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David Didau: What Teachers Need to Know About Zero Tolerance

  • David Didau: What Teachers Need to Know About Zero Tolerance

Deal with minor transgressions thoroughly, and you’ll prevent more serious lapses of discipline later on – right? David Didau explains why it’s not always as simple as that…

If you’re going to manage children’s behaviour you need a healthy balance of carrot and stick. Positive reinforcement is great, but at some point children confront us with behaviour that requires sanctioning.

After many years of the education system tolerating woefully low standards of behaviour (we all have our particular horror stories) the pendulum has swung to the right. More and more schools are now adopting a ‘zero tolerance’ or ‘no excuses’ culture, in which any infringements of school rules are met with non-negotiable sanctions, often permanent exclusion.

Intuitive assumptions

In the US, the rationale for adopting this approach has been that school violence was so widespread and pervasive that something drastic needed to be done. Arguably the context is quite different in the UK, where the ‘no excuses’ approach has been far more about intolerance of so-called ‘low-level disruption’.

But here’s the thing – there really isn’t all that much evidence available, and what there is seems to contradict the effectiveness of zero tolerance policies.

Let’s agree that an effective disciplinary system should seek to ensure a safe school climate, while avoiding policies and practices that may reduce students’ opportunity to learn. That sounds pretty reasonable, doesn’t it?

Well, despite the strongly intuitive assumption that orderly classrooms will result in better learning, recent research indicates a negative relationship between the use of school suspension and expulsion, and academic achievement across the whole school – even when controlling for demographics such as socio-economic status. Why on earth should that be the case?

Developmental issues

It turns out that strictly adhering to a zero tolerance policy ignores the usual process of psychological and biological development in adolescence. As neuroscientist Frances E. Jensen explains in her book, The Teenage Brain, as we develop, synaptic connections between parts of the brain are myelinated, in a process that moves gradually from the brain stem to the frontal lobes.

By adolescence, the brain is only about 80% of the way to maturity. That 20% gap, where the wiring is thinnest, goes some way towards explaining stereotypical teenage behaviours such as mood swings, irritability and impulsiveness and inability to focus – as well as teens’ tendency to not connect with adults, and the temptation many teens have to use drugs and alcohol and engage in other forms of risky behaviour.

This immaturity is also psychological. As any secondary teacher will know, your average teenager is subject to peer pressure, takes unnecessary risks, doesn’t think about consequences and finds self-control tricky. But if all this just part of a teenager’s normal development, does that make all punitive behaviour policies unreasonable?

According to psychologists, certain characteristics of secondary schools are often at odds with the developmental challenges of adolescence. These include the need for close peer relationships; autonomy; support from adults other than one’s parents; identity negotiation; and academic self-efficacy. No one’s suggesting some students don’t make very poor choices – but if teenagers are being punished for being, well, teenagers, isn’t that a bit absurd?

A chance to change

Now obviously, some behaviours are absolutely intolerable; schools need to be able to exclude students where their behaviour endangers others. About this, there is no controversy.

This debate is about what to do instead of just kicking out everyone who struggles to toe the line. Hans Price Academy in Weston-super-Mare, for instance, has recently adopted an approach which is intolerant of classroom disruption, rather than hard-line zero tolerance, and the atmosphere of school has completely transformed. Students are happier and teachers can teach.

Vice Principal Nicky Munro explains that students are given one warning. If they then still persist with disruptive behaviour, the teacher enters the decision to send them to exclusion on the school’s computer system, after which the student has five minutes to arrive. All the pressure is removed from the teacher, and the student is forced to take responsibility for his or her actions.

When I asked Mrs Munro why children were given one chance to disrupt before being sent out, she said, “Everyone deserves a second chance.” I am a living testament to this wise maxim. Poor behaviour choices result in after-school detentions, and then a day spent making reparations. Hardcore repeat offenders are removed from the mainstream, assessed to see if there are any underlying reasons for their behaviour, and then put through a programme designed to help them make better choices, with tailored instruction to ensure they can access the curriculum. This more flexible, human approach seems to be working.

This isn’t to say that students should be let off for ‘minor’ behaviour issues – just that they shouldn’t be expelled. When it comes to ‘punishment’, ‘sanctions’, ‘consequences’ or whatever term you feel most comfortable with, certainty – not severity – should be our watchword. Permanent exclusion always ought to be reserved for only the toughest and most intractable cases.

Schools should adopt policies which don’t excuse disruption or defiance. Yet it seems sane and rational to make these policies flexible enough to anticipate and cope with the normal range of teenage behaviour, and provide a proportionate response which helps young people to learn from their mistakes.

We should always remember that while social disadvantage is no excuse for bad behaviour, ‘no excuses’ is no excuse for inflexible tyranny.

David Didau is based at Swindon Academy as an in-house consultant. He blogs at www.learningspy.co.u and is the author of several books, including What If Everything you Know About Education Is Wrong?; you can follow him at @LearningSpy

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