With three weekends of lockdown behind us, no one can now be in any doubt as to the instructions from government about what we can and can’t do. However, only yesterday BBC News reported that reports of anti-social behaviour had increased substantially during the coronavirus outbreak. In the past four weeks, there were 178,000 incidents across England and Wales – up 59 per cent on last year.
Yes, there will be those who might continue to misbehave and this might escalate in this kind of situation, as reported, however, as I took my permitted daily walk close to my home in Sheffield in recent days, I still saw some groups of, I'm sure, "normally law-abiding citizens" gathered in laughter and conversation, playing team games or simply enjoying the sunshine of a pleasant afternoon. These wider weekend scenes of disobedience from across the UK are particularly concerning given the significant amount of media reminders of the rules and responsibilities in the build-up to the Easter weekend.
After 35 years in education, 10 of them as a local authority behaviour support teacher and consultant and a further 10 in a university training new teachers in classroom behaviour management – not to mention over five years as a magistrate – I can’t help reflecting on what the nation might learn from the knowledge and experience of school behaviour management experts like myself.
All schools have strategies for ensuring orderly conduct, and good schools base those strategies on clear rules and routines. They use praise, sanctions and rewards, and they encourage children to take their own responsibility for promoting courteous behaviour.
They also recognise how individuals and groups are thinking and feeling about their experiences. The not-for-profit group Trauma Informed Schools, whose mission is to build organisational cultures where the wellbeing of all is the highest priority, makes very effective use of research evidence from one of the biggest public health studies of all time, the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study involving 17,000 people. Its work is based on the notion of "emotionally available adults" who are used to working with challenging individuals and who can support children in making good choices: the footballer Ian Wright’s recent tearful reminiscences on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs programme about his teacher Mr Pigden were a poignant example of this.
Coronavirus: Teachers know how to get people to stick to the rules
So what can those in charge during this national emergency learn from child behaviour experts about those "normally law-abiding" adults who are currently seen flouting the rules? What is going wrong, and how can they fix it?
In general, we have a need for rules and regulations to establish appropriate and acceptable ways for us to act and respond to each other. For instance, when waiting in queues, we expect others to wait their turn and we get upset and even angry when others push in.
However, one of the interesting things about social norm compliance is that there is tremendous individual variation. Some of us would never push in line, or act unfairly, whereas others don’t think twice about it. This combination of selfishness and opportunism may be what we are observing in those who currently seem unable or unwilling to follow the more stringent restrictions on their liberty.
There are helpful theories about all this which we might consider: the American psychologist Burrhus Frederic Skinner believed in reinforcement, with our behaviour dependent on the consequences of our previous actions. If the consequences are bad, there is a high chance the action will not be repeated. Right now one of the consequences of transgression is a fine – so if those fines aren’t a sufficient deterrent, perhaps they are not big enough.
Lev Vygotsky, on the other hand, believed that our childhood environment influences us and that we learn how to behave from "more knowledgeable members of the culture". On this basis, maybe the government should currently be targeting the better-behaved among these "knowledgeable others" as potential thought leaders?
From where I stand, I can see powerful arguments for a blended approach with a combination of rigorously enforced sanctions and strategies to engage communities and to motivate them to make positive choices for the greater good of all.
This might also mean making greater use of messages to make "not staying at home' socially unacceptable, perhaps using humour as Miranda Hart does in one of BBC's current public information clips.
There are some signs of improvement and of greater cooperation with the government’s expectations, but not yet enough.
Those still in doubt about the need for culture change in addition to sanctions might heed the words of Shaun Sawyer, chief constable of Devon and Cornwall Police, responding to the news that fines were to be issued for non-essential travel:
“If we come to enforcement then everybody has failed to understand the significance of this endeavour.
"If a £60 ticket makes you do something and 684 people dying yesterday didn't, then I think you've got to take a good look at yourself as to whether you've realised the seriousness and significance of where we are."
Mark Heaton is principal lecturer at the Sheffield Institute of Education, Sheffield Hallam University