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Behaviour management – how our new policy is breeding bad habits

A new way of dealing with bad behaviour in school is enabling poor choices

  • Behaviour management – how our new policy is breeding bad habits

The idea of putting thirty-ish children in a small room with one or two adults, and to expect anything to get done, seems implausible. Yet millions of children and thousands of teachers and support staff are put in this position each day. 

The simplicity of rules and expectations of conduct are critical to allowing classrooms to function. Traditionally, schools followed a ‘behaviourist’ model of school discipline: praise good behaviour and punish poor behaviour.

It uses easy-to-understand rules and routines into which children are quickly indoctrinated, and if they fall short, they understand the consequences. 

So, when my school decided to go for a wholesale change in behaviour policy, inspired by a book by a popular behaviour specialist, I was concerned… about changing too much too quickly; that those simple, established rules, understood by all, would become blurred. I was instructed to keep an open mind.

Behaviour policy

The book itself gives a wonderful theoretical basis for how to improve children’s behaviour and to build a culture of positivity in schools.

Among other things, it argues that poor behaviour should not be advertised in the classroom by teachers drawing attention to it; that a child’s self-esteem can be damaged through being reprimanded, particularly when this happens repeatedly; that a child behaving poorly should receive a private, restorative conversation to draw out the root cause, and to restore the relationship between them and the people affected by their behaviour; and that the weight of sanction has no impact on future conduct, therefore large punishments should be avoided. 

While I respect the intention and the drive to improve children’s welfare, there are a number of holes in these ideas that are quickly becoming apparent as my school has sought to implement them.

These policies seem to be particularly aimed at repeat offenders and serious incidents, yet they impact on the vast majority of children who usually do the right thing.

There are certainly issues with failing to address low-level disruption publicly in the classroom, which means it remains ongoing until the teacher can find a moment for a private conversation.

Without an immediate response to poor behaviour, children are denied the chance to self-correct it. Moreover, the rest of the class are denied the chance to learn free of disruption.

The classroom is not inherently a private space; denying teachers the opportunity to deal with poor behaviour instantly and publicly is to misunderstand the school’s nature.

Classroom impact

However, more than this, the new policy seems to have blurred that previously clear line between what is and is not acceptable behaviour for those children who struggle with the rules.

This is coming at a time when many children are struggling with the rigidity of expectations at school after long periods spent learning at home. The result is that the children’s decision-making is becoming worse. 

A recent incident at school, where a child punched a teacher, demonstrates the inadequacies of the approach. The talk in the staff room was of suspension and parents being asked to come in.

Instead, the child was seen drinking hot chocolate in the headteacher’s office before being returned to class later that day. This is not a strong message about the seriousness of the incident, however well the restorative conversation went. 

Within a week, the child raced across the school to another classroom in order to hit a child, and had to be restrained by two teachers. He was calmed down and was later seen roaming the corridors alone at lunchtime.

He justified his actions saying he was old enough to handle his own problems – clearly the restorative conversation had not had the desired impact.

Keeping an open mind, this could be considered an example of one child getting it wrong –not the inadequacy of the policy. I could have believed that until the following week when a different child (usually non-disruptive and from the same class) had to be restrained from hitting another child. 

The aforementioned behaviour specialist justifiably asserts that to create a change in culture you need to give it time. He could also quite reasonably claim that my school is being too rigid in the implementation of his ideas, or not applying them correctly. 

But in our case, breaking the long-established model of school discipline is taking time away from learning, punishing well-behaved children, and undermining the hard-won relationship between staff and students. For me, it’s time to restore the old model.

The writer is a primary teacher in England

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