The key idea about behaviour that all teachers need to understand

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Behaviour is more a product of circumstance than we realise. We have a bias that systematically underestimates the role of circumstance in the behaviour of others. Instead, we are more likely to attribute it to fixed traits. This is known as the fundamental attribution error.

If we are driving and see a motorist pass through a stop light then we tend to think that motorist must be careless or that they think the law doesn’t apply to them. We imagine a nasty, boorish person.

Yet if we drive through a stop light ourselves then it’s because we are in a rush or we were distracted and didn’t notice the light had changed. 

The first explanation, the one we apply to others, is based on the personality traits of the individual. The second explanation, the one we apply to ourselves, is about circumstances. In reality, the second explanation is more likely to be accurate because behaviour is strongly influenced by the environment.

We need to bear this in mind in the classroom. When children misbehave, we can take this personally. We might imagine that they are arrogant, nasty, lazy or that they hate us. We discount the role of circumstance; what happened at recess or at home or the way the classroom has been set-up. When we underestimate the role of environment we underestimate our ability to affect behaviour by manipulating the environment.

To be clear, we still have moral responsibility for our choices. The motorist who passes through a stop light has broken the law and can expect a sanction if caught. Similarly, poor behaviour in school should attract the appropriate sanction. Understanding how poor behaviour arises does not excuse it.

However, if we understand behaviour better then we can deploy tactics to help prevent or defuse it. And this is much easier to do when we recognise the role of circumstance and stop taking this behaviour personally.

This won’t help much in a weak school culture where senior staff duck their leadership responsibilities and blame fixed traits of teachers for behaviour issues. But in a healthy school culture, recognition of the role of circumstance can lead to a calm, assertive and proactive approach to behaviour management. That’s what we should aim for.

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10 thoughts on “The key idea about behaviour that all teachers need to understand

  1. Chester Draws says:

    Certainly my classroom control became much better when, instead of getting focused on the poor behaviour itself, I started to look for the triggers of poor behaviour.

    • Exactly the same happened to me. I was lucky to have ‘assertive discipline’ training early in my career. It wasn’t perfect but it equiped me with strategies I had never learnt during teacher training.

  2. Mike says:

    My crowd control skills improved markedly when I learned to follow a simple axiom: never raise your voice unless it’s 100% necessary. In my early years I was roaring at them every lesson on the smallest pretext, and of course it quickly lost its impact and was first ignored, and then avidly anticipated by the kids (with the inevitable consequence that they would try to provoke it).

  3. Could it be that the ‘traditional’ classroom- rows of desks and the teacher at the front (at least for some of the time) is a better set up for establishing a ‘we’re here to work’ culture, than the open plan, bean bagged break out space style so favoured by the 21st century movement?

    • That’s certainly what I have found. In one challenging school where I worked, the new school building was given an open-plan art department. From memory, it was less than a year before partition walls were being installed.

  4. Pingback: Oppositional Defiant Disorder and DSM-5 | Filling the pail

  5. Pingback: Running a classroom and building relationships – Farnham Heath End School Teaching & Learning Hub

  6. Pingback: A quintessentially unhelpful article about behaviour – Filling the pail

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