“Taylor, that’s a warning, I’m putting your name on the board. Jamal I know you talked while I was writing Taylor’s warning on the board so your name is going on the board too. Yes, Jamal, I know Stacey talked too so I’ll write her name on the board beneath yours. Stacey, that’s a C2 for swearing at Jamal for telling me you talked. Phillipa, I know that swearing is a C3 but I’m the teacher so I decide. Yes, Taylor, I agree everyone is talking now. Class, you are all on a warning now and Taylor, Jamal and Stacey you are now all on a C2. Martha, stop arguing with me or you’ll get a detention. Right, Martha you have a detention and I’m writing up a C4 on the board for you now. Shut up everyone I know she didn’t get a warning but she shouldn’t have argued. Anyone who talks from now on gets a detention. Right, that’s it, whole class detention after school tomorrow. Anyone who doesn’t come will get two hours.”
Of course, this is not supposed to happen. The whole point of school behaviour strategies is to avoid fiascos like this one. One of the first documents given to new staff, they usually seem sensible and clear, and are reassuring to less experienced teachers understandably anxious about bad behaviour. Typically they offer a graduated hierarchy of rewards and sanctions which, if followed consistently, should create a smooth, stress-free classroom in which learning flourishes.
Unfortunately they very often deliver far less than they promise and inexperienced teacher can often find using their school’s system causes more problems than it solves. On asking for help they are typically told the system is sound and any issue is in their implementation. Common criticisms are that not enough positive points are being handed out, or that they are issuing too many sanctions. New and nearly new teachers, who lack the experience to question what they are taught by more senior colleagues believe this and spend time and energy trying to become fully compliant with their school’s policy. If the policy is indeed robust this can work well but, as is often the case, it is in itself actually defective then such changes to practice just lead to further inconsistency and disruption.
In part one of this post I would like to discuss why so many apparently sensible and well thought out positive behaviour policies are actually inherently flawed before, tomorrow, going on to what teachers can do when they find themselves working in places with ineffective strategies. This post, when fully developed and revised, will be one of the chapters of a book I’m writing on how rank-and-file teachers can be most effective when working in flawed contexts.
Before working out why any strategy might not be working it is first fair to make sure the problem is with the system and not you. Some clear indicators that the problem might lie close to home would be that everyone else in the school is using it faithfully, and that levels of reward and sanction are pretty consistent between teachers. It might also be worth checking that you are issuing the higher sanctions (e. g detentions), as often solid systems fall apart if children learn their teacher is reluctant, for whatever reason, to hand these out when behaviour clearly warrants it. In schools where behaviour systems operate effectively senior leadership probably will not be concerned about the number of sanctions you issue and will not aggressively question you over why you thought these necessary.
If you discover that, by and large, your colleagues are using the school system and have no complaints about it, then you should face the possibility you could be the weak link in the chain and even a reason others are struggling to apply it. Teachers who are not following the system because they do not know how, or are scared to, should ask for help. Those who don’t because they are ideologically opposed to its principles should bring this up openly and may wish to move jobs if differences are not professionally reconcilable. Those teachers who choose not to follow strong systems because the force of their personalities, seniority of position or the length of their tenure at the school do their colleagues a disservice. By refusing to follow a sensible system those that feel they do not need they undermine and weaken it for everyone else; if children never get detentions from a popular teacher for an infringement that deserves one, they will judge a teacher who gives them one as unjust and will argue.
That SLTs often claim any disciplinary problems in their school are the result of poor implementation of good systems is not surprising. Admitting otherwise means admitting bad policy, which calls into question the competence of general leadership and management. This is why school leadership can be reluctant to accept criticism of the school’s behaviour policy. It is far easier to blame those lower down the hierarchy for not doing it right than it is to accept that problems are with what teachers are being asked to do in the first place. This issue is compounded by the fact children are far more likely to comply with a policy if it is being implemented by a senior member of staff with the clout to make their life immediately unpleasant. This makes it easy for SLT to believe the system is effective and that any problems must be down to failure of those lower in the pecking order to apply it properly. Less senior staff are also unlikely to, at least publicly, admit that they think the strategy is flawed because this can be taken as open criticism of their managers, which might cause them professional problems. More common is to pay lip-service to the strategy while quietly muddling along alone and using individual approaches to varying degrees of success. If levels of reward and sanction vary wildly between different teachers, or the least well-behaved children seem to be accumulating very high proportions of rewards, it is likely that the school’s strategy is not really working and may well be conceptually flawed for one or more of the following reasons.
- The strategy is not as clear as it seems.
