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Behaviour in schools – How to help pupils learn from their actions

Focusing on punitive measures instead of teaching children self-control is doing untellable damage. So why not help pupils understand their feelings instead?

Graham Chatterley
by Graham Chatterley
DOWNLOAD A FREE RESOURCE! Positive behaviour management – How to use it in your classroom CPD guide

I regularly hear that because I am anti-punitive regarding behaviour in schools, I must let children do whatever they want.

But this is not even close to being the case. I have high behaviour expectations, no different from any other educator. But I also understand that threatening punitive consequences in order to get children to meet them is rarely effective.  

Now, there will of course be some children who do respond to punitive measures.

However, I am interested in creating a culture of safety and quality learning, and that requires more than just getting children to conform.

There were times early in my career when I did take a more disciplinary approach, but I found that it almost guaranteed that behaviour would deteriorate.

Not that I claim to have perfect behaviour now; children aren’t robots, and when they express themselves, they will sometimes get it wrong.

My job is to help them learn from their mistakes.  

The shame spiral

Preventing self-expression and forcing children to suppress their feelings because they are ‘bad’ can be dangerous.

Failing to separate the feeling from the behaviour is as far from what we need to be doing as we can get.

It is why zero-tolerance approaches are sending many children into shame cycles (see figure 1), and why we are creating young adults who are both scared of their feelings and unable to control them.

Figure 1

If we have never taught children to understand that it is feelings that cause behaviour, then how can they learn to control their feelings?

We should be teaching the child self-control, and this means learning from their mistakes; and, if they do something wrong, expecting them to put it right.  

I favour logical consequences because that is what happens in real life.

In the real world, verbally lashing out at your partner and then going and sitting in silence in your bedroom for half an hour doesn’t make it all go away.

Actions have consequences, but actions also need to be repaired. In many schools, the consequence is more about payback.

Punishment without repair doesn’t prepare children for life after school, and it compounds the shame they already feel.

With enough repetition, ‘I have been bad’ becomes ‘I am bad.’ It creates an inevitability for some children about their future that we should be doing everything we can to prevent. 

Behaviour policy in schools

Even with so much in the news about vulnerable pupils, the continuing impact of the pandemic and the widening socio-economic divide, there are those in education who still favour a zero-tolerance approach.  

The language used in these approaches is very often focused on training behaviour; with the adult modelling it for children to copy, rather than teaching it so children learn how to change.

This ‘us and them’ is a dated approach to education. ‘Doing to’ rather than ‘doing with’ will always exclude a minority of pupils whose parents or carers haven’t taught them to behave in their formative years. 

Systems are important, especially in large schools where they play a vital role in consistency. But the system can’t replace the human element in teaching and relationships.

In too many cases, the system dictates that when a child doesn’t follow the rules – whether because they won’t or can’t doesn’t matter – the answer is a punitive response.

This will often follow a set pattern, possibly associated with codes like C1, C2 and so on:  

  • Reminder of expectation  
  • Warning 
  • Name on the board 
  • Tick next to name, probably signifying a sanction 
  • Asked to leave the room or removed by a member of staff 

The problem is that each punitive step is unlikely to deter a dysregulated child; therefore, teachers will withdraw them pretty quickly. Rattling through these consequences leaves them with no place to go. 

Behaviour management strategies primary school

Consequences perform a vital role in using behaviour as a learning opportunity. If they are part of the teaching, they have an important role to play.

When consequences give no repair opportunity, they are meaningless; if we design them to appease a system or to be a deterrent to others, then they will have little impact.

Therefore, whenever we issue a consequence, we should ask three questions:  

  1. Does the consequence match up to the behaviour and take motive into account?  
  2. Can the consequence teach the child what the behavioural mistake was? Does it help them to understand what to do next time?  
  3. Does the consequence teach the child how their action has affected others and motivate them to behave differently in the future?  

If an honest answer to these three questions is no, then the consequence isn’t fit for purpose.  

There will, of course, always be a large cohort who are driven by the need to please adults and therefore do the right thing. It is easy to point to these children and deem the system successful. But these pupils would obey the rules under any system.

They have the necessary skills and intrinsic motivation. This means they don’t require the fear of a deterrent or extrinsic reward to behave well.

Behaviour inclusivity

A minority of children will never be successful in systems like these. This is because they don’t have the necessary skills and because they direct their motivation towards matters like survival.

If the child is in a shame cycle, then poor behaviour will be what they know and what people expect. It stands to reason, then, that they will behave poorly. 

Ignoring the needs of this minority isn’t inclusive. Repeating the same process with the same children isn’t inclusive.

Encouraging children’s parents to take them to another school because this school’s expectations will be too much for them isn’t inclusive.

Inclusive means all children. It means an approach to consequences by which we teach every pupil to cope effectively within our school system.

This requires us to look at how we use consequences. If we apply these approaches consistently, we equip children to manage their own behaviour. And, importantly, we don’t get stuck in a shame loop.  

Graham Chatterley is a former school leader and author of Changing Perceptions: Deciphering the language of behaviour (£17.99, Crown House Publishing).  

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