How do you manage difficult or bad behaviour in the classroom when you know that those “acting up” come from backgrounds that would challenge any of us? Poverty, violence, isolation, abandonment, every kind of trauma.
And we all know that old-style discipline – the cane, the lines, the expulsions and humiliations – have never done more than serve as crowd control at best; at worst, treating young people with aggression has always been pointless. Harsh punishments never deter. If they did, we would have long ago stopped worrying about how to manage young people. They would all be perfect all the time.
So how can you marry the need to help those aforementioned youngsters to rise above their challenges, deal with the frustrations of ordinary school life and, when they leave, be ready to handle adult life from a secure base.
That’s a conundrum I first started to wrestle with early on in my professional relationship, when I met my co-author Steve Baker: how do you make the world a little better, especially for the most disadvantaged in society?
As Head and Deputy Headteacher of a special school for boys with additional social emotional and mental health needs (SEMH), Kilgarth School, we were familiar with disadvantage.
Many of our students and their families have experienced economic, educational, social, cultural and aspirational deprivation that has spanned generations. Most of these students can present with very challenging behaviour which schools and families can find difficult to cope with. It’s all too easy to focus on the negatives and overlook these children. They really are among the most marginalised members of our communities.
Steve and I worked together to develop a training package of non-confrontational behaviour management strategies based on the neuroscience that underpins human behaviour that could be used by teachers to handle these teenagers. So successful were the techniques that they have now been used by us to train thousands of people including social workers, police officers and staff from a number of prisons.
What drives ‘bad’ behaviour?
The training’s central pillar is an understanding of the threat response and how it drives behaviours in the classroom that are detrimental to all concerned. The threat response is mediated by ancient structures in our brains and its effects are profound. Widely known as the ‘flight or fight’ response, this autonomic system played a vital role in keeping our ancestors alive when confronted with danger such as predators, making them temporarily more physically capable and able to process some types of information much more efficiently.
It is facilitated by ‘stress hormones’ which acutely affect many parts of the body. The extra capacity these hormones initiate comes at a cost, however. Over the long term they do us serious harm both mentally and physically, causing illness and shortening our life span.
Modern society has evolved much more quickly than our bodies and can daily present us with multiple situations which our brain interprets as potentially life threatening. This is true in many walks of life, including schools. Our physiological response, though it might vary in magnitude, is the same whether the threat is real, imagined or even remembered and schools can be threatening places for educators and children alike. In the world of Covid-19 this is true now more than ever.
Anxiety or fear about failure in lessons, peer relationships, teachers they may dislike and assessments, for example, will mean that the threat response for some children will be constantly triggered. The ‘fight’ part of the response can manifest as challenging or aggressive behaviour. For some the ‘flight’ will take the form of disruption or lack of engagement. In addition, these stress hormones suppress parts of the brain which are important for learning and for regulating our emotional response to situations. We believe it is in all our interests and all our responsibility to adopt strategies which minimise the potential for confrontation.
Reducing confrontation is an ongoing challenge but the decision to abolish sanctions at the school was a far thornier issue. Punishment has been the basis of systems of justice throughout history and across cultures, acting variously as deterrent, a tool for reform and a vehicle for individual and societal retribution. Dispensing with the notion of punishment flies in the face of the received wisdom of countless generations but we all knew it wasn’t working.
Dr Alice Jones-Bartoli, Director of the Unit for School and Family Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London, was instrumental in helping make change at our school possible. She helped everyone at the school understand why punishment is ineffective for key groups of students. For example, those with a combination of behaviour difficulties and ADHD have inhibited fear responses; aversive conditioning, learned fear resulting from previous unpleasant experiences, has limited impact.
The behaviour of students who have strong ‘callous, unemotional’ traits is likely to become worse because of punishment. Characterised by a need for social control and dominance, these students are likely to have an elevated sense of their own importance. The feelings and motivations of others, including their teachers, may seem inconsequential to them. Punishment is likely to be met with anger – often directed at the original victim of the misdemeanour.
Understanding why punishment wasn’t working was only part of the problem though. Alice also helped us find what we could use to fill the vacuum left by the removal of sanctions because she taught us that everybody responds well to reward.
Staff at our school spent years devising and tweaking a comprehensive system of reward-based behaviour modification strategies, and we cannot praise them highly enough. We asked them to take a leap of faith and they embraced it wholeheartedly.
Nobody knew if it would work, whether it would descend into anarchy, but they held to their beliefs and stayed strong through some very tricky periods. Without their skill and dedication, the project would have failed. Far from failing, the school has had two successive ‘Outstanding’ grades from Ofsted where the fundamental importance of relationships at the school was recognised and where behaviour was described as ‘exemplary’.
These strategies can be used not only in schools, but also in the home learning environment. Positive relationships are the most important determinant of success or failure in any sphere of life. We regularly receive feedback from people whose personal lives have been transformed by changes they have made having taken part in our training sessions.
It makes no difference whether you’re in a school, at home, in the workplace or doing the shopping. Adopting non-confrontational strategies and inhibiting the threat response promotes good relationships and makes life better for everyone.
Sanction-free life at home:
There are a host of strategies that reduce confrontation whilst promoting wellbeing and positive relationships which can be used whatever your context. Here are a few common-sense tips that you may want to consider
Catch them being good!
It’s the oldest trick in the book and our most useful tool. Try not to miss an opportunity to praise your children (or colleagues) when they make the sort of choice that you want to see more of. Praise activates powerful reward centres in the brain, releasing hormones that make us feel pleasure. The result: repeated positive choices and a boost to wellbeing. What’s not to like?
Don’t react instantly, rather give yourself thinking time to respond.
Try slowly breathing in for 5 seconds, holding for 5 and then out for five. You will dampen your threat response, feel calmer, speak more slowly and your heart rate will drop. It gives you 15 seconds to plan your next move.
It’s okay to say what you need to and then walk away.
You don’t need to get the last word in, just the result. Try a consequential choice – leaving the apparent control in their hands. ‘If you choose to tidy your room by 3.00, you’ll be choosing for me to keep the Wi-Fi switched on’.
Identify the outcomes you need to achieve.
And the concessions you’re prepared to make before you enter a discussion. Stay focused on them and you are less likely to ‘make it personal’ or be drawn into an argument.
Most of the information your child picks up about your emotional state is from non-verbal signals.
Show you are in control of your emotions and that you care about theirs by using a calm, even tone and open body language.
Give wellbeing a boost and help your relationships by talking about ‘three good things’ every day.
Each person simply says three things that have happened in the last 24 hours that were positive, explaining what they did to contribute to one of them. It can be anything from having a cup of tea to climbing Ben Nevis! It’s a startlingly powerful tool.
Steven Baker and Mick Simpson are the authors of A School Without Sanctions, just published by Bloomsbury Education, £19.99