In this post I want to explore some issues that emerge from debates about behaviour systems. This is based on my experience in numerous settings, including some challenging schools alongside others that are/were much more straight-forward. It’s not a definitive list – please feel free to add ideas via the comments.
Context is King and is not given enough weight in the debate. Every time someone says that anything short of ‘No Excuses’ means ‘Excuses’ – ie schools being apologists for low standards of behaviour – or someone is outraged by central detentions or rules about phones and uniform I want to shout: CONTEXT! If you’ve never taught a class where you felt students needed to be a whole lot more disciplined (dare I say obedient?) or, conversely, where students behave impeccably within a light-touch behaviour regime, it means you just haven’t seen how life is elsewhere. Don’t judge from afar or project from one context to another. That’s my advice.
Should a principle of optimum minimal enforcement apply?: No more and no less enforcement than is necessary to create a safe, positive learning environment. As I explore in my Bus Lanes assembly blog, rules without enforcement are not really rules. We all accept responsibility as community members for complying with the rules from which we all benefit; we also expect consequences when we break them. I don’t understand why some commentators baulk at the idea of enforcement of school rules. Do you want a smart uniform or not? Do you want students to arrive on time or not? That just doesn’t happen by itself in a lot of contexts.
At the same time, I have seen schools where I felt some rules were surplus to requirements; where giving more freedoms to students would have made lessons and corridors feel more natural, relaxed and normal without a negative impact on learning or safety. What do mature children behave like when they are relaxed, happy and kind and focused on learning? They chat, they laugh, they move from place to place easily – they don’t need to line up and walk in silence, for example. Context is King, of course.
There’s a big space between the act of compliance and the state of being compliant. I’ve written a (largely ignored) post about this here. We are not in the business of creating boot camps where students are supressed, repressed and inhibited, afraid to breathe. We don’t want compliant children in that sense. However, we do want children who recognise the authority required to run a safe, effective social institution full of potentially vulnerable young people. Compliance isn’t a dirty word; we all drive on the left; we comply because we see that it works for everyone. So does doing what your adult teachers ask you to in the pursuit of learning. Of course – this doesn’t mean that there’s no need for good relationships and mechanisms to deal with injustice.
Exclusions should be a system issue, not a school issue –but every school should be in that system. I’ve written about this before. Every school, surely, should play a role in providing safety-net provision so that we have the optimum match of provision to needs in any given community. Not every school can meet the needs of every child; some children are very difficult to provide for adequately because of the detrimental impact they have on others and this becomes unsustainable. Exclusion should not mean kicking kids out without taking responsibility for the next stage; it should be a process of initiating a transfer to more appropriate provision at that stage in their lives. It shouldn’t have to a one-way ticket. In that context, exclusion should not be a sign of failure on a school’s part – it is a system issue. At the same time schools should all be accountable to the community of schools for the nature and extent of their participation. It should be give and take; some schools are all take.
Bullying and disruptive behaviour are complex but when students cause unacceptable harm to others’ learning or wellbeing it has to be addressed regardless of circumstances. Circumstances might explain antisocial or dangerous behaviours but they don’t excuse them. I’m a firm believer that children are more likely to be let down by us having lower expectations of them when they live in disadvantaged circumstances – than by holding the same high expectations of them. There are often mitigating factors that need to be understood as far as possible. However, the very hard bit is that, sometimes, however tragic someone’s situation might be, it can become impossible to meet their needs as well as to protect the learning and safety of others.
6. Bottom Lines:
Without firm bottom lines, schools are not safe. I’ve been surprised to read of recent debates about exclusions for carrying weapons, for example. In my experience, it’s vital to hold some zero tolerance positions: Weapons; drugs; premeditated violent assault. Even here there can be grey areas depending on the evidence base. However, over the years I have been involved in permanent exclusions for each of these incidents and I’m 100% sure this was the correct course of action. Partly you want the students involved to learn a very firm life lesson but mainly you need to hold a firm line that acts as a clear deterrent to everyone else, even if the students concerned are simply being naïve rather than malicious. The stakes are too high.
