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Primary Education News
News Schools need a new approach to behaviour management
We stopped punishing children who struggle with academic learning many years ago, isn't it time we stopped punishing children who struggle with behaviour?
When I first started teaching in 1995 the great behaviour guru was Bill Rogers. His book You Know the Fair Rule was my constant companion and Bill's practical, thoughtful and above all else effective advice was invaluable in helping me survive my first few months in the classroom as a newly qualified teacher.
You Know the Fair Rule is about establishing with the children a set of clearly defined rules, which tell children how to behave in school and allow everyone to live together and get on with their learning. The rules are fair because they are negotiated and everyone agrees to them at the beginning.
This is a very effective strategy and I still start the year by creating a contract with my new class. The wording is drafted and agreed and everyone, including the adults, signs his or her name on the contract before it goes on the wall. My job, as the teacher, is to be consistent in enforcing the agreed rules. Occasionally this involves me being a bit mean, which I do not like, but it is my job.
After a while everyone realises the rules are fair, they benefit everyone equally and life is easier if they stick to the rules than if they break them. Job done.
Except when it's not.
Every teacher will eventually come across a child who won't respond to the Fair Rule approach. These are what my dad used to call the 'head-bangers': the children who test your patience to the absolute limit. In modern jargon, I guess they're called outliers and they cause disproportionately large amounts of trouble and damage. My guess is these are the children who are responsible for the dramatic headlines we see every year with tedious monotony. And make up a very large number of the 6,000 plus children who are currently excluded from the school system.
I'm also guessing very many of them go on and cause even greater problems and unhappiness as adults. Although I'm not a social scientist, so I can't be sure.
Nevertheless, I've seen a fair number of these children over the years, more than most and less then some, and they are a real and ongoing problem. After four years as a teacher working in an area of severe social deprivation I had seen three in my class come and go, at different times, all boys and all drove me close to distraction.
Bill Rogers had helped, but not entirely, he got me and the boys through the year, just, but I was always left feeling it was more through force of will than genuine educational insight. I can't say, hand on heart, those boys learnt much – other than to comply – or the other children didn't have their experience of education unfairly disrupted.
Clearly, I needed a supplementary strategy, not to replace Bill - he was still working for most of the time - but something in addition. An entirely different way of working that would help me find a way to reach these troubled children.
It was at this time I heard about the solution-focused approach from Geoff James who was working for the local authority as an advisory support teacher. Geoff was engaged in his PhD and working with children close to permanent exclusion. He and I talked about how the 'outliers' in my class resisted conventional behaviour strategies and how it was increasingly difficult to keep them in school.
Geoff explained that the consistent rule approach would work fine with the majority of children who understood the benefits of working together as part of a community, but was nothing more than a red rag to a bull to a child who saw power only as something to oppose. These children were not prepared to back down and just kept going until the school was forced to remove them in the best interests of the other children and the staff.
Behaviour management approaches, he explained, depend on the enforcement of authority and only work so long as the person exerting the authority is prepared to enforce it and the person under the influence of the authority it prepared to submit to it. With a person who refuses to submit, for whatever reason, the results are a disaster.
Tom was one of these people. When I first met him he was on his own in a room at the city's Inclusion Unit with two adult minders. He had been excluded from a string of schools for violence and was on the point of permanent exclusion. I was shown a file a foot thick of recorded misdemeanours and concerns that put him 'at risk'. Tom was seven.
The plan was to bring Tom into my class on a managed move. Everyone agreed this was likely to be his last chance. I remember the day he arrived; he spent the first part of the morning looking round the school, before I met him at playtime. The other children were outside, and I asked him if he would like to join them. He nodded without looking at me. I stayed close, worried about what might happen and ready to intervene at the slightest hint of trouble. But when it happened it was so fast I did not have a hope. A small boy walked past us, two years younger than Tom, the boy did not look at him and did not say a word. Tom in the blink of eye punched him hard, full in the face, with all his power. The boy screamed and fell to the floor, clutching his head. Two learning support assistants rushed to help him, with shocked expressions. Tom ran as fast as he could across the playground. I set off after him.
Tom was small and I soon caught him up. Keeping close I followed him until he reached the wall of the hall, at which point the air seemed to go out of him like a balloon and he slumped to the floor, his head in his hands.
I stood over him, breathing heavily, and I can still remember thinking, what can I possibly do to help this situation? In desperation I sat down beside him. I could hear he was sobbing into his hands, his small body, wrapped up tight, shaking with the effort. I looked at the playground, everyone else was busy getting on with his or her lives. The boy who had been attacked was gone, whisked off by caring adults, and the rest of the children probably had not noticed what had happened, it was all so quick. As I sat there I realised I could not fix this, there was not a fair rule to remember here, no behaviour strategy to apply, or appropriate punishment to enforce. Tom was beyond strategies and rules, and he was beyond my expertise as a teacher to fix. I decided to follow Geoff's advice and do something different. To look at what was happening not from my own notions of natural justice or from the application of unbending boundaries, but to try and understand what was happening from Tom's perspective.
"You know," I said, "you don't have to be like that here. And although I know it is going to be hard and sometimes things will go wrong, and when they do you will need to try to put them right, I promise I'm not going to shout at you and I'm not going to punish you. I will always listen to your side and I will always do what I can to help you to be happy."
Tom didn't answer, why would he? He sat and cried. After a while playtime ended and the rest of the children disappeared inside, I was replaced by the headteacher, who sat with Tom until he finally agreed to come and sit in her office. At lunchtime he went home.
As a staff we discussed what happened. The headteacher talked to the parent of the boy who had been attacked and Tom's mother. It was decided Tom would have to stay inside at playtime until we felt sure he would not attack any of the other children. We also decided to use a solution-focused approach to support Tom. I explained what I'd promised him at break time and we agreed to keep this as a consistently as possible.
Tom returned the next day and although he still tested us and still occasionally lost his temper and acted unpredictably, he stayed in school for the whole year. Gradually, as we worked with him using solution-focused inquiry, he learnt to manage his own behaviour and to comply with the fair rules that applied to the rest of the children. As far as I know he finished High School and is doing well.
I'm writing about this story because I've become convinced we need to look at the problem of behaviour in school in a completely different way. Our current approach is all about managing children's behaviour for them, this works well most of the time but it is an ineffective strategy for those children who are prepared to resist to the point of self-destruction: The system is failing these children, they are, in effect, our collateral damage.
That day with Tom was the first time I realised what needs to be done to help these outliers. It means trying to see the world from their perspective, believing that Tom was not acting in the way he was because he was evil or did not know the difference between right and wrong, but that he was stuck in a cycle of behaviour (a kind of habit) where it was better/safer for him to fight than it was to comply. I realised I needed to change my approach, I had to resist using my authority to put things right and make him conform to the fair rules of the school. As a staff we had to help him with patience, consistency and understanding, treating him as a child with genuine agency.
This was hard at first, Tom tested us every day, and we had to keep the other children safe, but gradually, through a consistent use of solution-focused support he began to relax and to find his own place in the school community and he stopped being dangerous and disruptive. Our work with Tom taught me that we should think about learning social behaviour in the same way we think about all learning in school. Social behaviour for some children is as difficult for them as learning to read is for a dyslexic child. We stopped punishing children who struggle with academic learning many years ago, isn't it time we stopped punishing children who struggle with behaviour?
Tim Taylor is a teacher working in Norwich, a visiting lecturer at Newcastle University and a teaching and learning consultant for mantle of the expert. He edits and writes for Mantle of the Expert and Imaginative Inquiry.