(Many people reading this will certainly know about effective behaviour management strategies and my ramblings will seem like old hat – apologies, but…well, what are blogs for if not to cogitate out loud.)
I met up with an old teaching pal in the holidays, and we got into a discussion about children’s behaviour. It wasn’t long before my old friend poured out her frustration about what was going on at her school detailing how challenging the behaviour had become in this first term. Not an unusual story from any teacher working in an inner- city school. However, it wasn’t long before I realised that her main problem seemed to be the behaviour of some of the adults, and perhaps more so than the children.
It was clear to me that many of the support staff she described were stuck in the belief that behaviour management is about giving out punishments and exacting revenge on poorly behaved children with a view to this improving behaviour? My friend described support staff, and also teachers, who escalated challenging behaviour through their short-sighted belief that consequences for poor behaviour needed to be immediate, publicly humiliating and a very negative experience for the perpetrator. I recognised this because I have experienced this myself and to an extent that I describe it as toxic.
It all came flooding back to me as I recalled the routinely angry, frowning faces of teachers at my secondary school when children sort their attention in any way they could, fulfilling their teachers’ short-sighted prophesies that these were bad kids destined for bad things. And while this might sound like a Dickensian scene from Hard Times, with one Gradgrind welding his cane high above small heads, this toxic attitude to children displaying challenging behaviour only needs to be held by a few adults for it to ignite into a spiral of negativity that gets worse and worse. This can reach a level so low that the relationship between pupils and adults is so toxic that even being together in the same room becomes a catalyst for poor behaviour.
I know this because I was that pupil who could enter a classroom, register the expectant expression on the teacher’s grim face and know that whatever happened, I would live up to his expectations, threats and humiliations with whatever disruption I could create. Yet, when I walked into another lesson, I could see a smile and experience a shower of positively that would refuse to let my negativity take over. They would not rise to my bait, (which might have been anything from tapping the desk repeatedly, flicking things at neighbours, humming, giggling and sighing so loudly they could hear it next door), but instead they met every cry for attention, every demonstration of insecurity disguised as nonchalance, with an attitude that although firm, clear and decisive was highly positive and positive about me. This was because teachers like this didn’t make my behaviour about them. Whatever they thought inside, and I’ve no doubt they were intensely annoyed by my antics, they exuded care, calmness and strength. I could not get under their skin.
Challenging behaviour is frustrating and sometimes even frightening. I’m not saying that underneath we don’t feel deep irritation and annoyance when children disrupt lessons, we do, we’re human, but most of the time it serves no one well to show this emotionally. Teaching is as much about the image you bring to the classroom as it is the skills and knowledge you teach. If the image pupils have of you is of someone who is unruffled by challenging behaviour and who really does care how pupils feel then you will get a very different response from even the most angry, unruly children.
I once taught in a school where one boy regularly stood and turned the whole table over before kicking his chair across the room. What I learnt, and I think intuitively knew from my own more low-level behaviour as a pupil, was that meeting that kind of explosion with yet another explosion only creates one big blast! At that school, I learnt that while all behaviour must have consequences, and we need to teach that to children, consequences don’t need to be given immediately and often when they are they only serve to escalate already heightened emotions, when far better to calm things down, then talk about penalties when everyone is cooler. I’ve watched people get themselves into such a knot by listing the consequences to a child, while the child is getting angrier and angrier and more out of control:
“Right, do that again and you’ll have no play today!”
“Ok, right no play!”
“Carry on and you’ll go to Mr Jones!”
“And you’ll have no golden time…. It’s going to be a great one this week as we’re making biscuits too…”
“How dare you act like this is class. And if you break that pencil your parents will pay for it”.
“Don’t you shrug your shoulders or roll your eyes at me either!”
This kind of response to challenging behaviour is just a ridiculous tit-for-tat approach to the situation. The adult here is actually encouraging the child to carry on. Go on, I dare you! It’s like a duel of who can do the worst to each other, and the picking up of the secondary behaviour like breaking a pencil or shrugging shoulders is the icing on the cake. It’s just foolish. Sadly, over my years of teaching, and visiting different schools, I’ve seen quite a few seemingly sensible adults take this approach when children are losing it. I’ve also seen adults get right up into pupils’ faces when issuing these kinds of threats and then they wonder why suddenly pupils are tipped over into a whirlwind. It’s as if some adults have watched too many episodes of Prisoner Cell Block H. Think about it, would you do anything for anyone if they threatened you and from a distance two inches from your face? It’s never going to end well, is it?
I remember at this one school; a teaching assistant would regularly come and find me in the staff room to report on what so and so had done. Straight away she would list his crimes and all the rude things he’d said, clearly wanting a reaction from me at the severity of the child’s misdemeanours. Every word was full of sensation, desperate for me to be shocked and outraged and for me to come back with a list of punishments that would follow. In my head, I would say to myself – ‘he’s got to you and now you want to get him back’. And who would deny that this isn’t a natural feeling that anyone would have when a child has been really rude, refused to do what you ask and ruined your lesson. The trouble is – it never works if you come at behaviour from that place. Whereas if you come at it wanting to help that child learn from the situation, learn to manage their emotions then something different happens. Adults dealing with challenging behaviour need to put all their focus on the child, helping them to understand where they’ve gone wrong and how they can make things right again. I wish someone had done that to me much more when I was that agitated young kid.
So, it was with sadness that my friend described all this when talking about her new school.
“It’s as if some of the adults are children themselves,” she lamented. “It’s like they seem to think managing behaviour is about being victorious!” And she was right.
What some people forget is that all behaviour is a form of communication. It’s important to think to yourself, ‘what is this child trying to tell me?’ Sometimes, it might be that they are saving their own self-esteem because it would be better to cause a stink and get sent out than to sit, struggle and fail at yet another learning activity. Sometimes, it might be that they are still holding onto the fact that Fred pushed them while coming into class and no one noticed and now Fred is smiling to himself. Sometimes they just don’t know how to sit in their own skin and need attention in any way they can get it. Other times, it’s more straight forward, they had no breakfast and they’re too hungry to focus so all they can do it kick out, or it could be they had two hours sleep because of the noisy neighbours or parents arguing. All too often, you will find that there is a reason other then just ‘being naughty’ when children display behaviour above and beyond usual classroom antics. It might seem an insignificant trigger too sometimes, but will mean everything to that child: “You told us to line up in order and Joe didn’t, then when I tried to tell you, you told me to be quiet and you didn’t do anything, then Joe laughed at me.” Things can seem so meaningless to us, but it’s everything to them – it’s their day, their world. Some children have the resilience to let things go, some haven’t learnt to do that yet and they need to learn what to do when they feel an injustice as happened. What is the they right thing to do when you feel something isn’t fair? What is the right thing to do when you feel bored? When you feel anxious or stressed? What about learning to recognise when you are starting to feel stressed in the first place? I wish someone had helped me like that at school.
Above all though, whatever they throw at us (literally and figuratively) it’s vital we show them that we care and we want them to thrive and succeed at school… and at life.
And they can miss their playtime later…