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The Fourth Law of Behaviour Management

August 13, 2007

The fourth and final law is: students are responsible for their own actions. This is perhaps the most difficult to abide by when there are so many outside influences suggesting that nobody is responsible for their actions, that we are all machines programmed by our upbringing or material circumstances into performing certain actions and not others. As much as I find this philosophically repellent, it is even more of an anathema to me when considered on pragmatic grounds alone. If schools intend to educate then they must aspire to enable students to make informed choices. For a school to accept that students are not responsible for their choices is to have given up on much of education before it has even begun. Schools need to have an ethos that makes it clear to all students: You make a choice when you break the rules and the consequences of your choice will have to be accepted.

This outlook has implications at every level:

Classroom Teachers:

All discipline must be based on choice and consequence. This can be expressed in the language teachers use: “If you use your mobile phone in class, you will be choosing to get a detention”, “Ryan, you have chosen to get a warning”. It also means that there can be little room for exceptions and favours. When the rule is broken a choice has been made, no punishment should be cancelled for later good behaviour and no child should be exempt from the rules. Clarity is vital to this ethos, the rules must be stated to every class in turn and reminders should be frequent. No child who is misbehaving should be able to see their punishment as anything other than what they have chosen to get. Moreover, where punishment takes place it is vital that the student acknowledges what they have done wrong.

School Management:

School managers need to make these principles school wide. Clear rules written in the language of choice are needed and should be distributed to every parent and every student. There must be pressure on teachers to enforce the rules universally (the exact opposite to what is normal in many schools) and support for teachers where enforcing the rules becomes difficult. The rules must apply to all and cover everything. Instead of producing countless meaningless statements on discipline there should be one simple discipline policy and it should be lived by. There must be no impossible punishments which will never be delivered. Procedures should exist for every situation, and not as paperwork that is ignored but as words to live by. They should also require that students acknowledge what they have done is wrong. All SEN support for behaviour problems, all initiatives on discipline, must be based on the idea that every student can behave. Every conversation with parents must be based on the idea that their children have made their choice and must live with it. If a child has made a choice to misbehave, then no parent, no Head of Year and no member of SMT, has any right to undo the consequences of that choice.

LEAs and Government

Once again the most important action on the part of the Powers That Be is to stop obstructing schools from dealing with behaviour. Not only should there be no limits on exclusions but exclusions for assault or verbal abuse should be required by law. Parental refusal to co-operate with a school’s discipline policy should be considered grounds for exclusion. There should be no more inclusion for students who choose to misbehave and no more mainstream provision for students who are believed to be unable to make the choice to behave. Inspectors should inspect for enforcement of the rules, there can be no discrepancy between the rules as written and the rules as demonstrated in the daily life of the school.

Of course for any of this to happen then a philosophical change is needed as much as any practical measure. We can no longer view the offender as a victim, and those who persist in doing so must be removed from any position of power. If you do not see others as responsible for their actions how can you ever take responsibility for your own?

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5 comments

  1. You are right. I have seen this put into operation and work. I suspect a major factor in its working was the fact that the school was reasonably decent to start with and the only alternative school for excluded pupils was a hellhole. The appearance of a sanctions poster for every misdemeanour was posted in every classroom, pupils’ every good and bad action recorded in a planner that had to be carried with them at all time [just good stamp/bad stamp] and NO wiping clean of the slate of missed detentions at half term, as is the case in my present school because there aren’t enough days in the term to fit them all in, made it much easier for new teachers especially to be automatic about discipline, no grey areas, no emotional blackmail, no special cases.


  2. As a PGCE student starting her course in September, this blog is very useful!

    I do think I agree with you on this one. I think consistency is key. Certainly I’ve observed children being *very* frustrated because different “standards” were applied to them, e.g. child A who is normally well-behaved and attentive forgets homework, gets detention, yet sees child B being praised for actually putting pen to paper (and no chance of any form of homework being completed). This frustration seems only to cause further decline in their behaviour.

    I hope to take your advice and be fair and clear with my expectations for my students. How, though, do I make sure that a student who has chosen to break the rules “acknowledges what he has done”?


  3. How, though, do I make sure that a student who has chosen to break the rules “acknowledges what he has done”?

    Depends on the school and the discipline system. The work in detention can be to write down what they did and why it was wrong. Punishments can be given for arguing. It can be discussed at parents’ evenings.

    Unfortunately it often hinges on the whole school ethos, but at the very least classroom teachers can take failure to acknowledge that they have done something wrong as an indication that they intend to do it again.


  4. This is perhaps the most difficult to abide by when there are so many outside influences suggesting that nobody is responsible for their actions, that we are all machines programmed by our upbringing or material circumstances into performing certain actions and not others.

    My response to arguments that we are all machines programmed by our upbringing or material circumstances is to reply that I am therefore a machine programmed to believe that we are all responsible for our actions, and as I have no control over that, I clearly have no choice but to continue to hold myself and others responsible for our actions.

    If a criminal can’t be held responsible for his actions, then we can’t hold the police responsible for theirs.

    If determinists really believed their own arguments, they’d never bother making them in the first place.


  5. Trouble is there is a form of “selective determinism” in schools these days, which says the darling children are merely the victims of circumstance, but teachers are still responsible for all their shortcomings.



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