Behaviour management is a dance that requires trickery

20th July 2018 at 00:00

Ah, the behaviour management dance. A dance where one person knows the steps, and tricks their partner into making the right moves. You can’t force them to dance in the way you’d like and you can’t drag them to where you want them to be. They have to choose to make the moves you intuit and they must believe they arrived at that choice without direction.

I’m eternally intrigued by this dance of manipulation and enjoy partaking in the swindle. I’m quite good at it too. But only with those who’ve reached the age where some capacity for reason emerges. Small children make my nerves jangle and most of them are crap dancers.

I recently saw a gaggle of weeny kids out for a toddle with their wranglers. What a load of unpredictable mini-monsters they were. Their teachers had to make sure no one darted into the road or flung a dog poo or whatever act of pre-school thuggery entered their heads. They scared me. Honestly, give me a gang of big lads any day. I know where I stand with them.

Because my first few years of teaching were almost exclusively spent with learners who were, let’s say, “full of fun”, I had to learn the dance pretty quickly or else I’d have given up. But once I got into the swing of things, I saw the behaviour management two-step in three distinct stages:

1. Teach them the dance.

2. Praise them when they remember the steps.

3. Trust them to continue performing the right moves.

At work, teaching young people the behaviour I expect of them is often the hardest part. At home, the trust bit is the most challenging.

In the past few years, I’ve been relieved of a little boy and acquired a giant teenager. I like him. We’ve got more in common now. He does the usual amount of teenaging, but most of the time he’s a pleasure to be around – kind, funny and far more responsible than I ever was.

The trust issue comes into play because he’s becoming far more free-range as his social life grows. Not because he does anything to foster my mistrust, but because as a mother whose factory setting is “overprotective”, I have a deep-rooted instinct to bark a load of safety rules at him every time he leaves the house. Total buzzkill!

I’ve had to have a word with myself as I can’t get Marlin, the dad clownfish in the Pixar classic Finding Nemo, out of my head. If he’d have trusted his fish-lad, and cut down on the nagging, Nemo probably wouldn’t have swum to the boat in an act of rebellion. And then got fished. The film would have been a lot shorter, granted, but far less traumatic.

Of course the usual questions are asked when my lad goes out, where, who, when (the phone tracking app is a godsend), but apart from that, I’m determined only to demonstrate trust. He knows the dance, he remembers the steps, he will continue performing the right moves. I tell him to have a brilliant time, while fighting every urge to Marlin him.

Sarah Simons works in colleges and adult community education in the East Midlands, and is the director of UKFEchat

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