1 Apr '13

News 'Bad behaviour' may be good for learning

This week teaching professionals debate why sitting quietly in class is not always beneficial for school discipline

Pupil behaviour is back in the headlines. Sparked by a survey from the Association of Teachers and Lecturers last month, which found a sharp rise in disruptive behaviour in the classroom, teachers, school leaders and casual bystanders are once again talking about the deteriorating behaviour of the young. ATL's research found that 90% of schools had dealt with extreme behaviour in the last year.

It's a debate that has always been with us – even Socrates complained about the behaviour of children – but have we been getting it wrong for centuries? Is pupil behaviour really that bad or is how we react and respond to it at fault? Increasing numbers of teachers think we should look at behaviour differently.

When we asked what schools can do to tackle disruptive behaviour on the Guardian Teacher Network, many teachers were quick to reposition the discussion.

"If teachers want a constructive dialogue around education, they need to change the narrative from one of deterioration and desperation to one of improved and improving standards," commented GrahamNewell.

David Didau, head of English at Priory community school, Weston-super-Mare, highlights the distinction between what is traditionally regarded as good behaviour (rules, such as, listen when others are talking, work quietly and do not disturb others) and "good learning behaviour".

"All too often we get good behaviour hopelessly confused with good behaviour for learning," he says. Children are at school to learn, not to behave. "Sitting still, following instructions and paying attention might look superficially like every classroom's holy grail," he says, but actually some behaviour that could be seen to be disruptive should be viewed more positively. Asking for more information or questioning teachers could be a desire to learn, and should not necessarily be viewed as awkward behaviour.

Many teachers want their relationship with students to be less about controlling a class and more about dialogue.

Teacher anna1987 works at a primary school for students with behavioural, emotional and social difficulties (BESD), where children are given responsibility for their own behaviour through a points system. After every lesson they award themselves points, based on their behaviour, work and personal targets. Those with the most points at the end of the week get first choice of extra curricular activities.

According Tim Taylor, a primary school teacher in the east of England, behaviour is not necessarily getting worse, but rather the old management methods that have lost their effectiveness.

Previously, Taylor had been using a range of strategies based on rewarding good behaviour and punishing bad; stickers, golden time, time out, three strikes, red and yellow cards. These worked quite well with most children, but one boy's behaviour – including violence to staff and children – got worse.

"I realised the strategies I was using put him [and others like him] in a position where they required continuous direction from adults," Taylor says. "As a result, children saw themselves as helpless, as the victims of their own behaviour. I could hear them saying things like, 'I can't help it, I'm just naughty'."

Taylor started working with Geoff James, a specialist support teacher who had been working with children at high risk of permanent exclusion. James suggested an inquiry-based approach, originally developed by therapists Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg, which focused on what students were already doing successfully. "Maybe now is the time to rethink our attitudes towards 'good' and 'bad' children," he says. "We shouldn't give up on thousands of children who don't respond well to what we've done in the past. We can work in new ways that support them and help them be the best they can become."

• For more on behaviour management and to join the debate go to http://www.guardian.co.uk/teacher-network

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