Why consistency isn’t always the best strategy

19th February 2016 at 00:00
Bending the rules to avoid small battles can be key to winning the behaviour ‘war’

I often compare teaching to a long-term war. You diligently study “the enemy” and anticipate their next moves; you prepare your “attack strategies” late into the evening; and every day you fight a series of little battles in order to gain an overall advance over the course of the academic year.

As the “war” progresses, and your energy and resilience reduces, it can be hard to stay focused on the long-term picture: it becomes difficult to know which battles to fight.

Picking your battles is not meant to be part of the agenda with behaviour management. Everyone knows that the best behaviour gurus are those who are consistent, those who apply the same exacting standards to all students. They are fair and focused, and demand the best. Being unequivocally homogenous is an obvious ideal: one set of non-breakable rules for all. After all, life doesn’t differentiate for adults, so why should schools differentiate for students?

Yet, the application of one behaviour policy for a huge range of children is often very challenging. How fair is it to chastise one student for the same thing as another when their home lives/support networks/financial backgrounds vary enormously?

Rules of engagement

It’s perhaps controversial to say it, but there are times when, as a teacher, you should avoid a battle, or even deliberately lose one, because you know that one child is less privileged than another or that they are going through a particularly tough time. To give a real-life example, let’s take “Robert”. Robert is 13 and has an extremely difficult home life. When he does live with his alcohol-dependent mother, he has no support at all – he is fed and clothed by school and regularly looked after by social services. Is it OK to tell him off for not having a pen every lesson as I would a different student who I know has supportive parents, food on the table and a pencil case full of pens? Shouldn’t I just be applauding the fact that he managed to turn up at all?

With children like this, I always try to find ways to avoid “small” battles (for instance, over a lack of equipment) so that I can focus on the bigger picture.

I look for crafty solutions that subtly avoid unnecessary confrontations. In Robert’s case, I might suggest he leave a pen in his book or in my classroom so that it is always there waiting for him. Thus, the repetitive lack-of-pen argument can be avoided.

What about homework? I don’t want to start each lesson with an argument about where work is and why it’s not been handed in. Of course, sometimes a student is lazy and deserves a detention to get it sorted, but often a student needs more. For those that I know don’t get a lot of, if any, support at home, I try really hard to set homework in a lesson just before lunchtime and then offer them the opportunity of a “working lunch”, where they stay in my room over lunch – along with their sandwiches – and complete the work there and then.

I have had a lot of success with this in the past – I’ve even managed to get students to sign up in advance and have their lunch delivered to my room so that they can get on with it.

I believe that if you can be creative with the small battles with your tougher kids, you will save your own energy and avoid futile exasperation. That way, you have more energy to devote to the more important things, like the lesson you have planned, the kids’ experience, and their overall learning.

Katie White is an English teacher at Kingsbridge Community College in Devon

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