It’s a bit more complicated than that

It would be lovely if there was a ‘simple solution’ to behaviour in schools, and at home as well for that matter. Or at least at first glance it appears as though it would be lovely. If the kids would only behave, we could all get on with doing the stuff we need to do. But the point about behaviour is that behaviour is about people, and the point about people is that they are wonderfully complicated, and frustrating. There are some general principles that hold true: be clear about what you want, aim high, create a community of learning. But while these principles are simple, getting them to happen is not. Any system of rewards or consequences can only control people from outside: it can manage but not really change. There is nothing wrong with manage, but we don’t want to totally dampen down all the rebels, in search of conformity, because the urge to rebel is where creativity and humanity comes from. We want people to behave because it’s the right thing to do. Not because Big Brother is watching and he has a Big Stick.

Have you ever broken the law? Or, to put it another way, do you drive a car?

Imagine this.  You are driving along a motorway. The road is clear and dry. What speed are you going? You know what the rule says, but in some situations the rule is plain stupid. Your car is new and safe. It has all kinds of safety features. There is no one else around. Also, you are special (just like we all are) or a bit of a rebel, and you reckon you can get by without this particular rule. Your speed edges up to 75 … then 80 … then 85 … how high will you go? Suddenly, in the distance, you spot a police car. You know the consequences of being caught, and you don’t want to receive them, so you immediately slow down. But as soon as the police car is out of sight, your foot gently squeezes the accelerator again. This is why rules take a lot of policing to stick, if you focus on consequences.

Do the right thing.

You’re driving past a school. It is school kicking out time and there are kids everywhere. The 20 signs are flashing, there’s a kid’s painting of a snail on a road sign and a request not to “squash us under your wheels like a snail”, but you jink just a tiny bit over the speed limit. The police stop you and they ask whether you want the points and the fine, or whether you will come into the school and speak to someone. When four children ask “can you tell us why were you speeding past our school?” you swear you will never do it again.

Why do small children have tantrums?

Tired, hungry, frustrated, over excited, unhappy … round and round the cycle runs, often for quite a while. It is a big job for a child to get to grips with controlling his or her own physical and psychological state (it’s called growing up, and most adults don’t completely manage it). The extreme behaviour we sometimes see in older students reminds me a lot of the tantrums that tiny children experience. It’s a kind of overload of emotions, that the child doesn’t know how to deal with, exacerbated by hormones. If we are willing to adapt the learning situation to suit the children, then we can gradually increase the level of challenge and not get lots of tantrums. If we expect too much too soon, we end up creating problems of our own making. It really is not a failure to be flexible and responsive to need.

What is the ultimate reward in your classroom?

The best answer to this, surely, is “the learning” or “the subject”. If you start from that premise, then extrinsic rewards start to look a bit pointless. There is a lot of intrinsic pleasure you can get from learning; it doesn’t have to be a hard joyless slog. But you can also get comedy and creativity from extrinsic rewards and even from consequences as well; you can make them part of your relationship with a class, especially with older learners. Take the ‘Hallelujah Button’: the teacher who told me about this one said he only pressed his button maybe once a term, but when he did it played the Hallelujah Chorus as a celebration of a child’s learning. I have also been introduced to the ‘Pink Shoebox of Shame’, which was a box where FE students had to deposit their mobile phones if they used them, with a suitable sense of embarrassment. Or the celebrity photos that a Geography teacher cut out and signed, out of a stack of his girlfriend’s old celebrity magazines. Beat that for creativity.

Question: When does a two year old stop learning? Answer: When they’re asleep.

Small children are literally learning all the time – you just can’t stop them! As they learn about their world, they also learn how to behave. In early years, people tend to see behaviour as about meeting a child’s needs, rather than imposing a system on them. Yes, there are boundaries, but if we model and discuss the behaviour we want, then the rest of it is about need. If they are hungry, feed them. If they are over excited, calm them down. The concept of being ‘naughty’ assumes a lot of conscious decision making in a two year old (‘naughty’ is usually about seeking attention). If you want to push the learning for your small children, what you really need is challenge, because then they get the chance to step up to the bar. The chance to climb a muddy bank or build a den out of sticks, for instance, like we do in our preschool forest club. But you can’t push them too far too soon, as Vygotsky said. Go for the next bit, not the bit years after. It’s like asking 10 year olds to understand semi colons – pointless if done too early.

The joys of flexible consistency.

I was chatting to a group of teachers once, about the distance between consistency and reality, and we came up with the term ‘flexible consistency’ (sorry if it makes you wince). The dream for head teachers is a behaviour system that is totally consistently applied. However, it is a dream for a very good reason. People have a habit of not behaving consistently, because they have their own thoughts and opinions and sometimes they can’t be bothered. The great thing about ‘flexible consistency’ is that you have a single standard that you want to achieve, but you work flexibly to achieve it. It resolves the ‘fair rules for all’ question, because you are not adapting the rules, you are just getting to the end result in different ways.

Behaviour is not a problem to be solved, it is a question to be answered.

I’ve been thinking, talking, writing and teaching about behaviour for more than 15 years. The more I think and learn about behaviour, the more complicated it seems. I can see the attraction of systems: if the children would just do what they are told, life and learning would be so much simpler. The idea of the system taking care of behaviour, so that you can focus on learning is tantalising. But in the end we are not solving the problems we most want to solve, and we are creating problems by implementing systems. Exclusions are still linked to SEN, young people still drop out and drift to the margins, children’s mental health is a real concern. Inclusion is not really a reality, and if we can’t include people when they are children, then really, when can we?

Saying that teachers have a role to play in encouraging good behaviour is not the same thing as saying that teachers are to blame for bad behaviour.

This idea gets a lot of debate, but the way I see it is quite simple. No, I can’t guarantee good behaviour, because the behaviour is in the people I am working with, and not in me. Yes, I will encounter difficult behaviour, and there is no under estimating how traumatic that can be. But I can set up the conditions that make me more likely to get what I wanted. I can make an effort to engage the children, to be passionate, to help them connect to the learning. It’s not all about me and the learning, it’s about the children as well.

The Myth of the Perfect Parent

Our family has a decent income, a nice home, a comfy life, and I still find it hard to be a good parent. I write books on this stuff, but I’m willing to admit that my kids don’t do what I want them to all the time, and that I am inconsistent around behaviour sometimes. If we talk about how great we are at ‘controlling’ children, and we place ourselves above others in the hunt for ‘high expectations’ and ‘rigour’, we only alienate the very people we most need to reach. I don’t do badly at it, but my life is not tricky. It’s not helpful to give parents a hard time if they’re not doing well, because it doesn’t actually help anyone or change anything.

A child loves her play not because it is easy, but because it is hard.”

At the moment there is a pressure funnel in education, pointing downwards. It goes from the DfE and Ofsted, via the ‘what we want for our society/economy’ question, down through university, college, secondary school and primary school. The bar is raised, and the downward pressure to ‘get children ready for school’ goes up. Interestingly, the pressure funnel has now reached early years settings, where early years educators and parents get to say ‘it’s not statutory’ and ‘we believe in play’. If we are excluding 4 year olds from education, before they have even reached the age where they have to be in education, then that is bizarre beyond belief. We can look for simple solutions to behaviour all we want, but that is just not how this game works.

It’s a bit more complicated than that.


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