On Behaviour Management in schools

Recently a good friend of mine asked for my opinion on behaviour management in schools.  Behaviour management is a huge problem for some schools, and in some cases it is their overwhelming main problem, especially in secondary schools, (11+ years of age).  When I wrote this response I think, for various reasons, I mainly had Primary schools (4 – 10 years) and Special Educational Needs schools in mind.  Here’s what I said;

The first thing that always springs to mind when I hear the term ‘Behaviour management’, is the sad vision of children being contained and restrained –
their movements being limited so as not to affect anyone else. The problem with
that is the root problem or cause isn’t being addressed, it is merely being
‘managed’ until the school bell goes, and same again the next day, until they
eventually leave or get kicked out.

When a child is disruptive, the onus is put on them and they are told how
irresponsible they have been, and maybe punishment handed out. Fair enough, but what is often missing is a proper conversation with them about root causes and feelings. Conversation doesn’t happen for perhaps good reason, 1) the child
won’t/can’t speak or open up, 2) takes too long, 3) seen as being soft, 4)
you’re not a therapist, and many other reasons. But still to really change disruptive behaviour those stages have to be worked through, maybe calling in support workers etc. But the battle ground will still be with the teachers on the front line, so trust has to be built up there, and not all devolved to additional
support workers at a distance.

Staff that have key responsibility for pastoral care have the tension of
idealism vs everyday school pressures & perceptions. Often when you take a
naughty child, and allow them the space to find their own voice and confidence,
allowing them to set the agenda and doing activities they enjoy, their
behaviour improves dramatically. But the whisperers will say they have been
rewarded for their bad behaviour, rather than seeing they have been working
through a process to be able to transfer that self-agenda setting back into the
main classroom, when integrated back in. Naughtiness is often a sign of
boredom, but very difficult to tell that to a teacher without looking like
you’re undermining them and really pissing them off! But the truth is it’s usually
nothing to do with the teachers personally or a comment on their teaching
ability or style, it’s the institution of school itself that repels these
children and often the idea of authority in general, and it often goes a lot
deeper than their immediate environment.

Though on the question of the teaching style and environment, on a couple of occasions I’ve had teachers ask me how bad such & such must have been that I’ve had in media projects, and I’ve had to tell them honestly that they were often the best behaved and most productive in the group. But working in the informal
education sector, or on a specific project as an external coming into a school,
is obviously very different from the constraints and bureaucracy teachers are
faced with every single day.  Teachers often don’t have the time anymore to be able to effectively channel the energy of their challenging children, and they merely get to discipline them instead.

Schools have a culture of telling children off, because adults are supposed to know best and children are meant to follow. That’s an effective strategy for the
mostly good, average and mildly naughty children, who needs to be kept within a
formal set of boundaries and be reminded of “accepted behaviour”, but that
strategy falls apart for the much more challenging children, who are incredibly
disruptive, unmanageable, wilfully rude, almost seemingly feral.

Those types of children are not only really badly behaved, they are usually
damaged – psychologically, emotionally, socially, and dare I say spiritually.  Scratch the surface of a really disruptive “bad” child, and usually they have a different set of issues they are dealing with, whether at home or in their head. Their badness is just a facade for their vulnerability. But put those children in areas of responsibility, and they will often take it seriously and do the job well, as they have been trusted with an important task.

Often the disruptive children are actually the highly intelligent, even if
they’ve NEVER proved it, as they’re using a different bit of their brain. They
don’t see the use in school lessons as according to them it has no bearing on
their real life, it’s too abstract. But give them something practical to do,
even on the same theme, and they love it. Not because they are using their
hands, but because they can see the learning applied in a real world context.
It’s no longer just playing schools, but they can imagine it in a real grown up
world, (and often disruptive kinds think they’re more grown up than they are).

With I think all of these issues, it comes back to their sense of self-identity. Being secure and confident in their own skin means they wouldn’t feel the need to show off or have to prove themselves to other people.  To be effective behaviour management policy has to be holistic, as there isn’t a set of answers or off the shelf framework that will work for all the contexts teachers need. It has to be ‘working with’ the pupils, rather than ‘doing to’.

There’s an interesting book by Tony Jeffs & Mark Smith called, ‘Informal
Education: Conversation, democracy and learning’, that is useful for dealing
with this. Even though it is about working in informal education, it is those
sensibilities that are needed when working for formal institutions with
challenging children. It talks about the importance of conversation, and the
link with self-worth to learning.

Pastoral conscious teachers will always be walking that line of some teachers
thinking they are being are too soft, and bending over backwards to help
disruptive children, but the important thing is to know your school and your
children.  You can be holistic, and still be tough when you need to be. But children can often feel like they’re living in an oppressive police state, when actually the ability to express themselves in a safe environment is really important.  Not only important, but vital.

Shawn – 13.7.11


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