No, it’s not a good idea to ignore bad behaviour, but here’s a better one

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UK newspaper, The Independent are reporting that, “Teachers should ignore low-level disruptive behaviour in the classroom to reduce it.” This is, apparently, based upon a University of Exeter Medical School study conducted by a Professor Tamsin Ford. Unfortunately, The Independent does not see fit to provide us with a link to the study and when I checked Google Scholar, I couldn’t find it. Without the details of the methods used, it’s hard to draw any conclusions.

However, even within the terms of the reporting in The Independent, it seems as if the headline may be a little misleading. The main strategy in the study seems to be the use of positive reinforcement or, as an old staffroom stalwart might describe it, ‘catching them being good’. This is an effective strategy and one that I recommend in my new book (which should now be available for dispatch, my publisher tells me).

The basic premise is that you highlight the students who are doing what you want: “Excellent work on this table – good to see you have all started the exercise.” This provides a cue to students on a different table who haven’t started the exercise. These other students then have the opportunity to get to work without having to lose face. I like this strategy a lot because it helped me with one of the most difficult classes I ever taught. I believe that it gives the classroom a more positive atmosphere and enhances the teacher’s authority by pointing out to the rest of the class the students who are doing what is expected rather than highlighting those who are not.

However, the idea that this is all you do and that you simply ignore poor behaviour is a nonsense.

The bottom line is that everyone in the class must start the exercise. If positive reinforcement doesn’t get them going then I would move over to the students who are not completing the task. Usually, physical proximity is enough to send the signal, but I will want to have a quiet word with any who still have not received the message. Ultimately, there will be a system involving a warning followed by graduated sanctions to back this up. This system doesn’t need to get a lot of use but it does need to be there.

Some people have qualms about positive reinforcement. They suggest that it involves praising students for what they should already be doing, rather than for something exceptional. They may also point to evidence against praise from self-determination theory. The idea is that if you praise someone for washing the dishes, they will lose intrinsic motivation for washing the dishes in the future. Alfie Kohn is probably the best know populariser of this idea.

However, there is conflicting evidence and there has been an ongoing debate in the literature. For instance, Cameron and Pierce (1994) found no negative impact of praise on intrinsic motivation and this then drew a rebuttal from Ryan and Deci (1996) of self-determination theory fame. This wasn’t the end of the matter and the debate persists. It may be that the argument is slightly at crossed-purposes and that we don’t benefit by conflating verbal reinforcement with cash payments and trying to analyse them all as rewards.

The bias of my own experience means that I am inclined to see the value in verbal reinforcement and I think this view is supported by a range of evidence, including from teacher effectiveness research. This may be a long bow to draw, but if Alfie Kohn was right, and his theory applied to dogs, then dog training would simply not work – the more treats and praise you gave the dog for sitting, the less likely the dog would be to sit in the future. Yes, humans are not the same as dogs, but it would be surprising if we were wholly different opposites.


13 thoughts on “No, it’s not a good idea to ignore bad behaviour, but here’s a better one

  1. Tom Burkard says:

    The analogy with dogs is beside the point, as Pavlov showed. Even when the reward is not food, it is still associated with food, so the praise adresses a physical need. With pupils, it’s rather different; as Robin Alexander commented in his 1991 report on a primary school initiative in Leeds, children may begin to see routine praise “as so much mere noise”. Even worse, they may see it as the mouthings of an insecure teacher trying to buy their cooperation. Rather, it is more likely to buy complacency or even contempt. My rule has always been to limit praise for performance over and above the call of duty–then, there is never any doubt whatever that the praise is sincere.

    • I think there is a difference between praise for going above and beyond the call of duty and saying, “Good to see this table have got stuck in.” The latter is not a sign of weakness. Far from it. It points out to the rest of the class that students are following your instructions. Until someone can point me to definitive evidence against, I will keep doing it because there is evidence to support the practice and I personally find it very useful.

    • My experience has been that it depends partly on the age of the students, i.e. whether they would see praise from the teacher as something genuinely valuable to them or as almost an embarrassment in front of their peers. That’s a judgement call that probably requires familiarity with the class.

      Ignoring low-level misbehaviour sounds…unpromising to me. Constantly harping on minor misbehaviour is a mistake, yes. But allowing it to accumulate is a recipe for problems later on, IMO.

