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As the school day starts you’re more accustomed to seeing Abigail’s empty chair than her face. What do you do when neither punishment nor reward seem to be working?
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Abigail is forever late. She walks in with a mumbled apology, provides the requisite scribbled note from Mum (’Sos, late xx’😉 and takes her place. Some days it’s five minutes, more often 10 – and recently up to 30.
The data shows that this term Abigail has only arrived on time twice. Other children are starting to notice, to question, to pass comment. The front office have become accustomed to welcoming Abigail, other staff have mentioned it over coffee and the head has started to tut when the attendance data for your class is published.
In all other respects Abigail is fantastic. She is a polite, hard-working, diligent child. In many ways she appears to be as exasperated with her punctuality as you are. When questioned, she tells you that she is always up early, dressed and ready on time, but always waiting for Mum.
A: Reverse psychology
Reward the children who arrive on time, make a fuss over them, motivate them with punctuality points and gather in some prizes to increase the jeopardy.
No excuses. Everyone else manages to get to school on time, so why shouldn’t Abigail?
C: Tackle mum
Deal with the problem at source – if you can find her…
The children are excited about punctuality points. You show them the ‘cupboard of joy’ crammed with every 99p temptation you could find. Their chatter on the way out to break is all about how they plan to get ready for school this evening to save time, how many points they are going to get and who – just who – will win the star prize of the the MP3 player.
Children start arriving ridiculously early. They are competing with each other to see who can get the most punctuality points. Parents are also starting to feel the pressure and seek some urgent clarification as to the school’s exact start time.
Trouble is, there’s no change for Abigail; none of this furore about points affects her. Things come to a head when a child who lives near the school slips out of the house at 4am to be first through the door. Suddenly there are police everywhere, helicopters scrambled and general panic. The child is eventually discovered wrapped up in a coat rack, getting some much-needed rest.
You carefully peel the ‘Super Punctuality Points’ poster from the wall, stuff it in the bin and try to walk away nonchalantly. From behind comes the unmistakably irritated voice of the head: “My office, 10 minutes?..”
• Can a ‘punctuality points’ system ever be fair?
• Should children who arrive on time be rewarded?
• Are children who struggle to get to school on time humiliated when they have no chance of changing their routine?
You decide to make the consequences for arriving late much clearer to parents and children. All parents are written to and told that they must sign their children in late. Children who are late more than once a week will need to make up the minutes in break and lunchtimes.
This changes nothing for Abigail, who is not concerned about missing break or lunch. Other children, however, find the new regime more difficult. They argue vociferously, claiming, “‘Snot my fault, my mum was late”, and that they already made up for their lateness by working “Sooooooooo hard…”
Worse still, the parents are in revolt. It’s not just Abigail’s mum who doesn’t sign the late book. The office staff are getting the brunt of angry parents’ “I am late for work, I don’t have time for this,” complaints, and there have been some worrying high-speed driving manoeuvres on display outside the school.
The trouble is, Abigail doesn’t have control over her mum’s timekeeping, and the school has no control over mum. You have noticed that conversations between children are all about how late they are and who has got how many minutes punishment. They are perversely enjoying the tension of this new game; perhaps heroes will be made, not squashed. The culture in your classroom has taken a difficult turn – time to turn it back…
• Is a ‘no excuses’ culture simply the result of a lack of empathy from teachers?
• Is it right to punish children for their parents’ crimes?
• Do increasingly severe punishments result in increasingly good behaviour?
Despite letters and phone calls, mum is proving very tricky to pin down. Even the family support team have had no luck in contacting her. Abigail makes her own way home, but mum drops her off. The problem is that her routine isn’t predictable, and you’re usually teaching by the time she arrives.
You resolve to make sure that you ‘bump into’ mum in the next week, and come up with a fiendish plan in cahoots with your learning support professional. Looking back over the data, it seems that Wednesday is the day when Abigail is least likely to be late. You figure that if your class can be covered for 15 minutes, then you can wait for mum to drop off and at least agree a time for a face-to-face meeting.
Waiting to casually pounce in the car park seems extreme, but it doesn’t take long before you see a car approaching at high speed with a frantic mum at the wheel. As soon as she sees you she starts apologising, explaining that she can’t talk now and is late for work, while throwing a bucketful of diversions at you.
Instead of berating her for her appalling timekeeping, you decide to just say hello, introduce yourself properly and tell her how fantastic her daughter is. She slows down, listens and then burst into tears.
As you usher Abigail into reception, mum starts to open up about the issue of an ill grandmother who came for Christmas and never left. Abigail doesn’t know it, but grandma needs a lot of care, particularly in the morning. Life got a lot harder very quickly for the family. You agree a time to talk again, and as you walk back into school you realise that this brief encounter may have opened the door to finding a solution to Abigail’s punctuality.
• Should this conversation with mum have been left to family support services?
• What would be your next steps?
• Are there ways in which you could help Abigail get to school on time in the short term?
A: Bribe time
Don’t rush for prizes – children don’t need to be rewarded for turning up on time. This is a minimum standard, a basic. Thanking them is enough. Attaching points to people and prizes can have unforeseen negative consequences.
B: Hard time
Don’t reach for punishment – you cannot punish children for the mistakes of their parents. Punishment is a weak, soggy and largely ineffectual deterrent for lateness.
C: Time to care
Dealing with parents with kindness is always the best way to get behind the mask. Those proactive steps were a positive move that helped open a dialogue, and ultimately find a way to get Abigail to school on time, every time.
Paul Dix is a lead trainer at Pivotal Education and co-presenter of the Pivotal Podcast
The Pivotal Curriculum is a licensed trainer scheme that allows every school to deliver Pivotal Behaviour and Safeguarding Training – you find out more at pivotalcurriculum.com and by following @pivotalpaul
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