7 Intervention Timescales:
Mental health and Ed Psych interventions are usually too slow to address short-term provision pressures. It’s always been a massive frustration to me that, in the formal proceedings that surround exclusions, there is a widely held position that interventions such as EP and CAMHS referrals must have been initiated with actions that follow before it can be said that the school has ‘tried everything’. But, sadly, my experience is that even the best of these processes is very slow, is heavily dominated by diagnosis over treatment and, often, the practical suggestions for schools are things that are already happening.
Meanwhile, as the multi-agency work operates over months and years, students can continue disrupting learning and creating difficulty for their peers and teachers on the scale of days and weeks. There’s a lot of lip service paid to these interventions in relation to the reality of their impact. That’s the rather jaded voice of bitter experience in several schools. It may be all peachy elsewhere.
Resource constraints or priorities often override principles in relation to in-house or external alternative provision. Ideally within a school community you’d have multi-dimensional provision for supporting students with learning needs, separate provision delivering proactive programmes specifically for meeting SEMH needs and separate provision for short term internal exclusion and again for emergency responses to in-class disruption. That’s largely unaffordable so schools seek external solutions – they’re pushed towards exclusion and awkward internal provision.
Behaviourism works – but only up to a point. You can get major gains through simple behaviourist choices and consequences approaches that train students into the habits of good behaviour. But where students become desensitised to repeated sanctions, the effect can wear off and some students – the pinball kids – don’t even respond in the first place, hitting the boundaries continually without the level of self regulation required. So, whilst these approaches are important, in some contexts, they are not enough and ever more strict regimes are not the answer.
10. Behaviour Systems need effective people.
Great systems require building both teachers’ behaviour management skills and running whole-school systems; not either or. I agree that teachers at every stage should be able to teach in a disciplined environment and that it’s the role of leaders to create that. However I’ve rarely seen this work in practice – even under ultra tight rigid regimes – unless the teachers are also developing their confidence and skill with assertive behaviour management. It’s just so much harder for leaders to remote control behaviour relative to the impact of a team of assertive teachers who build positive relationships. Similarly it’s rare to find impeccable behaviour in the absence of strong whole school systems that support teachers.
11. Conflicting ideals:
Stakeholders including parents, governors and even teachers can hold conflicting and competing ideals: a desire for optimal levels of discipline with no disruption or bullying and a desire for students to have freedoms and operate in a high trust culture. They ideals can be incompatible in practice: you can’t have it all. In particular you can’t have some rules for other kids that don’t also apply to your own. It’s a mistake to push for a strong system that involves sanctions as a lever and then lose your nerve when the numbers are high.
12. Mainstream SEND
This is a massively sensitive issue and rightly so. It’s simplistic to apply general ideas about mainstream SEND inclusion to students who fit in the Social, Emotional and Mental Health category – because of the impact they can have on others. Nobody will be happy to Perm-Ex a student with special needs – it’s always painful – but I’m never surprised by the figures showing the high proportion of exclusions that involve SEND students – because, by definition, a student whose behaviour puts them at risk of exclusion despite interventions, has SEMH needs and is placed in that SEND group. A lot of that correlation is circular; I find the outrage around this unhelpful because the cases I’ve known have all been complicated with exclusions justified.
Taking account of all the issues explored above, it’s often simply a case of not having the resources to meet a particular set of behaviour needs in a mainstream setting in a space where other children can also learn and be safe. Where schools work hard to be inclusive but end up making difficult decisions on exclusions, it’s frustrating for them to be lumped in with schools that abdicate responsibilities for supporting inclusion across a wider community of schools.
Where disruptive behaviours originate in specific learning difficulties or have social origins, we face the intervention timescale challenge. In my experience, schools have often held onto students longer than was healthy; for me, persistent disruption is a good reason for seeking new provision – too many other children can be affected if that doesn’t happen. I’m thinking of specific students. Too often this debate becomes a battle of virtues or it becomes taboo to suggest that some students need special provision – for schools to raise a flag and make the professional judgement that they cannot adequately balance the needs of all students with the needs of an individual. It’s a sad conclusion to reach; but it can be a legitimate one.
There has to be another way – and this requires a greater investment in high quality specialist alternative provision – internally or externally – that allows children to succeed and/or to return to the mainstream at a later point.