While a strategy may seem clear on paper, practice often reveals it to be far more ambiguous than it first appears. For example, a school’s strategy may say that a student receives a first warning for ‘Not listening to class instructions.” On the face of it this is logical. A teacher is explaining a task and if a child is not listening properly they issue a warning. The child then listens to the instructions. All is well.
Those with any familiarity with the inside of a classroom will probably already have spotted the issues here. How do we know if the child was listening or not? Being quiet does not mean they were listening. Nor does facing the teacher and nor does writing the date and title in an exercise book. Doodling on a piece of paper or pencil case does not mean the child is completely inattentive. So how do we prove the child was not listening if, as they may do, they argue back? Already, at the very lowest level, the apparently clear system is beginning to come undone.
An example of a higher level infraction demanding a proportionally more severe response might be ‘speaking in a disrespectful way to another child’. Here, problems with interpretation are likely to make this apparently sensible rule a nightmare to enforce. Is the good-natured ribbing of a friend by calling him an idiot for dropping his pen a ‘disrespectful act’ worthy of a sanction? What about if a one girl calls her neighbour a ‘retard’ and her neighbour says she doesn’t mind? What about shouting ‘retard’ out of the window at a boy with Cerebral Palsy as he leaves another classroom early for his lunch? Does that warrant just a second level sanction for a ‘disrespectful act’? We may well have a very clear view on all of these, but this view might not be shared with our pupils and even when it is, children can be extremely skilled at manipulating this apparent ambiguity to their own advantage, by arguing their teacher has made a mistake interpreting the rule. Furthermore, no strategy can ever possibly include all misdeeds (although attempting to write one could be lots of fun), which further adds to a sense of uncertainty and confusion when infringements not explicitly identified on the policy occur.
Teachers who find themselves agonising over their school’s behaviour strategy poster or document trying to decide whether or not something deserved a C2 or a C3 are almost certainly wasting their time. The problem is most likely with the system.
- Strategies are written under the assumption that students will accept the sanctions they are given.
When a school behaviour strategy is working properly children do not argue back. If children are disputing sanctions in a lesson it means there is a chance it will be overturned, or that a further sanction for arguing is not enough of a disincentive. School behaviour strategies seem to always assume that incidents of bad behaviour are relatively isolated, happen in the context of order and that children will accept their teacher’s decision. If this isn’t actually the case then trying to apply the strategy can cause complete chaos as constant arguing causes so many further infringements dealing with them becomes impossible and any semblance of order collapses under the sheer volume of disruption. In such environments, where teachers feel they have to justify their decisions, this to-and-fro undermines credibility and encourages children to see elements of the policy as negotiable. School behaviour strategies can only ever keep order. They cannot create it in the first place. If a school tolerates a culture of generally bad conduct, no classroom strategy will make behaviour better and to suggest otherwise is disingenuous and unfair.
- Nobody monitors the consistency of rewards and sanctions.
In some schools, while raw numbers of rewards and sanctions may be recorded and perhaps even analysed for patterns, little attention is paid to what they are given for. One teacher may issue a merit for completing all the work they set, while another may not because they regard this as a basic expectation undeserving of special reward. Similarly, one teacher may prefer to deal with shouting out by giving reminders or warnings, while another may immediately issue a demerit and associated detention for the same offence. While the inconsistency may be partly the result of vague language that allows multiple interpretations of the same act, even when policy is sufficiently explicit this can still happen if leadership takes a laissez faire attitude towards how their teachers apply it. If schools place importance on only the numbers of rewards and sanctions and not what these are being given for, the inconsistency will cause any whole-school behaviour system to fragment with each teacher effectively working alone. In such instances it would actually be better if schools didn’t bother with a pretence at a holistic approach at all, because the visible failure to enforce any uniformity undermines the perceived competence of the school as a whole.
- Behaviour is viewed as a symptom of teaching quality.
Some of the schools which don’t monitor why teachers issue rewards and sanctions place emphasis on the numbers of each handed out instead. It is quite common for the number of reward points to be read out publicly in briefings with departments and the individual teachers who give out the most being praised and those who hand out fewer shamed by association. This sort of foolishness, in addition to being infantile and unprofessional, is enormously damaging because it creates the impression that good teachers give lots of reward points and bad ones do not, which can make issuing them an end in itself. This impression is reinforced by schools in which teachers issuing comparatively high numbers of sanctions are asked to explain this regardless of what these sanctions are issued for, which leads to teachers becoming reluctant to punish students who deserve it because of the effect this will have on the way in which they are regarded by their colleagues and leadership. In such environments, teachers feel encouraged to hand out lots of rewards, deserved or not, because they feel this is a good way of proving their competence. This creates an arms race in which teachers have to award more and more to outperform each other. The effect of this hyperinflation, well explained by Doug Lemov in “throwing scholar dollars” in Teach Like A Champion, is the devaluation of the rewards altogether. This may well also help explain why it is common for a school’s most disruptive students to receive comparatively high proportions of rewards; if a good teacher gives lots of rewards, what could be stronger evidence of competence than giving them to typically badly behaved children?
