Ugly truth about offsetting ‘good’ and ‘bad’ behaviour

15th June 2018 at 00:00
A period of behaving oneself doesn’t atone for previously breaking the rules, however much it may appeal to our sense of justice, says Jarlath O’Brien

“If I’m good for the rest of the lesson, can I work off that detention, Sir?” was a plea I heard regularly in my first few years teaching physics in a comprehensive school.

And I’m sorry to say it was a plea that, to begin with, was met with agreement on my part, more than once.

Do you think that agreeing to this offsetting of “right” against “wrong” leads to improvements in behaviour? Have you ever done this? If so, how did you decide how much “right” a child had to do to make up for the “wrong”?

At first glance, we might convince ourselves that offsetting could work. It may appeal to our sense of justice, allowing that a child may have redeemed themselves after crossing the line. And, if we’re honest, this tactic can save us some time and paperwork.

But, for a number of reasons, it’s a poor choice on our part if we succumb. Offsetting communicates a number of messages, none of which is healthy for a culture that should encourage self-regulation and personal responsibility. It suggests a transactional model of behaviour that amounts to a matter of balance – all that is required to atone for a transgression is to ensure that a commensurate amount of good is done.

Teaching children to take responsibility

Offsetting makes it harder to teach children to take personal responsibility for their behaviour, as it becomes a form of debt management with no thought to the repair of harm. As long as they keep up with the “repayments”, they’re in the clear.

There is also the less-talked-about offsetting twin, which is the taking back by adults of recognition or reward earned by a child for doing something positive because of a later transgression of the rules. This is a damaging approach because it indicates that the initial recognition or reward was conditional upon future conduct.

For children who find school a tough place to feel successful, the sum total of positive recognition that they receive can be small and hard-won. And anything that threatens that precious achievement may be seen as an escalation. We can inadvertently teach children that it may not be worth the effort if any positive recognition remains vulnerable to being airbrushed out of history at a later date.

Lastly, this entire approach fails to deal with the problems that required your attention in the first place. If something has happened requiring some form of consequence, that consequence must be aimed at reducing the chances of the behaviour reoccurring. Offsetting fails to do that as the behaviour that you want has no intrinsic worth. To paraphrase a well-known saying, offsetting teaches children the price of good behaviour, but not its value.

Jarlath O’Brien works in special education in London and is the author of Better Behaviour – a guide for teachers

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