Is there an ethical dimension to ‘behaviour’ and its ‘management’ in schools?

(1000 words)

Four questions;

1) Behaviour management. Is behaviour really so separate from the rest of children’s learning and children so incapable that it requires us to abandon teaching and manage it?

2) Behaviour policies. Are behaviour and learning so far apart from each other that a school must have separate behaviour and learning policies?

3) Reliance on punishment in schools. Are punishment and coercion really the only means we’ve got to help children learn where the edges of a community lie?

4) Professional and ethical standards. Where are the professional and ethical standards we can turn to when schools move towards coercive practices?

‘In a recent TES Podagogy podcast, Professor Linda Graham describes what her research suggests effective behaviour management should look like, and she states that the most troubling trend she has witnessed is the growth of “no excuses” behaviour policies being imported from the USA.

“I have heard this line that ‘no excuses’ is necessary so all teachers can teach,” she says. “I’m thinking, so we need no excuses for students so we can have excuses for teachers? I am not going be popular for saying that, but I don’t care. In the research we are doing the teacher is a variable in disruptive behaviour and I don’t think that gets talked about enough.”

I agree with Professor Graham, just broadening her reference to ‘teacher’ to include all adults in school and particularly school managers and government advisers. We have come to accept terms uncritically, for example ‘behaviour management’ is not what the most inclusive schools do. Instead they engage and teach children how to behave as a valued member of a community, not from the outside in but from the inside out.

For some time now we’ve been witnessing some things going badly wrong in schools in England but we’ve largely chosen to look the other way. One that routinely tops the list of problems that adversely affect teachers is bad behaviour and our apparent incapacity to deal with it.

I agree that bad behaviour is indeed a serious problem. But here I’m not talking about children behaving in the childish ways that can make teaching so difficult at times. I mean the behaviour of adults who take the failure of punishment to fix childish errors as a signal to do more of it, more severely and more frequently, in many cases applying to children who have good reasons for making errors, like family poverty, special educational needs, living in care, being teenaged and especially being a teenaged girl.

As teachers we meet up with the mistakes that all children make in their learning across the broad curriculum. It’s our stock in trade. We address mistakes by doing our job, teaching children how to correct them.

But when it comes to behaviour, we are in danger tolerating a drift towards the abuse of power in the form of punishment, to force those same children and their parents and carers to comply with whatever demands are made of them, no matter how arbitrary or prejudiced. We know that people who are unable to escape threats to their wellbeing, who can neither fight nor fly when they’re trapped, experience anxiety and depression. We’ve got a name for it when it’s child against child – we call it bullying. Yet we seem to tolerate the situation, tacitly and explicitly approved at the highest levels and dripping down to ground level, when adults take this path.

Outside the school walls this type of abusive behaviour is called coercion and there’s a new awakening that many people who suffer domestic abuse are are unable to recognise a partner’s coercive behaviour because it has become habitual to the abuser and the abused. Because of this, adults may tolerate abuse and fail unmotivated to report it to the police, often with disastrous outcomes. Police forces are producing teaching materials to raise the awareness of coercive abuse and its consequences, as a new way of approaching this serious problem. We know that children who witness or experience abuse are likely to become desensitised, to suffer mental illness in their lives and may become abusers themselves.

So what are we doing in schools to protect children?

The new manta of zero-tolerance and no excuses seems to be spreading like oil on water across every area where people do that most human thing – make mistakes. Once you absorb the idea that intolerance is allowable, it frees people up to do all kinds of things in response to mistakes that anyone of goodwill could tell them are wrong and may be unlawful. At its worst and in schools adults are modelling bad behaviour for children to base their own actions upon.

It’s not a superficial error and trying to address it by superficial argument is not getting anywhere. We need to look below the surface, combining the strengths of theorists and of practitioners working together, to figure out what’s gone wrong and what’s going right.

So let’s open up the questions that I posed a the head of this article

  • Behaviour management. Is behaviour really so separate from the rest of children’s learning and children so incapable that it requires us to abandon teaching and manage it?
  • Behaviour policies. Are behaviour and learning so far apart from each other that a school must have separate behaviour and learning policies?
  • The use of punishment in pedagogical settings. Are punishment and coercion really the only means we’ve got to help children learn where the edges of community and its standards lie?
  • Professional standards. Where are the professional and ethical standards that we can refer to for guidance when schools move towards coercive methods in school?

I will be launching ITAVTRAC.com next week as a quiet, safe and serious-minded space where we can do some Slow Thinking around these thoughts. I would be pleased to meet you there.

These questions will be the first to prompt this month’s conversation.

Look out for #ITAVTRAC – It Takes A Village To Raise A Child

 

 

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