  2. I only half agree with Tom on this. Certainly, some rookie teachers, insecure and doubting, delivering half-hearted or frequently repeated praise may be seen as weak. But as the great Frank Carson used to say, “It’s the way you tell ’em.”
    Positive praise was very much a feature of Sig Engelmann’s programme and, like you, Greg, I’ve always found very effective the kind of graduated approach you advocate.
    On my recent trip to Australia, a number of teachers watching my lessons remarked specifically on how powerful the effect on students was when, locking eyes with them, I’d single them out for specific feedback and praise for something they’d responded to. Not only does it motivate the particular student but it also has a ripple effect. But then some would say that it might have been the ‘novelty value’ of having someone new in the classroom.

  3. …The bias of my own experience…

    Don’t sell yourself short…in my view, lessons from one’s own experience tend to be a good deal freer of bias than most research in the area of education – because one is looking to find what works best, rather than looking to confirm one’s own pre-existing theories.

    • Tom Burkard says:

      Too true. Teachers seldom have enough time to conduct their own research, and it’s surprising how rarely they’re consulted. On one hand, we have research conducted by professional educators whose experience in the classroom ranges from limited to non-existent. On the other, we have much more objective research by psychologists and cognitive scientists, whose teaching experience is normally limited to level 7 qualifications and above. Although I’m far more likely to consult the latter, context is so important that the best advice you can give to NQTs is as you say. Or as Bob Dylan put it, ‘Don’t follow leaders–watch your parking meters’.

  4. Michael Pye says:

    I thought the effectiveness of praise was linked to specificity.
    That’s amazing Jaspreet is not very helpful compared to, I like how you set out that equation Jaspreet so you could solve this tricky question step by step. Or even better, I am seeing some well laid out equations that are allowing the problem to be dealt with one mouthful at a time ( reference terrible how to eat a elephant joke to get a cheap laugh). A quick glance and a smile to the right students communicates that you know who they are.

    Thought this was were you were going with this when you talk about positive feedback.

  5. John Pierry says:

    The study is looking at the effectiveness of something called the “Incredible Years” program (yes, I’m gagging on that title, too) and observing teachers who had learned behaviour management techniques through that program, as well as teachers in a control group who had not received the training (the observers didn’t know which was which). Looks as though the training was effective, but that part of the study showed that the trained teachers were able to “let go” of minor indiscretions and not get caught up in them, and that in the long run it was more effective.

    From the description you have given of your own teaching techniques, Greg, it seems they are not too dissimilar from those outlined in the the training that was studied. My take of it is that we need to move away from “Broken Windows” thinking (a Giuliani concept that has since been discredited).

  6. LisaM says:

    Just the beginning of the PBIS nightmare. My son’s 2 schools were involved with this K-5, 6-8. It works K-2 or K-3, but then it just becomes a nightmare as the older kids catch onto the game. By the time they get to middle school, these kids are awful! The research is now suggesting that this “system of rewards” sets off hormones in the brain that are the same hormones associated with addictions to gambling, drinking/drug abuse, gaming etc. I pity these poor children and I wonder how they will make it in the world because they certainly are NOT good and decent human beings. Many parents who have caught onto the game are now abandoning public education for their high school aged children who have been subjected to this un- tested experiment….I am one of them. PBIS does have limited merits for younger children, but it has developed into a full blown “program” that is only benefitting the company peddling the wares. Buyer Beware and do your research before you start down this dangerous path.

  7. Chester Draws says:

    There’s two sorts of low level behaviour, and they should not be confused.

    Kids break rules all the time, because they aren’t in full control. Punishing those offences sharply does little good. If I reduce the minor swearing in my classroom (when talking to friends) it improves their learning not a bit. If I go overboard in class time about uniform violations it actually decreases learning time (that’s for form time and breaks).

    But there is also low level behaviour that will escalate. So I am harsh on throwing things, even if it was a joke. I don’t let students put others down, even if it’s funny at the time. Those things escalate to be serious problems if unchecked. You need to be harsh on them or you will lose control.

    A rule about “letting little stuff go” assumes all little things are equal. They are not.

    • John Pierry says:

      I am harsh on throwing things, even if it was a joke. I don’t let students put others down, even if it’s funny at the time.

      Completely agree, but I wouldn’t label those two “low level” – there’s a genuine potential for harm. If other children are “harmed” rather than just “bothered” then it has stopped being low level.

      • Chester Draws says:

        When I say I am harsh on throwing things, that means *all* things for *any* reason. A person throwing a pencil to a mate who needs one. A water bottle to a thirsty friend. Screwed up paper into the waste basket.

        No harm is intended in any of these. Most people regard them, as I do, as very low level. Yet if throwing is seen as acceptable, things will be thrown.

        So I permit no throwing, even if it bothers *no-one*.

        That’s not to say I punish for it. Just that it is low level behaviour I stop as soon as I see it.

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