Another sign that behaviour is viewed as an output of the quality of teaching is when a school emphasises engagement or even enjoyment for its own sake. When this happens poor behaviour, rather than being blamed on problems with the policy or choices made by children, is attributed to the failure of teachers to adequately keep and retain the attention of their pupils. Schools that believe this while operating positive behaviour strategies are, at best, conflicted because if poor conduct can be even partly explained by the standard of teaching it is a very small step to excusing it for the same reason, which makes the consistent application of any system an irrelevance. Teachers working in cultures like this often become afraid to log sanctions because they know this reflects badly on them, and that they may not be supported in applying them because they are more likely to be regarded as at fault than the child is.
When this happens the result is, at best, the erosion or, at worst, the total destruction of the system’s credibility.
Leaders that allow this to happen are not taking responsibility for the behaviour of children in their schools. It would be more honest, and fairer on everyone, to just say they see managing behaviour as the job of individual teachers and drop any pretence there is a whole-school system. This would at least allow teachers more agency and eliminate some meaningless, time sapping bureaucracy.
There is no half-way house; there is either a policy that everyone follows or there isn’t one at all and it is every teacher for themselves.
- The administrative burden of following up on sanctions is so overwhelming and demoralising teachers don’t do it.
In some schools the logging and implementation of sanctions is so byzantine it seems intentionally off-putting. Just finding a student on the schools database and entering a description of an incident, which can very much feel like a defensive justification for punishment in hostile contexts, can take a few minutes. This doesn’t sound a lot but if, say, five students have misbehaved, the time soon adds up. If even three students misbehave in five lessons, the time spent entering the incidents is enough to be off putting, especially if there isn’t certainty this will have any effect. It is also worth noting what a demoralising and unpleasant task this is, made even less attractive if the teacher feels there is a chance they will be judged harshly for a perceived inability to control the pupils involved.
Following up on an incident often only begins with logging it. Teachers in many schools are expected to run their own detentions, which requires them to give up their time, which affects energy levels and morale. If, as is often the case, children choose not to attend a detention the cycle begins again, with the teacher expected to log the failure to attend as a whole new incident. It is very common for some pupils to build up so many sanctions, even for comparatively low level offences, that there is simply not enough time for them to ever clear their backlog. This can happen especially quickly in schools which direct teachers to a high volume of meetings, training or to teach interventions after school because there simply aren’t enough slots to run detentions in. Senior Leaders, perhaps understandably at a loss as to what to do, can end up downgrading sanctions, sometimes using the teacher’s failure to adhere prescriptive and exhaustive tick-list as an excuse. For example, if a policy says that teachers are expected to write to parents to tell them about a missed detention before setting another and they do not do this, or do but forget to log a record that they have, the sanction may be postponed or even cancelled. Finally, very big backlogs may be cancelled at the end of term in order to give whole groups of children ‘a fresh start’.
Following procedure can very quickly become an end in itself. Teachers may be told, for example, that before a certain sanction can be considered they must make a phone call home and log it, regardless of how many times that year the parents have been called already, and regardless of how ineffective this has been up to that point.
In such schools a general lethargy often emerges and new appointees can be utterly baffled by unwritten rules that may directly contradict those on the official policy. A school rule may say clearly that any swearing results in an automatic detention but those who have been at the school for any length of time may know this is never applied and that any teacher who tries is viewed as a pedantic jobsworth.
Teachers working in schools like this can be forgiven for becoming so exhausted and demoralised that they stop issuing or logging sanctions at all. It is possible in some schools this is part of the point as it allows the pleasant narrative that behaviour is improving whether or not this is really true. Intentional or not, the result is the same. It does not take children long to work out the policy displayed on the posters in their classrooms is a fiction. Some will resent this because they see their classmates getting away with murder and spoiling things for them. Others, quite predictably, have enormous fun taking full advantage.
- Strong teachers and those with more influence choose not to use the system.
