'We need to get away from generalisations and into specifics when talking about behaviour'

We need to change the conversation around behaviour to be one about specifics, not unhelpful generalisations, says Jon Severs

Tes Reporter

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I didn’t know what extreme pain was before I fractured my coccyx playing rugby. But I thought I did. Before, I could not conceive of more pain than a fractured rib. Before that, the very pinnacle of pain, in my mind, was the dislocation of my little finger.

I thought of this earlier this week when visiting a PRU on the south coast. Talking to the teachers there, they talked of behaviour in relative terms. One spoke of a “challenging” former mainstream school while laughing. That was, they had realised, the behaviour equivalent of a dislocated little finger. At the time, traumatic, but seen through the fractured coccyx of behaviour at their current school, laughably tame.

And that reminded me of another anecdote from a fantastic headteacher down in Plymouth. She had arrived in the city from Portsmouth 25 years ago and was sent to her first day of supply at a secondary school. Around midday, the head knocked on the door and, aghast, said, “You’re still here?” She was a little puzzled. And then he said: “No one lasts this long, can we book you in ‘til Christmas?”

Subsequently, she discovered that the school was notorious for bad behaviour. No supply teacher had lasted until lunch before. But for her, having been in some very tough Portsmouth schools, it was a walk in the park. She had enjoyed her morning’s work.

Talking about behaviour

In every school I visit, I hear stories like that. And it means that I watch the endless debates about behaviour on social media, in staffrooms, in after-event pub trips, in a slight state of confusion.

Because when someone says schools with a “behaviour problem” need a certain set of approaches – be they approaches labelled “teacher blaming”, “no excuses”, “draconian” or “soft” – my first thought is, “but what do you mean by a problem? What are the particular issues in that school, where and when do they arise and in comparison with other schools where do those issues sit in terms of extremity?".

As Nick Rose explained in our cover feature of 8 September, behaviour is a war of anecdote, not robust research. But we so often fail to acknowledge that this is the case: anecdote is so often passed off as evidence. It is generalised when it is so heavily skewed to a single perspective.

The conversation would be a much more interesting if we talked about specifics of behaviour issues and we had a sense of where they sat on the grand spectrum of angels to anarchy. We could then better share strategies and approaches to best fit the extremity and nature of the issue at hand. And if we brought the vast wealth of PRUs and special schools into those conversations (they are criminally ignored so often) we could really begin to get a sense of what behaviour issues exist and have a full toolbox of possible strategies to tackle them. And without ideology, we could try them all to see what worked best.

Alas, I fear saying as much may prompt another leap in my perspective on pain: will blogging about behaviour cause me more horror than a fractured coccyx? I fear it might…

Jon Severs is commissioning editor at Tes

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