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Why misbehaviour isn’t just a free choice

'Cast-iron' behaviour policies are alluring in their simplicity, but do they result in long-lasting behavioural change?

Carrot and the stick

'Cast-iron' behaviour policies are alluring in their simplicity, but do they result in long-lasting behavioural change?

We need to move beyond behaviour management systems that assume a child’s behaviour will improve through the use of punishment or reward, argues Tes behaviour columnist Jarlath O’Brien, and author of Better Behaviour: a guide for teachers in the May 25 issue of Tes. Instead, he says, we need to embrace psychological principles that lead to a more educational approach to discipline.

"Cast-iron" behaviour policies are easy to interpret and implement, and appear to work well for many children. However, they put the onus, and the blame if they fail to meet your guidelines, on the children themselves, he explains.

"The logic goes that sanctions help children make better choices and provide clear boundaries, and if those sanctions don’t work, you escalate. If the child chooses to continue to misbehave, they climb the sanctions ladder until their time at your school disrupting the lessons of those who do want to behave (implying that some simply don’t want to) is ended prematurely," writes O'Brien. “It’s their fault, their choice.”

Some would call this the "carrot and the stick" method: basic gain-or-avoid tactics, a reward for compliance and a sanction for noncompliance. O'Brien, who works in special education in London, argues that while many children do comply, it's not always for right reasons.

"Most children do comply. But have we educated them to do so, or have they simply been coerced into playing along? Do they maintain those behavioural standards at home, in wider society? Will they as adults?"

In fact, he suggests, rewards-and-sanctions-based behaviour policies may actually be failing our most vulnerable students. The numbers for both permanent and fixed-term exclusions are rising year on year. If current behaviour policies were working, why would the statistics tell a different story?

A new approach to behaviour

"It could be that the system and the thinking behind it is incomplete, which means that the children who need the most help are most likely to fall foul of it," O'Brien suggests. "It could be that our reductive way of viewing behaviour as a choice to be swayed through fear or coercion is deeply flawed."

When a teacher is focused on such systems, they can be led to believe that children are noncompliant because of innate aspects of their personality, rather than looking deeper to understand what situational factors could be influencing their behaviour. 

"Children don't always make simple choices and thus you cannot tackle their behaviour with simplistic solutions. Instead the determining influences on the child's decision to misbehave need to be explored by the teacher if they want lasting behavioural change," writes O'Brien.

This is a more time-consuming approach, and O'Brien acknowledges that teachers are already under the pressure of increasing workloads. However, he argues, he has seen these methods work and used them as the basis to transform behaviour in a school where he was headteacher.

Instead of punishing students for not being where you want them to be, he suggests starting from where the child is and seeking to improve from that position.

"We are educators. Reward and punishment is about coercion; the methodology I have set out is about education. Behaviour is not simply a free choice, and we need to make the choice to recognise that."

To read this article in full, pick up a copy of the 25 May issue of Tes from your local newsagent or subscribe to read online.

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