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Consistency is Key with Behaviour Management – but Applying it is Easier said than Done

We are fallible, and children come to us from very different starting points – we are all human beings after all

  • Consistency is Key with Behaviour Management – but Applying it is Easier said than Done

Consistency is one of the trickiest areas of behaviour management. In theory it should be simple. There is a clear set of expectations about behaviour. Everyone buys into the rules, with all staff applying them in the same way every time. No matter where a child is in the school, the same behaviours are required.

We are polite, we listen, we follow instructions, and so on. Once the rules are clear, we use rewards to encourage the children to follow our expectations and consequences if they don’t. Unfortunately, though, such a simplistic view of behaviour fails to take into account some important realities.

First, that not all children come to us from the same starting point – a child who comes from a background of disadvantage or trauma may find it a lot harder to achieve the same standards as his or her classmates. And second, that we, and the children we teach, are human beings.

We are fallible, prone to moods and emotions. No matter how high the staff’s expectations, and how consistent the application of the rules, there will be moments when we just don’t have the strength to follow through, or when circumstances conspire against us.

It’s last thing on a Friday and nearly the end of term. It’s been snowing all day and a dark winter sky sits low over school, making everyone inside feel antsy. The children are restless and irritable and, after supervising wet play, you have a thumping headache.

As you try to teach the final lesson of the day, you find that some of the children are whispering among themselves.

In the first week of term you would have been all over them like a rash in order to ensure silent listening, but now all you want to do is go home and collapse in bed. Yes, it would be fair to say that you are being inconsistent in your expectations of their behaviour, but it would be equally fair to say that you are just being human.

Learning how to behave is as much a part of an education as the rest of the curriculum. We can teach and model appropriate behaviour, but children won’t all progress towards attaining it at exactly the same rate, because they don’t begin at the same starting point.

Some children have been brought up with clear boundaries in a calm and consistent household, whereas others live in chaotic homes, where arbitrary rules change from day to day.

Still other children may be living in a home where there are serious issues such as poverty, sickness, mental health or caring duties, which mean that behaving in school is the least of their worries.

While we want all our children to achieve the same standards, this does not mean that we have to go about getting to those standards in exactly the same way.

We need to be sensitive to the realities of our children’s lives in order to understand how best to support them.

Imagine Ben and Tom are two children in your class. Ben is a ‘model student’ – polite and hardworking. He comes from a comfortable home, and his parents do whatever they can to support his learning. Tom, on the other hand, has had a troubled upbringing and goes back to a chaotic home every night. He often finds himself in trouble in school for rudeness or lack of work.

Imagine that you look around the class and notice both Ben and Tom staring into space. You know that all that you need to do to get Ben back on task is to give him a quick look or instruction.

Tom, on the other hand will need lots of coaxing to get started, and you’ll have to regularly revisit his table to make sure he stays on track. This is not about you being inconsistent – the desired end point is the same for each child – but you understand that if you want the same outcome for both, you have to take different routes to get there.

I call this approach ‘flexible consistency’. It is not the standards that are flexible, but the method of getting to them. Just as we differentiate the learning that our children do in class, so we can differentiate our approaches to behaviour to suit the children we are helping to behave.

Support and challenge children in their behaviour, just as you do with your teaching. Every child is a golden child, it’s just that some need more help in getting to the prize.

Sue Cowley is an educational author and helps to run an ‘outstanding’ preschool.

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