The evidence against managing children

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In a recent post, I referred to a podcast interview with Dr David Armstrong. Armstrong’s contention was that we should stop attempting to manage children’s behaviour. He compared it to managing finances or cans of beans, claiming that this was dehumanising. Armstrong went on to suggest that we target teaching at children’s individual interests and perhaps even plan around those interests.

I instantly recognised this as a version of the long-running argument that has played out between educational progressivism and traditionalism. Since at least the beginning of the 20th century, progressivists have forcefully argued for following children’s interests and traditionalists have argued that all content is not equal and so proceeding in this way will lead to a degraded curriculum. Progressivists have called for what the 1960s Plowden report into U.K. primary education described as ‘permissive discipline‘ – there is no need for behaviour management strategies because students will behave well provided they are doing something they love and that is suited to their particular level of development. Traditionalists tend to suggest that quality education can be tough and unrewarding at times and so students need to be pushed along.

Readers of this blog will be well-versed in this clash of philosophies and will have their own view of where along the progressivist-traditionalist continuum they lie. But what made Armstrong’s interview intriguing was the claim that his position is evidence-based. This is a strong claim that draws to mind evidence-based practices in medicine based upon randomised controlled trials. I was interested to understand how a position that I view as essentially ideological could be framed in this way. And so I asked David Armstrong about this on Twitter.

To his great credit, Armstrong replied pretty quickly with a number of links. He also referred to his book but, unfortunately, I don’t have a copy of that. The links he provided are here, here, here and here (one didn’t work).

Although short, the first paper, by Paul Cooper, summarises a number of kinds of intervention that can be effective for students with behavioural difficulties. He looks at the evidence suggesting that positive relationships and teachers’ personal warmth are important. He outlines the various types of behaviour intervention available and the longest discussion is about behaviourist methods that seek to modify behaviour through external measures and antecedents.

One such behaviourist scheme is The Good Behaviour Game: Each class is divided into two teams, any time a member of a team misbehaves then the team is awarded a point, and the team with the fewest points at the end of the day gets a reward (sometimes both teams can get a reward if they are below a certain number of points). The evidence suggests it works but I would not feel comfortable using it because the grouped withdrawal of the reward amounts to a collective punishment and I think that’s wrong.

Another behaviourist intervention is Response Cost: Each student starts out with a number of points or tokens and each time he or she misbehaves, a point is taken away. Rewards are then given to students who have a certain number of points remaining.

I am an advocate of using behaviourist approaches to managing behaviour, even if I am not particularly keen on these ones. Yet whatever you think of them, they epitomise an approach of managing students’ behaviour.

The other experimental results outlined in Cooper’s paper relate to ‘cognitive behavioural’ (CB) interventions loosely based on cognitive behavioural therapy. The results are promising but many of the sample sizes for the experiments are tiny, typically involving 2-4 students. CB interventions are essentially a form of therapy that seeks to make students aware of negative feelings and patterns of thinking so that they can better control them. I am cautious about such an approach in the classroom. Teachers are not trained therapists and they have other objectives to achieve such as the teaching of reading and maths. I can readily accept that such interventions may work with small groups of students in a focused environment but that’s almost a call for specialist provision. If inclusion is our goal then we need ways of delivering effective interventions in regular classrooms.

On the whole, I thought this was an very good paper on the subject but I couldn’t see how it supported Armstrong’s contention that we should not seek to manage behaviour, given that all the strategies mentioned had the goal of managing student behaviour.

The second link is to an entry in the Encyclopedia of Behavioural Medicine that seems, from the references, to have something to do with getting patients to stick to their treatment regimes or give up smoking. I couldn’t quite figure out the relevance to classroom practice.

The third link is a review of evidence-based practices for children with autistic spectrum disorders (ASD). It focuses on a range of outcomes such as play and communication, rather than being restricted solely to challenging behaviours. Again, behaviourist approaches feature heavily in the list of practices alongside CB interventions and, again, I am left wondering about the applicability of some of the methods to the classroom. The fact that behaviourist interventions – such as a reward or the withdrawal of a reward – seem to work generally, as well as in the specific case of children with ASD, suggests that they may have some classroom applicability. However, I was unclear about how all of these interventions were enacted. For example, would an approach that involved individual instruction be one that could be applied in a regular classroom?

The final link is a paper by Armstrong himself. It is not really a review of evidence, more a subjective identification of ‘wicked problems’ such as, “The adverse flow-on effects of neo-liberal educational policies on children or young people with disabilities.” This is fine, but I don’t think it adds anything in terms of evidence-based practices.

