How do you balance the complexity of pedagogy with the social, emotional and mental health (SEMH) needs of every pupil? Do you reflect on why you teach? How does this affect your approach to classroom behaviour?

It’s a lot to think about. Your answer might centre on measurable academic progression, a wider view of the child’s overall healthy development, or maybe it includes considerations of your own wellbeing.

The complexity of the issue may also lead you to accept established ‘behaviourist’ methods. Rooted in 1940’s psychology, this approach shapes surface behaviours by rewarding and punishing. It is seductively simple.

For example, zone boards. These are the various public displays where pupil names will be moved up or down a scale depending on behavioural criteria set by adults.

A move up (possibly to the ‘green zone’ or ‘sunshine’) is intended to reward the child by recognising compliance, and a move down (often to the ‘red zone’ or ‘rain cloud’) is a public punishment for non-compliance.

Don’t get me wrong, I once used these with great enthusiasm. But through experience, I have found they really don’t work, especially for the children who need them most.

These are the children whose names keep appearing on the red zone time and time again; the repetitive pattern shows us that this system does nothing at all to help pupils build the skills they need. 

Behaviour management in schools

According to child psychologist Dr Ross Greene, ‘kids do well if they can’ and we know all children have a biological imperative to feel safe, to belong and learn to some extent.

Children will also do their best to adapt, even sometimes at a cost to their own healthy development and learning. Zone boards and the like therefore also have a wider and less visible impact on the class, such as producing children who are complying out of a fear-based motivation to avoid the shame of the red zone, which ends up depleting both their relational trust and academic potential. 

Another casualty of the zone board is the child who learns to engage just for the extrinsic rewards; they are likely to get bored and then crave reward inflation, reducing their potential to develop a more robust, intrinsic love of learning.

More widely, the simple application of rewards and punishments teaches children not to think but to comply. This might make them more vulnerable to grooming or condition them into complying only when being checked, (like adults who speed between cameras!). 

We should, instead of these behaviour charts, try engaging with developmental needs through relationships, which build collaborative value-based learning. A chart can never do this.

You don’t need it; you are the resource. It is, however, a nuanced journey rather than a tool, and requires an open, curious, non-judgmental mind, an open heart and a capacity for reflection and the longer view. Dr Bruce Perry’s ‘3 R’s’ of Regulation, Relationship and Reason is a good place to start. 

Behaviour management strategies

Begin with emotional regulation: are you emotionally steady with enough capacity to approach challenges – both for the pupil and yourself? You need to be calm and thoughtful to get a calm and thoughtful child.

Next, you need to interpret the state of the student’s emotional regulation, and prioritise re-establishing ‘felt safety’ and social engagement through your relationship with them.

This is a nuanced process but once relational connection and trust is founded, you can then move onto reason with a greater capacity for progress.

Reason is where skill building happens collaboratively. If you have taken a child through the cycle of ‘rupture and repair’ this meaningful connection will give you a better opportunity to scaffold development of new or unsteady skills.

Make sure to ask yourself if you are targeting the right type and amount of challenge for this child in this moment. 

So, rather than relying on the superficial and fragile application of rewards and punishments, we should ditch the zone boards and start to invest in a sequenced approach to behaviour.

We’ll likely see better outcomes, and might even find a deeper and richer answer to the question ‘Why do I teach?’. 

Heather Lucas is a SEMH specialist supporting primary schools, based in West Sussex and Hampshire. This article is inspired by the Facebook page ‘Heidi and Me. Our Neurodiversity Journey.’ Follow Heather on Twitter @HLucas8