Power Play

It is an axiom of teaching that teachers need to be able to control a class of students. In part, this is to do with safety – with one adult and thirty children, there have to be some boundaries. Mostly, though, behaviour management is to do with learning. If the children are not behaving well, for instance if they are not listening to you, then they cannot learn as effectively as they might. We don’t like to admit it to ourselves, but there is something thrilling about having a group of people in our thrall. There is a feeling of power when you know how to get a class of children under your control. When I am doing a presentation to a hundred or more teachers, and they all listen to me and laugh at my jokes, it almost feels like I have magic powers. Behaviour management can sometimes turn into a power play, in which the thrill of being able to control other people means you take it further than you need. It is possible to get so caught up in the control and conformity part of the equation, that you lose sight of what really matters. You might find your school featured in the press in a bizarre story about the colour of bras. Conformity becomes an end in itself – a proxy for rigour and discipline – rather than behaviour being about learning and community.

There are three basic ways to (try to) get people to behave as you want them to. You can motivate them in a positive way, using some kind of carrot that they will earn if they do what you asked. You can punish them, if they fail to behave as you had wanted, in the hope that this will make them want to avoid the consequence next time around. Or you can find ways to build their intrinsic motivation to ‘do the right thing’ – to learn how to regulate their own behaviour, because that’s the right thing to do. In the ‘good old days’, when I was at school, our teachers didn’t trouble themselves much with the idea of carrots for good behaviour. If we broke the rules, we could get beaten with a stick. At the very least, an adult would scream at us furiously. Our teachers could wield the ultimate power over us and we knew exactly who was in charge. The stories of historical child abuse that have come out in recent years show us what can happen when the balance of power tips too far in one direction. Children are already the vulnerable ones in the teacher/student relationship. It is vital that they have a voice and can speak out if something is not right.

When compliance is achieved via the threat of punishment, the balance of power lies with the teacher and the school. We are doing something to the child to make them behave as we wish. The child has no say over whether or not the punishment happens: they either comply with the rules, or they are going to get punished. We have the power, and we are using it in a relationship with someone who has less power than us, and this means that there are some very important ethical questions for us to consider. We need to examine our own motives very closely indeed. Consider how you feel when you give a sanction – if you’re totally honest with yourself, there may be just a tiny bit of ‘make them suffer’ going on. The ‘behave as we wish’ bit should always be about dignity, respect and balance – it must be reasonable within the context of our role. The child must feel able to speak up if the ‘behave as we wish’ bit is not as it should be – as history has shown us, not everyone’s motives are as pure as we might hope. And when children with SEND are six times more likely to be excluded than those without, as Nancy Gedge explains here, there are some pretty serious questions that we need to ask about how and why that is. Exclusion is the logical end point of a punishment based approach, because you have to have some kind of ‘final outcome’. How do we square that with a focus on learning and inclusion?

It might be helpful if I explain the approach to behaviour that we take in our preschool, because it is different to what happens in many schools. For us, ‘behaviour management’ is not really about external controls, apart from some simple routines and golden rules. We see behaviour management as being about helping children learn to regulate their own behaviour; to become intrinsically motivated to behave, because they want to learn as part of a community. We don’t talk about ‘behaviour problems’, because we don’t see behaviour as a ‘problem’ to be solved. We don’t use sanctions, beyond perhaps a brief expression of disappointment, and we don’t have reward ‘systems’ like the ones that you might see in a school. Mostly, we focus on ensuring engagement with learning, and on highlighting the positives. When a child behaves inappropriately, we see it as a form of communication. We ask ourselves what the behaviour is telling us about the child. Was it something to do with the learning, the physical environment, self esteem, confidence, self control, language skills, tiredness, hunger? Could there be SEND going on that the behaviour is flagging up? What can we change about our practice to help the child learn how to behave?

When I say that part of the adult’s role is to try to ensure good behaviour, I am sometimes accused of saying that ‘if the children misbehave it is the teacher’s fault’. This is a misunderstanding of what I mean. Of course the child is ultimately responsible for his or her own behaviour – we need to learn to make good choices, and some find this harder than others. But the thing over which I have most control is my own reaction to the behaviour I get. Unless I plan to do violence with a big stick, I cannot force children to behave how I want. Going straight to punishment seems to me to be a bit of a cop out. Surely I can think of something else to try first? Can I help them understand why I need this behaviour, before I hand out a detention? Maybe I could even do something to make them forget to misbehave? I don’t think we will ever ‘solve’ behaviour, because it is part of the human condition. But I do think that our focus should be on understanding and cooperation, not on compliance and control. We only get to make the rules because we are older, and because we need learning to take place. There is nothing inherently good about unthinking compliance – it can be dangerous as well. And we should be very wary about teaching children to comply with adults, without asking why before they do.

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10 Responses to Power Play

  1. lenabellina says:

    Sue, this is exceptionally powerful, readable and sensible… But of course we would expect nothing less from you.
    Thanks. I hope it is shared far and wide.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. julietgreen says:

    Well your post echoes my misgivings about a current cultural trend towards conformity.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I wonder if enough attention is paid to the differences that arise because of age of the children we are dealing with? The younger the children, the less likely they are to understand what is going on, per se, and this needs to be taken into account with respect to behaviour issues. Generally, I agree that the meta-circumstances are important, and that mutual respect is required: Respect: The Oil of Civilisation https://chemistrypoet.wordpress.com/2014/06/03/respect-the-oil-of-civilisation/. Behaviour management should never be about power, it is part of mutual respect and civilisation.


  4. Tim says:

    Of course a reality check suggests the best placed ,successful and most enlightened approaches in managing behaviour are likely to prosper in a context which is secure,safe and aware of its responsibilities and has full ownership of such responsibilities .Schools as currently defined whether state or private are frequently not operating in such a context.


  5. Donna says:

    As a teacher of a large, very lively and chatty P6 class I start each week with the intention to focus on the positive, praise good behaviour and try to give pupils who are misbehaving an option to change their behaviour before a sanction, however, this can be extremely difficult to maintain all week when you are trying to teach and are constantly finding you have you to stop due to talking, shouting out, fidgeting, toilet visits, filling water bottles and just general low level disruption. Any suggestions?


  6. jw_teach says:

    I just found this Sue – Great blog. Somehow got here from tonight’s #behaviourchat on twitter.


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