So I am still keen to understand the data that supports the arguments made by Armstrong in his interview. Unless I’ve missed it, I can’t see the evidence against managing children or in support of tailoring teaching to their individual interests. Instead we have lots of evidence on how to manage students most effectively. Yes, Armstrong grudgingly admits that behaviourism can work if you just want students to ‘comply’ but where is the evidence to support the approaches that he is more enthusiastic about? Is his really an evidence-based position or is it a philosophical and ideological one? There is nothing wrong with it being the latter as long as we all recognise it as such.

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8 thoughts on “The evidence against managing children

  1. I dislike the term ‘behaviour management’–it implies that whatever pupils do has no moral dimension, and that teachers merely need the right professional skills to manipulate them. This is not only wrong, but stupid: children have a strong sense of right and wrong, or ‘fairness’. They respect adults who also have a strong moral sense, and the will to dispense justice. They also respect teachers who believe their subjects are worth learning and are good at teaching them.

    Thinking back over the years to all the teachers I’ve had, in schools or elsewhere, the ones who had the highest standards of behaviour very seldom used sanctions of any sort. However, no one ever doubted that they were there if the situation demanded it. Whether they had the ‘warmth’ valued by Dr Armstrong was neither here nor there: children can easily sense when a teacher is not comfortable with being the boss.

    1. That is almost certainly true Tom, but it kind of misses the point for most teachers.

      Of course the best teachers were clearly in control. That made them the best teachers. Experts make things that are difficult look easy, pretty much by definition.

      But how did they get there? Because it’s a rare person who starts with the ability to naturally manage a class. I’ve had a few student teachers and they pretty much uniformly were unable to calm a room which they had lost due to some issue (appearance of a wasp, fight in the yard before class, funny comment by a cheeky student, etc).

      Great teachers work a class. They don’t just exude some magic aura. They are in control because they work hard at staying in control. And that means managing behaviour (albeit early, before others spot where it might lead).

  2. This exemplifies something many have noticed about what educationists consider “evidence”. I.e., that it is quite often the published, at times peer reviewed, writings of peers who express what amount to professional opinions or (in some cases we might more charitably say) carefully thought-out analysis or theory. Not to say it never involves empirical data, only that this can be present but is often quite weak. So “research shows that” often means, when such persons are drawn out, “Some experts I agree with have peer-reviewed analysis pieces in which they assert that”.

    1. I’ve slowly come to realise this over the years. Hiding behind the smug “read the research” put-downs which Ed academics use as a form of armour is the expectation that no-one will check this “research” too closely.

  3. I wouldn’t for a moment deny your observations, but to some extent this is due young people going straight from uni to teaching. As one trainee replied when asked what she knew about children, she said she wasn’t sure, but “until very recently I was one”.

    But the main problem is that we live in a society that is distinctly nervous about authority, and this is reflected in the management structure of a modern school, where everyone is in charge of everyone else. Having parallel lines of authority–line managers, heads of year, heads of department–is a reflection of that insecurity. On top of this, ITT and CPD is normally based upon a child-centred ideology which specifically asserts the ‘right’ of children to participate in decision-making. This is enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (Article 12, to be exact).

    Sadly, one thing a child is no longer entitled to is the care and nurturing of adults who have clear beliefs of what is right and what is wrong. Instead, we decide that ‘behaviour management’ is a professional skill. Rubbish. Once you enter the world of work, you either behave as your employer expects, or you leave. This is true even in teaching; despite the muddied lines of authority (which conveniently exempt SLT from responsibility), a teacher who doesn’t play the game won’t last long. We do children no favours when we excuse misbehaviour–particularly when they live in dysfunctional homes. They are even more in need of order in their lives than others.

    It needn’t be this way. I’ve visited many schools where the head had no hang-ups about authority, and this creates a positive and relaxed atmosphere in every class. They are happy schools; kids thrive when adults are in charge. At one such school I was left alone in the school library with all the year 11 pupils, one of whom hit the nail on the head: after mentioning that he had been to a typical primary school “where anything goes”, he commented that “classes are much more interesting when your teacher isn’t stressed out”.

    It’s a pity that most teachers never have a chance to find out how easy teaching is if you don’t have this stress. This is no doubt why Michaela Community School is regarded as an existential threat by the education establishment.

  4. Another issue here is whether, by claiming his ideological position was evidence based, David Armstrong lied. i.e. deliberately said something he knew not to be true) and what it means for education that no educationalist would ever be held to account for such behaviour. Educationalists seem to have power without responsibility.

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