Ahead of the start of this term, I was reflecting on where we need to go next to raise standards at Highbury Grove. Everywhere I look to find schools that are doing better than we are by some measure I see that they appear to be more disciplined; they secure stronger engagement with their expectations; their systems are tighter. There’s not one school I look to where I see things being looser or more relaxed.
But it’s not as simple as that; it’s not just a case of having ever tougher rules and sanctions. As we’ve learned in our journey towards ‘impeccable behaviour’, as described in this blog, the purpose of sanctions is to motivate students to make the right choices; our system is meant to motivate them to engage with the ethos we’re trying to establish. We’ve discovered that, whilst the system works for most students, it doesn’t work for some; for too many. For some, the stick doesn’t deter them enough and they can hit the wall of consequences and sanctions over and over again. For some, the system feels too punitive and they kick against it; it doesn’t motivate them to learn or, in some cases, to come to school at all.
On the first day of term I suggested to staff that what we need is not to see Stick and Carrot as opposites. Yes, we do need to make sure we are consistent and persistent with enforcing our expectations, setting a high bar, demanding high standards from every student without exception. Yes, we give detentions for not having a pen. But we also need to be kinder, more loving, warmer, nicer, more welcoming, more understanding…. It’s a case of discipline with love.
The key to this is the language and tone of our interactions with students every day. This approach brings into play all the Bill Rogers strategies about positive correction and the language of choice; about being assertive but not autocratic; about building relationships and being the adult. It requires a conscious effort and some self-awareness to fully embrace this. In giving sanctions, we are reinforcing our expectations, we’re keeping the bar high – but are we also communicating that we care, that we listen, that it’s not personal – and that we’ll welcome the students back with open arms and a clean slate tomorrow?
Another dimension to our discussions is the role of positive affirmation; making students feel good for doing the right thing, for making progress, more being kind, for acting in all the ways we want them to. We’re investing in more systems to support this (ePraise is due to be launched soon, so parents get an alert every time a child gets an achievement point or receives an ‘accolade’) but, again, the key lies in the language we use day-to-day. It’s not about giving out cheap tokens just for meeting basic expectations but there’s enormous mileage in saying ‘thanks’ and ‘well done’ and giving as much attention to all the students who do the right thing as to those who don’t.
The motivation to conform to expectations and to commit to facing the challenges of learning has got to be as much about the positive feelings that come from doing the right things as the desire to avoid negative consequences for not doing them. It’s not one or other. We need a bigger carrot and a more consistent stick (‘bigger stick’ sounds wrong!).
More discipline, yes – but discipline with love, warmth and kindness.