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The First Law of Behaviour Management

June 3, 2007

As you may have noticed my biggest concern about British secondary schools is behaviour. It’s probably about time I started talking what can be done. I’m going to state general principles about how behaviour works and then suggest what it means for improving behaviour at every level.

The First Law of Behaviour Management is Whatever is Normal is Acceptable. It is the case that any deed, no matter how unacceptable it might seem outside of the world of teaching, will be incorporated into the routines of very many students once they see others do it. Disruption of lessons; bullying; verbal abuse of staff; even violence; can become normal in a school. All it takes is for it to happen enough times and it will enter the students psyche as “something that just happens” they may even become angry at any member of staff that attempts to stop it. It becomes so normal that you can even spot patterns to it. Much of what I have written on this blog contains examples of these patterns, types of behaviour that I have seen tens, or hundreds, or thousands of times. Poor behaviour is a contagion and behaviour policies at every level of education should be about stopping its spread, not about seeking to find a mythical underlying cause.

Once the First Law is accepted then we can look at how it can be used at different levels of the education system:

Classroom Teachers:

It is not acceptable for the teacher to seek to merely contain the worst offender. Others will copy the behaviour. Every rule that it is physically possible to enforce should be enforced. No allowances can be made for “characters”. There can be no appeasement of the trouble makers. Teachers should not lavish attention on the worst offender. The highest standard must be set for all pupils, for all classes, for all times of the day. Even if it is only one pupil that disrupts your lesson, they must be stopped, not worked around. Of course in our current system this can be the most difficult course of action to take, which is why it is vital teachers demand the right to do this, and get support with doing this.

School Managers:

A school needs to be run in a way that makes unacceptable behaviour abnormal. Some of this is just talk, making expectations clear at every opportunity, in letters to parents, in assemblies, in the school prospectus. Rules should be clear and no room should be left for argument. However, what will make the difference is what happens when rules are broken. The key idea is that at every opportunity the offender must be removed from “normal” children. Separation from peers should be a key part of every punishment. Detentions should be in a secure room staffed by Senior Management. A day’s isolation should include breaktime and lunchtime. There must be a system of removing disruptive children from a classroom that is available to all teachers. In some schools a room where disruptive children are sent is enough, in others it needs staff to come and collect any disruptive child. Every removal must be followed up otherwise being removed just becomes normal.

Beyond that the main priority is the battle against “inclusion”. Exclusions both temporary and permanent should be considered without reference to targets. Verbal abuse of staff should lead to an automatic fixed term exclusion. Repeat offenders and violent students should, also automatically, be permanently excluded. If the LEA structure is unable to cope with the consequences of a school enforcing decent standards of behaviour then it is up to the school to take on the responsibilities of the LEA, setting up their own “school within a school” for the most disturbed offenders. Many schools already have provision for students that choose not to behave (ludicrously described as having Emotional or Behavioural Disorders, despite usually never having been diagnosed with any recognised medical or psychiatric condition). However this provision should not be focused on keeping those students in the mainstream classroom, it should be focused on getting them out, putting them in a specialised classroom, preferably behind a very high wall, where they will spend their entire school day, if possible operating on a different timetable to the rest of the school.

LEAs and Government:

This is an easy one to cover. Once you accept Whatever is Normal is Acceptable as a key principle for behaviour then there must be an end to Inclusion for students with behaviour problems. Instead of running down Pupil Referral Units (and special education generally) they should be expanded. There must be an end to all targets to reduce exclusions, and all financial penalties that result from exclusions. The law needs to be changed to make exclusions easier and the grounds for exclusion clear and indisputable. The focus of inspections should not be teaching and learning, two minutes looking at exam results tell you all you need to know about this. Inspections should be about behaviour, respect, safety and general order in a school. Interviewing staff and students about whether they’ve been subjected to verbal abuse and violence, and what was done about it, is a hundred times more worthwhile than trying to find out if lesson objectives are put on the board in every lesson. This type of inspection can then be used to get rid of the layer of school management who are entirely preoccupied with covering up behaviour problems.

This outlines the most immediate practical steps that can be taken to deal with poor behaviour. Obviously there is much more still to be covered, but the first priority must be to stop the contagion by making sure that poor behaviour is never normal.

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13 comments

  1. Your blog entry is, as ever, depressingly accurate.

    Unfortunately LEAs, DfES and often SMT have their heads in the sand. Your suggestions on exclusion, cover up of behaviour, inspecting for behaviour is spot on, but this requires a willingness of the first two to admit that these problems actually exist. This will not happen under the current administration or any other that operates in the same fashion.

