Why we should never say ‘just ignore it’ in schools

Good manners cost nothing - we should embed them in schools to show we expect more of our students than just ignoring one another

Silhouette of man, with his fingers in his ears

There is some beautiful heathland near to where I live that I’ve run through most days. I share this space with fellow runners, walkers (human and dog), and mountain bikers. 

I like and value good manners, so I always say hello to everyone I meet. Yet about a quarter of those I greet completely blank me, including some I pass regularly. I’m generally a mild-mannered person, but I find this behaviour rude and it irritates me. 

Courtesy is contagious, as I once heard on the New York subway, but, sadly, so is its absence.

These ‘blankers’, as I call them, sprang to mind recently when I was reading Helen Amass’ piece on bullying that contains a thought-provoking angle from Ian Rivers of the University of Strathclyde. 

Getting along in silence

He discusses social isolation, where one child deliberately stops talking to another one, as a form of bullying: “How do you challenge that?" he asks.

Because nothing is said, nothing is done – there are no bruises. And that becomes very, very difficult. And I always give that example when I’m talking to teachers about what do you do when nothing is done. Because the entire bullying narrative is about somebody doing something to someone else. 

But what about when you withdraw all of the behaviour and you just decide not to engage with that person?

This is why I believe that the advice that children don’t need to talk to each other, but can just ignore one another – sometimes suggested in an attempt to resolve conflict or bullying – is actually unhelpful. 

I understand the logic behind it – if no words are said at all, then no bad words can be said – but it betrays low expectations of the children involved. We are implying that getting along courteously is probably beyond them, but we need to aim higher than that. 

Simple acts of courtesy 

We need to explicitly teach and constantly reinforce social behaviours and that includes politeness and courtesy. 

We need to insist on them in social interactions so that, for example, one child can’t walk past another holding an open door for them without ensuring that good manners are upheld and over time this then becomes simply how we do things around here.

In Perkins, Craig and Perkins’ (2011) interesting paper they note that decades of social psychology research has “demonstrated the strong tendency of people to conform to peer norms as they look to others in their midst to help define the situation and give guidance on expected behaviours in the group or cultural setting.”

They continue: “Although many people, and especially adolescents, frequently think of themselves as individuals in their actions, a considerable degree of peer influence is consistently documented in laboratory experiments, social surveys, and observations of crowd behaviour.” 

Leading by example

Schools are what I call socially intense places, so the establishment and maintenance of social norms (the way we do things around here) is one of the vital components of a strong anti-bullying culture. 

If we start doing this, then students who already do it will be encouraged to do more of it, and those for whom it is not yet habitual are more likely to display the behaviours that everyone else is consistently demonstrating.

As ever with behaviour, the best place to start is by relentlessly modelling the behaviours we wish to see.

So no matter how many times I am ignored by the blankers, I will still smile brightly as I pass them on my run and say cheerily “Good morning! How are you?”

Jarlath works in special and mainstream schools and his latest book, Leading Better Behaviour – A Guide for School Leaders is due out in March 2020 with Corwin Press

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