Culture beats make-believe in tackling school behaviour

I recently had the opportunity to see Tom Bennett speak about behaviour at the DSF conference in Perth. Oddly, although I have seen Bennett introduce a number of researchED conferences, I had never heard his signature behaviour talk and it was something pretty special. I think I am beginning to understand the role of school culture in a way that I had not previously fully appreciated. Bennett’s discussion was measured, nuanced and well-received by the teachers, special educators and speech pathologists in the audience. I can therefore understand why the UK government has appointed Bennett to oversee a ‘behaviour network’ to support 500 schools.

Predictably, this produced a mixed reaction on Twitter with behaviour ideologues objecting to Bennett’s appointment and his pragmatic approach. There were comments objecting to the entire concept of ‘bad behaviour’ or pointing out that all behaviour is a form of communication and what teachers really need to do is identify the underlying needs that cause that behaviour. No doubt, many young people face extreme challenges, but to deny them any agency is to deny them hope. Young people are not mindless drones, playing out an algorithm wrought from circumstance and neurological adversity, they are human beings capable of learning how to interact in a positive way and live a fulfilling life. The ideologues stand in the way of this by refusing to believe that young people have choices.

Coincidentally, two Australian news stories about behaviour broke at around the same time as the UK government’s announcement. In the first of these, Queensland’s Education Minister Grace Grace provoked the ideologues by suggesting that a rise in school suspensions was a good thing. Before reaching for the pitchfork, it’s worth examining her reasons for making such a comment. Grace pointed to a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to bullying and cyberbullying as being partly responsible.

School exclusions are a red flag to behaviour ideologues who have a radical approach to their version of ‘inclusion’ in which, presumably, students who humiliate and hurt other students should not be separated from their victims. Nobody particularly wants to see students excluded from school and if schools really are excluding students for frivolous reasons then they should be called to account. However, I am skeptical that this is the case. Clearly, many excluded students have needs that should be addressed and that stretched schools often struggle to cope with, but in my experience at least, exclusions usually arise from pretty extreme behaviours, even when the official reason given is something like ‘persistent disruption’. There is probably a worthwhile PhD in comparing the official reasons for exclusion with teacher and student accounts.

However, the research that the debate tends to draw on is of a different kind that regularly confuses correlation with causation. In a story by Henrietta Cook for The Age about a crisis bunker set-up by the Victorian government to monitor violence and aggression in government schools – 2100 reported incidents last year with 200 leading to police involvement – Cook quotes from a taskforce report that offers supposedly expert advice:

“There is a growing body of research showing that, used on their own, disciplinary approaches can worsen behaviour and have other unintended consequences… For example, Australian-led longitudinal research has shown that a student suspended from school is 70 per cent more likely to engage in violent behaviour at their 12-month follow-up.”

Is it really that surprising that students who have done something bad enough to be suspended from school are also more likely to engage in violent behaviour in the next year? Is anyone seriously suggesting that the suspension itself somehow caused this violent behaviour? Although there is no link to this report, I think we can guess what kind of experts wrote it.

In reality, in order to intervene with young people early, before they start behaving in extreme ways, we need to consider school culture and climate. There need to be rules, routines and procedures. This is not just about punishing bad behaviour, there are a range of positive interventions that schools can and do apply. However, children also need to learn that negative behaviours attract negative consequences, just as they do in the outside world or they will never be prepared for that world. In comparison to wider society, schools are actually extremely patient places where minor infractions are quickly forgiven in the context of learning.

When I listened to Bennett talk, it was all about how we can nurture such schools – schools that intervene positively in the sometimes chaotic lives of their students. But this is not to the taste of the ideologues who condemn schools with proactive behaviour policies in the strongest possible terms. They appear to adhere to some make-believe romance where all children are naturally good until let down by corrupt adults.

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One thought on “Culture beats make-believe in tackling school behaviour

  1. I’ve long since come to the conclusion that having a rational system of rewards and punishments is only a minor–albeit crucial–element in pupils’ behaviour and school climate. By far the most important factor is keeping pupils fully engaged in learning a worthwhile curriculum, which in turn entails an efficient system of objective assessment for accurate formative assessment and to confirm and consolidate learning.

    Objective assessments can motivate pupils to a degree that is never appreciated by teachers who’ve been trained to think of them as ‘stressful’–although of course they can be very stressful if teachers rely predominantly on minimally-guided instruction. When pupils know what they are supposed to be learning and teachers understand Rosenshine’s 10 principles, the results are inevitably rewarding for all concerned.

    Of course it can take some time to turn around pupils who’ve experienced very little but humiliation and failure in school. Unless you or your child has been there, it is very difficult to appreciate how soul-destroying it can be to spend one’s days learning very little and suffering the taunts of other children. Unsurprisingly, it’s relatively rare to run into pupils with good literacy skills who have serious behaviour problems.

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