It's My Way or the Highway

Tuesday April 26, 2016

'Fact - All Negative Behaviour Communicates an Unmet Need.'

It’s an approach that has paid dividends for me over the years as I have slowly changed from the PGCE student who grappled with behaviour that challenged my ability to manage an orderly classroom to a school leader confident in supporting children and staff with the challenges that negative behaviour (i.e. anything that disrupts learning) bring.

One downside, though, is that those of us who espouse this approach have been labelled as professionally vain. However, I am concerned that the professional vanity actually rests with ‘zero tolerance’ or ‘no excuses’ approaches to behaviour. It is an approach that meets any infraction of school rules with immediate sanctions and consequences. What’s not to like? It sounds rigorous, tough and uncompromising. It sounds like it supports teachers and sends the right message to the children – 'It’s my way or the highway'.

What I don’t like is that it takes no account of the human beings caught up in its straitjacket – especially the human beings with special educational needs. These are human beings, let us not forget, who are still developing.

‘No excuses’ is the equivalent of expecting an adult to be able to give up smoking immediately. No excuses, just do it. No account is to be taken of the physiological and psychological demands this action places on the person. To punish them for non-compliance as a method of incentivising the desirable behaviour ignores the complexity of either the task or the timescale over which it can be achieved.

Take the 'top button rule'. Does your school have a rule that all children must have their top button done up at all times? And the consequences for not doing that is what? Do you punish the child who has a tracheostomy and who is physically unable to comply, much as they would like to? 'You’re nit-picking here, Jarlath' I hear you Tweet. Of course, you will stretch your ‘no excuses’ policy in this instance as you can explain to all that the child needs to breathe. But it has now become a pretence to call it a ‘no excuses’ policy. The tolerance is no longer 'zero'.

And what about the child with ASD and a severe sensory processing disorder who simply cannot yet tolerate close-fitting ties, buttons, zips, badges and blazers? Do you allow them to some leeway with their uniform, perhaps to wear tracksuit bottoms? Or do you hold the line and then complain when they may struggle to concentrate? This is harder to justify as you can’t point to a tangible object like a tracheostomy tube, yet the underlying need is still there. You can punish to your heart’s content, yet it will stubbornly persist.

A ‘no excuses’ or ‘zero tolerance’ culture marginalises the children who need the most understanding, the most support and time to improve and are most in need of a belief in them from the adults that work with them that they can improve. A ‘no excuses’ or ‘zero tolerance’ culture takes no account of the underlying needs that can influence behaviour and instead replaces that with the unmoveable view that children are making a premeditated choice to be naughty.

For me, this is where the professional vanity lies – the view that no account need be made for context, no flexibility afforded because of the child’s needs, no acknowledgement that the child is not yet a fully-formed adult human being and is still learning. Take, for example, this conversation that I had recently with a SENCO and a TA from a secondary school when they visited with a Year 8 boy and his mum before he moved to our school:

Them: 'We give him homework. He doesn’t do it. We give him a detention. He doesn’t turn up. His mum does the homework, so we give him another detention.'

Me: 'Stop giving him homework? He has a reading age of about six, so I suspect that he can’t read anything you’re giving him.' 

Them: 'No way. He must be treated the same as everyone else and we must be seen to be doing that. If he doesn’t do it, he’ll get a detention like everyone else.'

I would fare badly under such a system if you expected me to sing or dance. These are things that I do not enjoy and will do pretty much anything to avoid. You could threaten me with any sanction you liked but you wouldn’t persuade me to sing or dance. As the late Canadian educator Joe Bower said, 'Doing well is always more desirable than not doing well, so when a child is not doing well, it is likely that their environment is demanding skills they are lagging'. My singing and dancing skills are definitely lagging and I’m fine with that. My definition of 'doing well' in this scenario is to do whatever I can to avoid singing and dancing. If you understand this and start from where I am then I am likely to be far more receptive to what you want me to do. 

One more thing. To take issue with a ‘no excuses’ or ‘zero tolerance’ culture is not the same as being an apologist for poor behaviour – another common accusation. It is not suggesting that a school does nothing. Clearly disruption to learning, both the individual’s and that of the rest of the group, must be prevented. It is the method of dealing with it that I challenge. To completely refuse to look beneath the veneer suggests to me professional insecurity and, in some cases, fear. You would have to be professionally secure enough to admit, like the best schools do, that they don’t know it all, that improvements, either academic or in terms of behaviour, take an investment of time, energy and love (yes, I said it) in the child. You have to be professionally secure enough to know that the changes need to come first from the adults and the school, starting from where the child is at, and then celebrate the improvements and achievements that will surely follow.  


Jarlath O'Brien is a new Associate with Independent Thinking, currently head of a school for children with a range of special needs and learning difficulties and author of the upcoming book Don't Send Him In Tomorrow, available from the Independent Thinking Press in September 2016.


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