Calling B.S. On Behaviour Management

I hate the term behaviour management. Hate. It.

Teachers who only look to manage student behaviour, condemn themselves to the role of glorified traffic cop. Taking responsibility for every individual movement and action of a class of 25–30 students across an entire school day is an exhausting and never-ending task. When teachers choose, and it is a choice, not to empower students to develop their self-regulatory and management skills, behaviour becomes the workload.

I’m not suggesting that a focus on behaviour education is any easier for teachers, I know from experience that it’s not, but at least there is light at the end of this tunnel. I believe that behaviour education creates positive problems. Opportunities to grow up, not just grow older. On the other hand, behaviour management can become an endless hamster wheel of rules upon rules, where little is learned other than how not to get caught.

An example of the difference between the two might be if I’ve noticed that Shazza (Sharon, for you non-Aussies) has spent the past little while doing far more socialising than collaborating with peers. If I’m an educator that staunchly believes that students must earn my respect but that respect must be given to me from the outset, then I might berate the student publically in front her peers, threaten a punishment, or just throw her out. If I trust the student to regulate behaviour and make a decision in their own best interest, I might quietly amble over and ask her to reflect on why she is distracted and what she plans to do about it? Is she bored? Confused? Needs a break? Or worst of all, dislikes the teacher? (sad face emoji). The ball is in Sharon’s court to remedy a solution. In our classroom, students are responsible for their behaviour and learning up to the point that they can’t or won’t be; then the burden falls back on me to ‘be the boss’ and make decisions for them.

I’m reasonably sure that in years five and six at primary school, I was strategically placed in the classroom with a direct access door to the assistant principal’s office. He was softly spoken and unlike my classroom teacher, showed an interest in me, so I found reasons to visit him often. I have fond memories of my early year’s teachers, how much they cared, their smiles, and I remember enjoying school. But as I approached the middle years, my only recollections are of teachers who yelled too much, didn’t seem to like me, and didn’t appear to enjoy teaching very much either. I distinctly remember one teacher would sit at her desk openly weeping in front of the class when we were particularly rowdy. I have to believe that this teacher had good intentions and did the best job she could, but was fighting an uphill battle trying to control a complex group of kids who wouldn’t be controlled. What can we do when faced with a large number of challenging students? I will discuss the Critical Mass Strategy in a subsequent blog post.

We had no real voice or choice over our learning, heck, we weren’t even allowed to go the toilet during learning time. I can remember many occasions that I desperately needed the loo only to be told to return to my desk. How were we going to develop the self-regulatory skills we would need as our worlds grew more complex, if we didn’t have agency over the most basic of needs? What I learned from this was that if there was no adult around to control me, it was game on. I wasn’t a bad kid, but I made more than my fair share of bad decisions which I carried right through high school.

Even now, as a teacher, I know educators that use similar strategies in an attempt to control and manipulate students, who use praise and punishment as weapons. Those who base grades on behaviour and compliance rather than achievement and understanding. Teachers who are so hung up on covering curriculum that they fail to see the incredible young people standing in front of them. Whose idea of student choice is allowing students to choose from four different worksheets. There is always a small percentage of students who either can’t or won’t be quietly compliant. When these children become bored, resentful or grow defiant, plan A, B and C in the behaviour management handbook usually involve excluding or exiting students and being sure to admonish or punish them again later for good measure. Like my middle year teachers, I’m sure these teachers mean well. Good intentions. Tough love. Call that type of practice what you will. I call it B.S.

I think it is relevant to pause here and state that I am in no way criticising any current or former colleagues, I too have been guilty of some of these actions in the past. I am, however, calling this practice out as an antiquated and inequitable. There is a significant distinction to be made here between being critical of practice versus the person. In footy terms, it is vital to play the ball, not the person. I’ve found that many educators avoid difficult conversations about practice because it is perceived as a personal attack. I genuinely believe that, for the good of students, we need to start becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable. I have been struggling for a few weeks to finish a blog post on this topic, but I am inspired by the words of Marian Dingle, a teacher in my Twitter PLN from Atlanta, Georgia.

I tell my students all the time that I will not ask them to do anything that I do not do myself. I thought that this was true, but it isn’t. I ask them to take risks, yet I have few of those conversations with them. I expect them to care for one another and be a family, but I don’t always push my colleagues to be better by questioning what we do and why. Pushing is ultimately an act of love. I’m not loving if I am afraid of discomfort.
— Marian Dingle (Journey of a Passionate Educator)

So I will push. I already cause problems for teachers who use carrots and sticks to elicit compliance. I encourage students to think critically about their learning and to respectfully challenge teachers if they are unsure about what or why they are learning certain things. We know it is difficult for students to engage in and retain learning when they can’t connect it to aspects of their own life. If anything, I’m critical of my students when they DON’T ask why often enough.

Encourage children to question everything. The truth is not passed on. It is continuously rediscovered and survives rigorous examination.
- Wilson McCaskill

But I also recognise that this can be a dangerous practice which has caused problems at times. For example, a former student who recently returned for a visit described being unceremoniously tossed out of a high school class for having the audacity to ask a teacher why. I have always felt that if I can’t justify why I do something, I shouldn’t be doing it. If that child’s parent had asked the same question, would the teacher have exploded with the same level of outrage? Educators that use positional authority are most likely to subscribe to the adage that young people should be seen and not heard when it comes to their learning. One of my challenges moving forward is how I help students advocate for their learning with different teachers or after they move on from our student centred classroom…

Teachers who rely on the false power of the principal’s office to solve behavioural issues, disempower themselves. Kids that fear making mistakes, lack success, or are made to feel stupid or inadequate, will look to destroy. Tearing down a lesson or winding up a teacher and getting booted out is a preferable option for some students when faced with failure. Sure, there are times when help from leadership or a trip to the office is warranted, but when teachers rely on this measure as a management tool, they do themselves and the student a huge disservice. These teachers fail to see that the only power that exists is the relationship. If the connection with the student is solely based on positional authority, good luck. We have difficult days in our classroom, but generally, students do the right thing and stick to our five guidelines. No rules, only a handful of agreements.

