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Good culture mitigates bad behaviour, it doesn’t cure it

September 26, 2020

My last post, Non-Teachers Telling Teachers What to Think was, as I said at the time, a bit delayed. It was originally prompted by some of the debate about the effects of facemasks. Teachers had been worried that facemasks would be compulsory in lessons and that this would have an impact on behaviour. In practice – at least I think for most of us – facemasks haven’t been compulsory in lessons and they aren’t comfortable enough for kids to choose to wear them all day. My experience is that, where they have been worn, they’ve had relatively little effect on behaviour. Had they been compulsory in lessons, I think there would have had a more significant impact, but I could be wrong.

In that last post, I noted the extent to which those who dismissed concerns about masks were non-teachers, but there was something else I noticed about that discussion. People would claim that if masks would have a negative effect on behaviour in a school, then that showed that the culture of behaviour in that school was poor. This was even suggested about schools with an absolutely exemplary reputation for behaviour. And facemasks are not the only discussion where a claim about negative effects on behaviour has been met with a claim about culture. I saw a similar comment yesterday about the effects of kids staying in the same classroom all day due to Covid. There seems to be the assumption that if we can expect to see behaviour get worse, then there’s something wrong with school culture.

I think we should avoid this sort of argument, and I say that as somebody who believes all schools with good behaviour have a good culture. I do think that culture does the most to determine how good behaviour is in schools. How kids behave is, most of the time, how they expect to behave, and much of that time, it’s how their peers behave. The beliefs a child has about how one usually behaves in school seem to have more impact than any behaviour policy, or individual teachers, or set of sanctions, or anything. This is why the best behaviour managers will still struggle in a new school, and why in some schools good behaviour seems almost effortless to achieve.

However, we need to appreciate that unless you have the most exceptional parents, good culture is constructed deliberately by schools. Schools have a good culture of behaviour, because bad behaviour is dealt with. They have it because potential bad behaviour is anticipated and prevented. They have it because any attempt to undermine expectations will be thwarted. All those elements of behaviour management that are not as important as culture, like rules, sanctions and teacher consistency, work together to build culture. This is why it is a mistake to think that if a school has a good culture of behaviour, we can stop worrying about behaviour. Schools with the best behaviour are not the ones where you stop worrying about behaviour, they are ones where you never stop addressing behaviour, not because bad behaviour is common, but because it can always be even rarer.

And this is why I think we should never argue “X won’t be a problem in a school where the culture is really good”. Culture mitigates bad behaviour, it does not cure it. It might mean that a wasp coming in the classroom causes five seconds of distraction, not five minutes, but the way to get that good culture is to keep working on getting it down to five nanoseconds. In schools with bad behaviour, people make decisions that will make behaviour worse without even thinking about it. In schools with great behaviour, people avoid decisions that will make behaviour worse, even if the effect is marginal. Sometimes decisions that will have a negative effect on behaviour are inevitable – living with Covid has certainly forced schools to make tough choices they’d not have made otherwise – but such decisions should never be made thoughtlessly. It doesn’t matter how good a school’s behaviour is, we should never be casual about making it worse, even in a marginal way. If you think your school’s good culture means you don’t have to worry about behaviour, it won’t have that good culture for long. Schools rapidly go from having great behaviour to “good enough” behaviour and from “good enough” behaviour to poor behaviour. So let’s give teachers who worry about losing ten seconds of teaching time, or having one more interruption in the lesson, some respect. Attentiveness to the potential for behaviour becoming worse is a building block of the great culture that ensures it doesn’t.

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