Why public shaming is an ineffective behaviour tool

Whether justified or not, calling students out in front of their peers rarely leads to positive outcomes, writes James Bowen

James Bowen

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If you've ever been called out in front of a group of peers, you'll know how acutely embarrassing it feels to be in that situation. It doesn't matter whether you're at the pub or in a staff meeting, being publicly chastised is an awful feeling.

It doesn't really matter if the criticism was justified or not, when you're about to lose face, all rationality tends to go out the window. It’s a rare person who, in this situation, thinks, "Thank you for pointing out the error of my ways, I really must try to do better next time."

Instead, our reptilian brain kicks in – along with our flight, fight or freeze response. Whichever of these we choose (or more accurately, automatically default to), it rarely results in a happy ending. 

No positive outcome

What we sometimes fail to realise is that the situation is no different for the pupils we teach. A telling-off in front of the whole class, however justified, seldom results in a positive outcome.

I'm not talking about the relatively unobtrusive reminder or the often-effective teacher look here, I'm referring to that extended dialogue about a pupil's behaviour that we can sometimes get drawn in to. 

In such situations, there are some pupils who will subconsciously, or even consciously, prioritise saving face in front of their peers over quiet acceptance of a teacher's instruction, however reasonable.

The pupil who answers back or attempts to draw you into a long conversation often does so not so much for your benefit, but for those around them and also so they are able to preserve their own sense of self image. Their reptilian brain has perceived a threat to their self-esteem and the "fight" response has been activated. 

If you're not careful, these exchanges can escalate, with ultimatums being issued. Suddenly, you find yourself in a verbal stand-off in front of a watching class. 

Removing the audience

So how can this be avoided?

My advice would be to, wherever possible, try to address the behaviour causing concern on a 1:1 basis. This may mean going over to a pupil's desk for a quiet, but clear, conversation, or asking them to come to one side to speak with you. 

By removing the audience, you have lowered the stakes for the pupil and allowed them the time and space to comply with your requests without losing face.

In the long-run, it will also help you to build trust with the pupil as they realise you have chosen not to single them out in front of their peers. Crucially, the other pupils will also notice how you have chosen to handle the situation. 

The quiet conversation should not be confused with being a soft touch. It is important that you use this opportunity to state why the behaviour is unacceptable, what you need to see instead and, if necessary, the consequences of them failing to respond to you. 

When it comes to managing behaviour, there is no one approach or technique that works every time without fail, but reducing the stakes for both you and the pupil you are working with will usually pay dividends. 

James Bowen is director of middle leaders’ union NAHT Edge. He tweets at @JamesJkbowen 

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