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The Behaviour Delusion (or “Why do Kids Kick Off?”)

August 29, 2014

Those who work in schools seem to spend a lot of time asking themselves questions like:

  • Why do Mrs Jones’s classes always behave well?
  • Why are students worst behaved in the afternoon?
  • Why does Ryan get into trouble in geography and not in maths?
  • Why is behaviour worse on rainy days?
  • Why does no child do what I ask without the threat of a detention?
  • Why is Tammy-Lee so polite and pleasant one-to-one but awful in  lessons?
  • Why do students act as if it is a surprise that I punished their poor behaviour?

The answers a lot of the worst school managers like to give to these sorts of questions tend to involve two bad assumptions. Firstly, that students are like automata, they respond automatically to certain input (rain, being shouted at, having to work hard) and what follows is an unavoidable reaction to a specific situation not a deliberate choice influenced by the consequences of previous such choices. Secondly, that the input students get from their teachers is far more important than the input they get from their peers.

I was reminded of this by some of the discussion following my last post. Probably the most controversial part of it was my disdain for schools in which teachers have to run their own detentions. I should probably say that I don’t mind if teachers ask students to stay in for 5 minutes at lunch, break or after school to talk to them, or hear their apology, but I do have a problem with expecting teachers to set and run half hour (or more) detentions. The usual justification for what seems like an unproductive use of time is that it can (in some way) be used to discuss what happened and repair the relationship between  student and teacher. Where these justifications have been made the assumptions I described above have usually come into play. Firstly, it is assumed the student behaved as they did in reaction to a particular situation, and the specific situation has to be addressed rather than the principle that the student should behave in all situations. Secondly, it is assumed that the teacher, and their relationship with the student, is the key to what happened and the student cannot have been set off by factors unrelated to which teacher was present. It is because I think these assumptions are based on an inaccurate model of how students behave that I don’t think detentions set by individual teachers can be the basis of a discipline system.

What is being missed, with regard to the level at which detentions are organised and by anyone asking the questions above, is that students rarely act independently of their peers when they misbehave. Most poor behaviour stems from interaction between students and shared expectations held by students. Students coordinate their behaviour. They behave badly when their peers behave badly. They behave badly when their peers expect them to behave badly. They behave badly when it will increase their standing with their peers. They behave badly when their peer group thinks they will get away with it, or when they think they should get away with it. Behaviour incidents do not happen uniformly across the school. They cluster. Certain lessons, certain teachers, certain times of the day, certain times of the year or certain combinations of students will prompt more bad behaviour than others. Kids work together when they misbehave. Sometimes they test the boundaries together, at other times they convince themselves that the boundaries should never have existed and that any attempt to impose discipline is unfair. One student’s behaviour or attitude will set off others. That is why seemingly insignificant things, like the weather, can result in large amounts of bad behaviour, because it only takes a small change to prompt major problems. That is why some departments have more problems than others. That is why some year groups are worse than others even when comparing their entire time at the school. That is why some teachers get targeted and others see little poor behaviour. That is why management being seen to be unsupportive over one incident can sabotage a teacher with every class they have.

If the approach to discipline is piece-meal and ad hoc then you are more likely to move poor behaviour around rather than reduce it. If you try to devolve all behaviour management to the lowest possible level, the teacher, behaviour will start breaking down in some classes. The clustering effect means that some teachers will have to deal with more poor behaviour than others, making consistency with setting detentions or calling parents impossible. Good managers ensure those teachers don’t have to manage the detentions or call parents themselves and say, “You are doing the right thing, keep following the behaviour policy and they’ll eventually get the message” while also helping to confront the students. Bad managers assume that the teacher must have done something wrong and start trying to change the teacher, often by getting them to lower expectations. They’ll even assume that getting involved directly to improve expectations will undermine the teacher.

It is true that teachers can make a difference to which teachers get the worst behaviour, but this can happen in good or bad ways. Good classroom management and following up incidents thoroughly can help deter bad behaviour, but so can appeasing ringleaders and making lessons less demanding. If teachers are working to make sure they are not the one that gets the hassle, rather than ensuring that nobody gets the hassle, the school as a whole will not have great discipline. Students will change who they target so individual teachers may feel they are making progress, but they will still act up somewhere. Perhaps for new teachers; perhaps for those that simply don’t have time to set enough detentions; perhaps for certain subjects; perhaps for those that SMT have failed to support. I have seen schools go into an academic nosedive when it becomes the teachers that make kids work hard who get the worst hassle. It’s not that teachers can make no difference to behaviour in their own classroom; it’s that the biggest factor in behaviour is student expectations and these can be set outside the classroom.

The best behaviour management is about setting universal expectations in a school. It is about creating a situation where every student sees their peers behaving. Some of the biggest mistakes in behaviour management involve digging too deeply into the reasons individual students behave or misbehave. People start imagining that if a student behaves only out of fear of sanctions then it is a bad thing, or that if they behave in lessons where they like the teacher then every teacher should try to win them over. However, in my experience, most poor behaviour has something to do with the expectations of the peer group. There’s no point asking “well why did this student misbehave today?” when the reasons are sitting all around them. Most students behave in the way they think is normal, for somebody of their status, according to the values they have arrived at in collaboration with their peers. Discipline systems that work on a whole school level have a much better chance of changing what is normal across the school than leaving every teacher to compete to be seen by kids as one of the teachers for whom behaving is normal. It also gets the best out of teachers if they know there is a standard to maintain, rather than an ordeal to be avoided. No headteacher should want teachers to be asking before a lesson, “What can I do for a quiet life?” rather than “How can I get my class to learn a lot?” but this is what happens where the workload for dealing with behaviour, and the responsibility for setting expectations, falls mainly on the classroom teacher.

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4 comments

  1. This really would seem a given. So what might be constructive would be if people gave case studies of effectively managed whole school behaviour policies. Or are you suggesting a system as yet untried as in contracting them out to a third party?


  2. Reblogged this on BB2 Collaborative.


  3. Excellent post- accurate and perceptive… should be part of BT reading…


  4. […] The Behaviour Delusion (or “Why do Kids Kick Off?”) […]



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