we?

Jarlath O’Brien works in special education in London. His book, Better Behaviour: A Guide for Teachers, will be published by Sage in May

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