Even when a school’s behaviour policy is sensible in principle it can still fail. If a behaviour policy is to work properly, everyone must use it. In some schools stronger teachers, or those with more influence such as members of SLT, do not use the system because they feel they do not need to. This is understandable; if a teacher can teach well without using a superfluous layer of bureaucracy why not let them? This, theoretically, saves time and allows more autonomy for those who have earned it.
The problem here is the way in which this affects the way in which teachers are seen by their students. If the strongest, most important teachers do not use the policy, teachers who do are perceived as weaker and less important by association. This can easily lead to children behaving very differently depending on who is teaching them. This is effect is emphasised when punishments vary according to the relative status of teachers in the school hierarchy. When this happens behaviour will be more the result of complex and variable power dynamics than it will be consistency within a planned system. In an unfortunate and cruel irony, this also means that those least equipped to deal with bad behaviour, for example NQTS and supply teachers, tend to be those most often subjected to it.
It is deeply unfair and unhelpful to ascribe a member of staff’s struggles with student behaviour to their failure to implement the policy if the school’s most respected teachers are not doing so.
- High level sanctions, even when they are explicit on the policy, are very rarely applied.
Most school behaviour policies have permanent exclusion as the ultimate, final sanction. This is typically for a very extreme incident affecting the safety and security of the school, or for many lower level incidents. In schools without an effective behaviour policy it is rare for a child to be excluded for less serious incidents regardless of how many of these there are. Some schools, unwisely if they lack the will or ability to follow through, place an actual figure on the number of behaviour points that should result in a permanent exclusion. While reaching this should result in the end of the road for the student concerned, more common is a sequence of meeting and contracts in which the child is given one of many ‘final’ warnings. The effect of this, on both the child concerned and their compatriots, is to make a mockery of the policy and the school by association. Lion taming only works if the keepers convince the lions they are more dangerous than they really are. If this illusion is shattered they find themselves in great danger. The same is true of threatening children with sanctions that cannot be enforced; once students realise the school is effectively powerless they become unaccountable to anyone but themselves. If they have high standards of personal behaviour this is unlikely to have really serious consequences but if they do not, the consequences can be very severe indeed.
- So many children end up with sanctions that they become normalised and stop being a disincentive.
A common strategy adopted by schools who wish to signal they are getting tough on behaviour is to introduce a strict new set of rules and then issue all students in breach of these rules with a planned sanction. For example, a school may decide on a new uniform and place all children who refuse to wear it in isolation, or even send them home. Or, a school may be decide to be more vigilant on homework and assign children who do not do it a detention for each unfinished piece. In the short term this may result in a very high number of children being sanctioned, which can place a schools administrative capacity under great strain. In itself, there is nothing wrong with this and if such deterrents work in reducing the undesirable behaviour then, unless they are in some way unethical, they may be worth the effort required to implement them. Problems only occur if the number of sanctions never declines because when this happens, in addition to the problems caused by the extra workload, they are normalised and cease to be a meaningful disincentive. This is even more likely to happen when students think sanctions are unfair or pointless. For example, if a school is issuing detentions for not completing homework, but does nothing about the many pupils who just copy work in order to avoid the sanction, the system will lack the credibility required to be accepted as necessary.
It is even possible for children to develop learned helplessness as they come to believe sanctions are handed out randomly and that they have no control over whether they are punished or not. This fatalism is incompatible with the sense of responsibility and agency students need to be inspired into making good choices and dooms policies to failure.
- Allowances are made for some children and the reasons for these allowances are not understood or accepted by others,
The degree to which school behaviour strategies should be no excuses policies, is one of the most controversial questions in education and this isn’t the right place to get into the debate. It’s enough to say that any exceptions to the general rule, if there are any, should indeed be exceptional. If they are not, and lots of children visibly break rules without consequence while other children are punished for the same acts, students will perceive the system as unfair and will not respect it.
This can affect teachers just as much. A school may, rightly or wrongly, ascribe specific Special Educational Needs to some students. For example, a child may be diagnosed as having behavioural or emotional difficulties which require time outside the classroom to calm down after being given a sanction. If teachers agree this is necessary then they will apply this alteration to the general policy diligently, but if they believe the diagnosis to be unsafe or just an excuse for deliberately making poor choices, their irritation in having to do so is likely to affect their implementation.
An effective behaviour policy which allows exceptions requires that children and teachers understand there are good reasons for these, and to have faith they are necessary even when confidentiality agreements mean there isn’t an explanation. This is a difficult culture to create, but those schools that do not risk resentment and subversion.
Depressing so far, I know. In my next post I hope to be more positive.