Most people working in schools regard a certain level of bad behaviour as inevitable.
Of course, to some extent, this is true. Some children, particularly those diagnosed with some SEND needs, will always find it more difficult to adhere to rules than others. These children have the same entitlement to education as any other, which means unless there is unethical practice there will always be some undesirable behaviour in most school buildings.
Some go further, suggesting that ‘zero tolerance’ or ‘no excuses’ schools must be acting unethically because they set the bar too high for children with SEND. Invariably such schools respond by explaining that they do make adjustments when necessary and appropriate.
Yet hostility towards these schools remains, and I’m wondering whether this is because uneasiness about how reasonable it is to expect children to behave well at all times spreads much further than those with SEND.
If we, one hundred per cent style, asked adults to write a list of words to describe the positive personality characteristics of children in general I think it would contain lots of words like this: Creative. Enthusiastic. Imaginative. Curious. Questioning. Energetic. In contrast I’m pretty sure there’d be far less words like obedient, polite, diligent and respectful. It feels as if we wholeheartedly want children to have the qualities in the first list but are much more squeamish about those in the second.
If this is true, then unease about strict behaviour systems in schools may be partially explained by the belief they squash the innate virtues of children by forcing qualities upon them that many adults aren’t sure are really qualities at all. Forcing children to be obedient, polite, quiet and calm isn’t reasonable, the argument seems to go, because it is natural for them to be boisterous, enthusiastic, loud and lively. In short, we should let kids be kids, which means allowing them to behave in ways most natural to them.
The trouble is kids don’t stay kids for very long. Before you know it the Year 7 who cutely shouts out the answer while waving his hand is a Year 11 doing the same thing much louder and swearing defiantly when told not to because he’s done it so long he thinks it’s fine. As horrible as this is to face, face it we must; what may have started as excitedly calling out an answer, left unaddressed, can become outright defiance and hurtful verbal attack. And remember this hypothetical Year 11 is not alone. He’s sitting with lots of children who do the same because they too haven’t ever been made to stop. Sadly, in the same class but much less obvious will be lots of once-quiet-now-silent children who’ve learned that unless you’re willing to compete you don’t get to contribute at all.
For schools in communities in which children are expected, intuitively, to be obedient and polite the damage inflicted by a permissive classroom environment is mitigated, but for schools in contexts in which poor behaviour is normalised outside school the effects can be devastating.
As unpleasant as all this is, if it really were inevitable it wouldn’t be worth worrying about. After all kids will be kids. Boys will be boys. That’s just them. Just childish behaviour, really. After all what can you expect?
But it isn’t inevitable.
While it is probably fair to say that wherever they are from, on the whole, young people are more prone to making impulsive choices and less mindful of the consequences of their actions than adults are, expecting children to behave impeccably in schools isn’t unusual. During my years working in Ethiopia I often heard my colleagues refer to youth as ‘the fire age’, in which elders were expected to be more forgiving of mistakes by the young. This, however, did not mean tolerating open rudeness, swearing or drug taking. Instead it meant that when such activities came to light the adults responsible for addressing it would not punish a young person in the same way they would a grown up. For example, this might mean speaking to child’s parents if they were caught cheating on a test rather than immediately expelling them from the school. While children might choose to disobey authority they did respect it. Indeed children went to great lengths to hide negative behaviour from their elders and if caught were invariably mortified.
The problem is that we regard poor behaviour as part of being young, whether this be tutting, eye-rolling, interrupting or worse, we accept it and by so doing condone it. Every time we turn a blind eye to these apparently minor misdemeanours, or make excuses for them by saying “oh well they are fifteen”, then we create the impression that such rudeness is OK.
Some children who behave this way may grow out of it but many others will not.
This is not to say that traditional societies like Ethiopia have necessarily got this wholly right. Respect for authority and obedience does have a cost. But then so does a romanticised view of childhood that stands in the way of schools creating and enforcing rules which regulate the behaviour of their pupils.