    What it’s really about, I think, is *honesty*. No-one outside the chalk face is willing to admit that the “improvements” in exam results etc. are fraudulent and that behaviour varies from acceptable down to unbelievable. To admit this means admitting that 10 years (or more, in fact) of centralised diktat, targets and throwing money at the problem have been a total failure.

    Virtually no MP or Civil Servant will do this. It is safer to stick your head in the sand.


  2. “Emotional or Behavioural Disorders”.
    In many schools this is actually “Emotional or Behavioural Difficulties”, which neatly sidesteps the need for an actual diagnosis.

    It is not my job to diagnose or treat EBD in either form. If a child’s behaviour is unfitted to a normal classroom environment, s/he should be removed from it and educated in a place more suitable to his/her needs. A few weeks in Isolation is almost miraculous in clearing up a certain proportion of these “disorders”. Those for whom this is not curative should not expect to be therapeutically attended by a mainstream subject teacher.


  3. Following up from your previous comments, oldandrew:

    Is it at all possible that a students’ misbehaviour could be down to unfair punishments from the teacher, or unfair discipline from the system?
    If it is possible, would you still blame the student anyway? (You have said before that you must presume that the teacher is always correct when a teacher and student disagree).

    Finally, were the abuses in Abu Ghraib caused by dispositional factors (bad apples doing bad things) or by situational factors (a ‘bad barrel’ causing otherwise admirable soldiers to torture ‘unlawful combatants’ according to their orders and training)?


  4. “What it’s really about, I think, is *honesty*. No-one outside the chalk face is willing to admit that the “improvements” in exam results etc. are fraudulent…”

    The daily (and Sunday) papers say this all the time. Also, is there really a crisis? Yes, some leave education woefully uneducated – but plenty come out able to get a job or go to University.

    One could argue that our school system completes it purposes exactly – by producing dropouts who can join the army, bolster the staff of fast food restaurants, clean our floors etc. Don’t we need an underclass? (For more on this, read John Taylor Gatto).


  5. “One could argue that our school system completes it purposes exactly – by producing dropouts who can join the army, bolster the staff of fast food restaurants, clean our floors etc.”

    We are currently producing plenty of students who are unqualified to join the army. More generally, the idea that it is the secret purpose of the education system to produce uneducated people makes no sense at all. We could produce uneducated people far more cheaply.

    “Don’t we need an underclass?”

    No. An underclass, almost by definition, is a drain on resources.


  6. “Is it at all possible that a students’ misbehaviour could be down to unfair punishments from the teacher, or unfair discipline from the system?”

    No.

    Strangely enough a student’s misbehaviour is down to the student. (The clue was in the word “student’s”.)


  7. “Strangely enough a student’s misbehaviour is down to the student. (The clue was in the word “student’s”.)”

    You appear to have missed this one:
    Finally, were the abuses in Abu Ghraib caused by dispositional factors (bad apples doing bad things) or by situational factors (a ‘bad barrel’ causing otherwise admirable soldiers to torture ‘unlawful combatants’ according to their orders and training)?


  8. “More generally, the idea that it is the secret purpose of the education system to produce uneducated people makes no sense at all. We could produce uneducated people far more cheaply.”

    Could we produce a menial workforce any more cheaply? Consider that we could not consciously have a two-tiered system in the current political climate.


  9. “Could we produce a menial workforce any more cheaply?”

    Yes. Education spending has been increased massively in the last ten years. While a lot of the money has made no difference, it takes an advanced condition of paranoia to believe it was meant to make no difference.


  10. “by producing dropouts who can join the army”

    The armed forces are a lot more picky than you think.


  11. It’s true that every year when results come out, some commentators point out the dubious nature of the result ; the DfES and Pols. then invariably rant on about not doing the children down and how wonderful things are and ignore the rather obvious flaws. It requires honesty on their part. At present they stick their head in the sand, pretend everything is wonderful, and hope by the time it all falls apart it will be someone else’s problem.

    For example, University. Yes, many come out able to go to University. That’s because it’s much easier to go there now than it was (say) 20 years ago, and University education too is dumbed down.


  12. “For example, University. Yes, many come out able to go to University. That’s because it’s much easier to go there now than it was (say) 20 years ago, and University education too is dumbed down.”

    I agree it is much easier to go there, but is it really much easier to get a degree?


  13. […] that you must presume that the teacher is always correct when a teacher and student disagree). by Newsisgood June 4, 2007 at 10:11 […]



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