Kindness can sometimes be perceived as weakness and, when associated with behaviour management in schools, can be a real conundrum.

Is it possible to use kindness in a way that leads to successful behaviour management? How is it possible for a school to have kindness as its basis for relational behaviour management and still have children who show respect, follow the rules and achieve success?

It is hard to believe that kindness, as a foundation for behaviour management, could be questioned or doubted – but it is. If we aspire to be relational in our approach to behaviour management, then we must start with kindness.

Kindness can mean being tough and fair – exposing frailties and weaknesses but doing it with warmth and compassion. To remain kind in difficult and challenging environments takes courage and strength.

Strict conformity

We are living in an era of polarised views on managing behaviour. Fast-track school improvement is based on creating compliance at all costs. High levels of strict conformity are seen as a strength in many schools, even if the collateral damage is high exclusions and cohort change.

Many schools across the country employ a system based on strict consequences and sanctions. They use this compliance, along with the threat of punishment, to successfully ‘control’ the behaviour of most of the children in their care. But what do we mean by ‘successfully’?

Exclusion is viewed as an acceptable and inevitable consequence of a system in which, without compliance, there is no other option. It is regarded as an unavoidable and tolerable side effect of what are perceived as successful behaviour policies. Strict compliance at all costs is even viewed by some proponents as a positive life lesson that prepares children for adulthood and the ‘real world’.

However, surely a behaviour policy should only be viewed as successful if exclusion is not needed? Arguably, if a behaviour policy must rely on the cliff-edge sanction of exclusion, then it is not successfully changing behaviour for the better. If a school permanently excludes a child, then perhaps they are admitting defeat – that they aren’t able to manage their behaviour.

This is inevitably going to provoke controversy, but the idea should at least be explored and debated. As educators, we should all ask ourselves the question about what successful behaviour management actually is. Permanent exclusion essentially means passing the problem onto someone else. It certainly is not a cure.

A failing system?

Should we, as education professionals, regard schools as successful if they do not do their very best to work with the most challenging and vulnerable children in society? Some children need additional support, guidance and flexibility in their educational journey. Some pupils have specific additional needs that cannot be met in a mainstream environment. Some need to move to specialist settings because it is in their best interests to do so.

However, some are excluded because the system is failing them; they are moved from school to school because nobody is repairing the damage and making the adjustments that they need in order to be successful.

Schools too often focus on dealing with the symptoms of challenging behaviour, not the causes. There is a small but seemingly ever-increasing cohort of children – if my experience is anything to go by – who are either excluded from education or trapped in a cycle of punishment, which seems to be considered an acceptable consequence of a widely used and highly regarded behaviour strategy. We must ask ourselves whether this is OK.

Behaviour management in schools begins with our choices as adults and our behaviour as professionals. Yes, we can write out our behaviour policy and have the rules, rewards and sanctions clearly displayed on classroom walls, but it is our understanding of, and ability to deal with, relationships that really influences behaviour.

A danger to the profession

We all need to be careful with our choices as education professionals. We can, and do, choose where to work, who to work for and who to work with. We are constantly influenced by those with whom we work, live and socialise. We all work with, or have worked with, leaders and colleagues who either inspire us or frustrate and infuriate us.

We must always be willing to learn and develop by exposing ourselves to new ways of working and thinking. We must be led by our core values but also willing to adapt and change throughout our careers as we gain more experience, knowledge and understanding.

In the modern world of fake news and social media, we are exposed to strong opinion and polarised views, more so than ever before. Educational debate, particularly on social media, can be both enlightening and utterly frustrating. We must be willing to listen to and learn from the wise.

Wisdom is powerful, but it comes from genuine experience and not just from research and books. Books help, as does data, but there is no substitute for wisdom gained through experience.

Behaviour management is never easy. It is a roller coaster of emotions and stress, which causes us to suffer constant highs and lows. It changes from class to class, week to week and year to year. You think you have got it sorted and then an hour later you think you are a failure. It definitely does not become easy – it just gets easier than it was.

Working in challenging schools with complex children is both truly rewarding and exceedingly hard work. It relies heavily on your personal resilience, your ability to accept getting things wrong, and your understanding that when it does go wrong, it is not necessarily anyone’s fault. It is about trying to do your very best for the children who need you – and never underestimating how powerful that need may be.

In 2018, The Guardian published an article about the school where I was lucky enough to be the then executive principal and the way in which we used kindness at the heart of our values and philosophy. Looking back, it seems incredible to think that being kind to children was worthy of making the national news, or any news at all.

It is also amazing to think that the article received criticism from some for a style of behaviour management that was considered soft, and that I, as the head, was even considered a danger to the teaching profession because of my relational approach. It did, however, open up a debate which allows us to explore the values associated with managing behaviour. It allows us to consider in detail how we treat children in our care and to ponder what it is we are trying to achieve in our schools.

Old terms return

The Department for Education has recently sought to change the term ‘exclusion’ back to the old and antiquated term ‘expulsion’, and bring back the term ‘suspension’ to replace ‘fixed-term exclusion’. This seems like a backwards step and a totally unnecessary change – these terms still have an extremely negative connotation that we could do without.

At the time of writing, following criticisms from charities and other organisations, the Department has since announced that it will revert to using the term ‘exclusion’, but continue to use the word ‘suspension’.

Dave Whitaker began his career as a secondary school geography teacher, leading on inclusion and special needs, before moving into executive headship and later becoming a National Leader of Education; he is currently director of learning for the Wellspring Academy Trust and an Independent Thinking Associate.

This article is based on an edited extract from his book The Kindness Principle – Making relational behaviour management work in schools (£16.99, Independent Thinking Press).