In our classroom, nothing we learn is more important than the way we treat each other, so if a behaviour gets to a point where it needs more than a reminder or subtle intervention, learning stops and we conduct a brief community circle. These happen regularly early in the year but almost never by the end. Students mostly do the right thing because they chose to. They honour their relationship with me, their classmates, and their classroom. It is far from perfect, but it works for us the majority of the time. But what to do when that one kid is hell-bent on self-implosion or classwide destruction?

You’re asking the right questions in a world where you will never find the “right answer”. Keep evolving. Keep being dissatisfied. Keep challenging yourself to reach that one kid. You’ll keep getting closer to that goal. But when you do, you’ll only find more questions that need to be answered.
— Aaron Blackwelder (via personal message).

Kids will run through walls for an adult that believes in them. I had a challenging time trying to reach that one kid this year who refused to work, pushed buttons of students and staff, and treated relief and NIT teachers like second class citizens. I kept reminding this student that we cared about them, and we wouldn’t give up on them, regardless of how poorly they acted. I gave this student time to be angry and confused. I didn’t push curriculum or work deadlines, just opportunities to learn. I gave them time to do nothing, to be bored. It was hard. There were times when a line was crossed, and reflection, repair, and restitution were required, but the focus remained on rebuilding relationships or creating greater empathy, not punishment. In class, we talk about being good people who sometimes make bad choices. Making a poor decision once is a mistake, doing the same thing multiple times is a habit, and bad habits must be replaced with good ones for growth to occur. When a student has a tough time at home and brings that baggage to school, what point is there in butting heads and making school another place to detest? Often what they really need is an ally. With time, I’m happy to say that this student turned it around and finished the year in a good place ready to move onto the next part of their learning journey.

I believe our job is to look past behaviour at what is being communicated. My 18-month-old has given me a crash course in non-verbal communication. He chats and garbles along in baby talk, which I’m sure makes perfect sense in his head, but my wife and I have little idea what he is saying. When he throws himself on the floor in a screaming heap, we don’t admonish him for being naughty, what parent would? We look past the tears and attempt to work out what the problem might be. Hungry? Dirty nappy? Tired? Then we intervene. At what age do we stop considering what a child might be communicating through behaviour and begin labelling them as naughty or lazy?

Besides the stick, the other tool in the behaviour management teachers arsenal is the carrot. This teacher will openly peddle sticker charts, raffle tickets, prizes, or possibly a ‘star of the week’. A.J. Juliani describes the problems he created when he introduced stickers, pizza parties, and tickets in his classroom. Teachers need to stop eliciting behavioural compliance through rewards because a child that will do good for a reward, can also be persuaded to do something bad for a reward. Alfie Kohn explains:

“What rewards and punishments do is induce compliance, and this they do very well indeed. If your objective is to get people to obey an order, to show up on time and do what they’re told, then bribing or threatening them may be sensible strategies. But if your objective is to get long-term quality in the workplace, to help students become careful thinkers and self-directed learners, or to support children in developing good values, then rewards, like punishments, are absolutely useless. In fact, as we are beginning to see, they are worse than useless — they are actually counterproductive.”
― Alfie Kohn, Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes

Initiatives like ‘star of the week’ drive home the troubling celebrity culture that is already deeply embedded in modern society. Another bugbear of mine is when teachers systematically assign awards to every student across the year to ensure no-one misses out. There is nothing wrong with awards, when they are genuinely earned through long-term effort, bravery and achievement. But by making sure everyone feels special, no one is. To me, acknowledging a student for an expected behaviour is farcical. Little Johnny gets a ceritificate for trying hard or speaking nicely to peers? Not in my class.

We regularly acknowledge effort, improved work habits, virtuous behaviour, random acts of kindness, and achievement in our class via community circles, but I don’t think I’ve ever given a merit certificate. I encourage students not to accept raffle tickets, stickers, and other bribes from colleagues or relief teachers. We talk regularly about doing the right thing because it is the right thing to do. I love hearing stories from students about when they have respectfully declined various bribes from teachers and the confusion that this action causes, “…but I have prizes!?!?” Wilson McCaskill discusses Gotcha’s — A Disaster Story in a troubling article.

Finally, my favourite behaviour management story comes from when I had not long moved to Adelaide and was doing the relief teacher circuit investigating different schools in my area. I rocked up to a year five classroom one morning and was met by a very enthusiastic student who was to be the bell monitor that week. ‘Uh, Bell what now?’ This student’s role was to keep a keen eye out for any infringement of the considerable class rulebook and to ring the bell for every infraction. So not only was this child not focused on learning, they disrupted the entire class by ringing that bloody bell every few minutes to draw attention to a minor behaviour that was probably better ignored. This situation lasted all of about 15 minutes before we waved goodbye to the bell, much to the shock of the class and the dismay and tears of the budding campanologist. Suffice to say I wasn’t invited back into that classroom.

If you’ve managed to read this post and disagree with most of what I have outlined here, then you will most probably enjoy this TER podcast from Dan Haesler interviewing Katharine Birbalsingh from The Michaela School (UK). Likewise, if you would like to hear a justification for the full pendulum swing towards behaviour management, it is a fascinating listen.

Part two of this blog post will examine how we develop social and emotional capabilites in students. Until then, thanks for reading.