Why ’good behaviour’ can lead to inequity

The debate around behaviour in schools is perennial, and just as we said in the podcast episode on behaviour, we will not have time to fully discuss all of the various elements of the debate in this post. What I have to say about behaviour in schools could make up a whole book on its on, so I will continue to post on the subject in the coming weeks. I feel that returning to the discussion to revise and review viewpoints will be worthwhile. My views on this change regularly depending on my experiences in school and the new challenges I am faced with in my leadership role in a school.

For the purpose of clarity, I want to say up front that I am an advocate of restorative practice and a collection of approaches towards ‘behaviour’ that allow children’s dignity to remain intact and that has relationships front and centre. I openly criticise overly punitive, zero-tolerance measures to ‘manage’ behaviour that prioritise an inflexible tariff of consequences. This is down to what I see as the purpose of education (which I recently wrote about here). I believe that Education is a democratising and liberating force that can help children to change themselves and the world rather than conform and reproduce status quo. This is important in this discussion and I urge you to reflect on your answer to the purpose question as it will impact on your views on behaviour.

From my experience, discussion with colleagues, reading current literature and analysis of policy, I would say that in Scotland there is a tangible shift towards nurturing, child-centred, rights-respecting approaches towards behaviour that align closely with my own view. Inclusive policies give me license to pursue the restorative approach I discuss above. The work of popular edu-authors and speakers like Paul Dix (When the adults change everything changes) and the awareness of trauma informed practice and adverse childhood experiences in Scotland has changed the narrative. Most schools no longer remove golden time from children or place their name on the grey cloud to ridicule and embarrass them into behaving better. Behaviourist approaches now seem like out-dated practice that is almost universally lambasted, certainly it is in my immediate professional circles.

The principles of nurture are also well understood in schools across Scotland, the main principle brought into this discussion is often “all behaviour is communication”. Educators seek to understand rather than be understood when it comes to behaviour (or at least there is an awareness of the importance of this). I have first-hand experience of some exceptional practice in this area. Robust packages of support, and huge levels of effort, determination and collaboration have gone into changing the lives of children who would, in a more traditional approach to behaviour, have been excluded and/or done serious harm to themselves and others. With an approach centred on forgiveness, understanding and an educative approach to behaviour – I know that a long term impact can be made. I have seen this work, and the implications are literally life changing.

The ‘problem’ with this approach is that it is hard. VERY hard. It takes a large degree of understanding and professionalism. This is not an approach that is ‘efficient’. There is no linear route to more regulated, consistently calm behaviour. It is a mix of complex, nuanced and fluid approaches that change daily and vary in terms of success. There will be a lot that does not work and certainty of any kind (in terms of children’s behaviour) is almost non-existent. This is not a post of my top 10 approaches to managing behaviour or the silver bullet that will cure all behaviour issues. From my experience there is no list or single strategy that works. This uncertainty and unpredictability inevitably has an impact on other school priorities. It is therefore paramount to view this as values-led practice, as mentioned when questioning your purpose. It is necessary, when approaching behaviour this way, to interrogate what your values are as a school. What do you value above all else? Do you value things like; acceptance, forgiveness, understanding of differences and inclusion? If so then it is important to be upfront and explicit about this. Celebrate your intent. Shout it from the rooftops. I find having a clear rationale for why you are adopting a certain approach, makes it easier when times get tough. Use it as a mantra to repeat to yourself when you find yourself wanting to resort to the path of least resistance. Shouting at a child, or forcing them to apologise may make you feel better in the moment, it may even feel like the ‘right’ thing to do, but does it really meet the longer-term values that you hold dear? Values are what keep me motivated, and keep me coming back every day to continue to try to make a difference. I believe that schools should be judged by how they treat the most vulnerable learners in the community. How those who are facing adversity, in any shape or form, are supported to overcome this. Universal and unquestioned compliance and conformity is not something I aim for in education. These statements express my values to a degree and are hugely significant when interrogating my approach towards behaviour.

Another reason this approach is hard though is because it appears to favour or prioritise the children who are facing barriers at the expense of those who are not. There are children who ‘behave’ as expected every day, without prompt or correction. “It’s not fair on everyone else” is a completely natural reaction, and one that I have wrestled with myself. To a certain extent I agree. Children who are disrupting the learning of many through their behaviour are illustrating a situation that is unfair. But, when I reflect on this, my sense of injustice comes from the inequality inherent in the system, not from the behaviour of individual children. I find it helpful to adopt a social model of analysis here rather than a medical model. The social model focuses on the environment and all contributing factors to a child’s behaviour, looking for alternative approaches that involve many variable factors. The medical model looks to problematise the individual, isolating the concerns to the child – removing them from external influences. For me nothing in education exists in isolation.

If we accept a system that is engineered towards comparing children, heavily focussed on qualification and progress in learning, where efficiency is valued highly while at the same time focussing on the actions of individuals, then disruptions to this will be seen as unfair. But how ‘fair’ is the system to begin with? Quite often, what we value as ‘good behaviour’ are the behaviours of well-off, middle-class, neurotypical children who have not experienced trauma or adversity. By this I mean, sitting quietly, listening, taking turns, resolving conflict with words, being polite etc. In this sense, schools operate to reinforce these societal norms as preferred behaviours. But whose cultural norms are they? Who sets the tone for these being ‘good behaviours’? In our current school system, If you behave this way, you will succeed at school, if not then you are in need of correction, and statistically are more likely to fail – by almost every proxy of success in our current system. These behaviours are preferable because they are beneficial for a very particular type of education. What happens when the environment and expected behaviours change? For example, how many people have witnessed a child’s behaviour completely change (in a positive way) when on a residential experience for example?

My issue here is that our education system as a whole perpetuates a system of the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’. If tolerance, acceptance and flexibility are not built into the system, and we have a narrow view of what ‘good behaviour’ looks like, then there are always going to be children who fail. My point in this post is that instead of trying to achieve conformity through force, which we know is simply out of reach for some children, that we should try to redesign the system to better suit the needs of those children finding it hard. Ian Gilbert, in the fantastic book ‘Working Class’, reflects on Paulo Freire’s work, in a way that is quite significant in this discussion.

“Your time is better spent not fighting me to change me but fighting to change the conditions in which a ‘you’ and a ‘me’ arose and which continue to perpetuate such a division”.

This is why I am proud of the work I have been a part of in my career which prioritises system change within a school in favour of children who can’t, for various reasons, succeed in the more traditional approach towards behaviour. By changing a system to be more inclusive and which respects every child’s rights and access to education I feel that we are challenging the inequality we see throughout society, and that we are contributing to a more socially just culture and community.

If all behaviour is communication, then that applies to the adults in the system too. What are you communicating through your behaviour as an adult when you are helping children learn how to behave? What are you communicating about your values and your approach to tackling inequality? What do your actions communicate about your beliefs and what you hold dear?

This debate is highly contentious and emotional. Your personal beliefs around this will be impacted on by so many elements of your life (your politics, your own experiences, your beliefs on the purpose of education and many more) meaning that there is going to be disagreement with what I have discussed here. I encourage this. I hope that this provokes discussion and debate. Ultimately though, I believe that as an education system we need to openly discuss this from a values based perspective because it has a profound impact on the lives of the children and young people we serve.

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