Thinking about behaviour

Recently I saw this on twitter:

It got me thinking about different approaches to behaviour management and how my understanding and my approach to behaviour in schools has changed in the past eight years.

The effect of good behaviour is obvious. In a calm learning environment, children are able to concentrate on what is being said, are able to listen to instructions and explanations from their teachers, and importantly this means that their working memory isn’t being filled up with conversation about strictly or who said what in the playground. Even better, we are all aware that children can say and do horrible things to each other as they try to work out how to interact as adolescants in a model of a professional environment. Good behaviour in lessons means that opportunities for the sort of mistakes that cause harm or upset to other students is massively reduced. This leads to fewer issues being taken to the pastoral teams in schools, less distraction from learning and a generally more pleasant experience for everyone in school. With such a lofty goal in mind, what even is good behaviour? How do we recognise it, and how do we promote the behaviour we want to see?

Firstly I think there are lots of ways to describe behaviour in schools. The really bad stuff is obvious – fighting, shouting down staff, jumping out of windows to escape lessons, chucking chairs and bags and smaller students around the room etc. (I haven’t actually seen a child throw a chair, the rest I have seen in various schools). Clearly this stuff makes learning and teaching impossible and worst of all threatens the safety of children. If things have got to this point for a teacher in a school they need support. They need senior members of their department in lessons and backing them up with the appropriate sanctions for poorly behaved students. Sometimes behaviour looks like this across a whole school. Where I have seen this happen it is because of a senior leadership team with their heads firmly buried in the sand. They will blame all such incidents on their teachers lessons not being ‘engaging’ enough while at the same time insisting that behaviour around school is good. They refuse to accept any responsibility for the culture surrounding behaviour in the school and worst of all, they will push back on any teacher who gives out too many detentions or tries to impose any sort of order as it ‘looks bad’. I would tell any colleague or friend of mine working in such a school to get out of there.

Another type of poor behaviour is the all of the stuff that stops kids learning. By this I mean silly games, chatting, zoning out etc. It’s all of the things that we wouldn’t normally call naughty, but are definitely getting in the way of good teaching. I can’t stand it when kids start talking as I’m in the middle of a complex, multi step explanation. I know it’s important to break things down, but sometimes the knowledge required is the product of lots of simple ideas that need laying out carefully and then neatly bringing together. If kids aren’t listening, or force you to interrupt your work it breaks the concentration of the whole class and causes distraction. It’s really easy to say that behaviour is generally good in these situations but I would suggest that this is really damaging to learning and establishes a situation where you could have the best and most articulate teaching occurring, but it’s all for nothing as it falls on deaf ears. This is where classroom teachers have more to do. If we know a child isn’t giving us full attention then we need to use the least invasive means to get their focus back. We need to have super high expectations of our students so they know that they need to engage fully with all that’s going on. Accepting anything less is not only undermining our own status as a teacher, but also undermining our expectations of those kids. We are allowing them to underperform.

Here’s where we get to the controversial bit. When people in education say that we shouldn’t expect kids to sit in silence and pay full attention because it’s unnatural and that it’s a form of forced compliance I actually read this as low expectations. We can’t expect them to exceed a certain level of behaviour because we have determined beforehand that they are incapable. It’s rubbish. If we, as teachers, clearly explain our expectations and relentlessly reinforce them with gentle, low impact reminders and then very firm boundaries and escalating sanctions then it is fair on all of the children in the class. Fair on the perpetrators of poor behaviour as they know what is expected and are given opportunities to reach that level. It’s fair on the victims of that behaviour, those children who only want to listen and to learn are suddenly in a calm quiet classroom with a decent working atmosphere.

One thing that I find utterly essential is strong routines that manage the situation of each lesson to provide the smallest number of opportunities for students to misbehave. When kids do make mistakes, and they will make mistakes, there is a predictable and inevitable consequence, usually some form of detention. This approach is usually accused of trying to turn children into unthinking automatons good for nothing other than passing exams. They are accused of crushing individuality in favour of making a child too afraid of detention, or even exclusion, to do anything other than conform. While this may seem a caricature, twitter is full of high passions and strident voices. I have seen the idea of a detention for swearing at a teacher compared to fascism. Personally I feel that when we don’t sanction children for failure to meet a high standard of behaviour we are telling them that it’s okay to behave poorly. Worse, we are showing the children that do the right thing, and that work hard, and that have their learning disrupted and in some cases destroyed by poor behaviour, that we don’t care about them. We fail to reward their effort and end up focusing all of our attention on children who are unable or unwilling to engage.

There is however, a place for good relationships with students. There is a place for restorative justice. Making things right with a student in a calmer moment can be really powerful. If I have put a child in detention I will use that time to reiterate the reason they were assigned a detention, to explain why the behaviour was so damaging and to ensure that no further action needs to be taken. This is not instead of a detention, but goes with it. Sanction and restoration work hand in hand for me. Obviously, if all the child is going to do is sulk and refuse to engage in a restorative conversation I leave them to it. They sit their detention and as far as I’m concerned that’s the end of the matter however, I am continually surprised at the number of children who will engage. I don’t know whether it fixes anything in the long term, but I do know that it leaves the children who have made mistakes feeling that they haven’t been cast out for all time, but that they have made a mistake, that there are consequences to those mistakes, and that they can make up for it in the future.

Obviously, a lot of this could become utterly redundant in the next few weeks as we move to online learning and remote teaching. The behaviour issues we face there are completely different and how we manage them is a completely different challenge. I would suggest though, that children who know how to listen in a lesson, who know that it’s important to concentrate and to engage with what is being said are possibly more likely to engage with online learning tasks at home. A second caveat to this post is that I a very much speaking out of my experience, and lots of teachers do things a lot of different ways. I haven’t seen a system that doesn’t sanction students work well. I have only ever seen systems that put all the responsibility for behaviour on classroom teachers be horribly broken with the kids essentially doing just as they please and it not being a very pleasant environment. The most successful systems I have seen involve the leadership in a school taking responsibility for behaviour, supporting staff in enforcing sanctions through a transparent and fair behaviour policy. When this happens all the children learn more effectively, teachers are less stressed and the culture of a school can really shine through.

Published by mrgreenw00d

Lead Practitioner in Science, chemistry specialist and Metacognition/Cog Sci nerd.

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