Jarlath O’Brien brings his wide-ranging experience to bear in this plea to teachers and school leaders to truly understand children’s behaviour, and there is much to commend this book.
Over the first chapters O’Brien advocates a highly empathetic approach to improving behaviour, drawing on lessons learned from psychological research and his own career. Throughout the book he seeks to develop teachers’ understanding of how different pupils experience school, and is particularly averse to the use of fixed-term exclusions.
One of the book’s strengths is the chapter on restorative approaches to behaviour management. His arguments are explained clearly, with a persistent focus on the value of such approaches in affecting genuine change. He proactively addresses common complaints about restorative processes and suggests practical ways to implement them successfully. I would strongly recommend chapter seven for anyone interested in restorative justice in schools.
In chapters eight and nine, O’Brien discusses the importance of working with parents and support staff to improve behaviour. The inclusion of a parent’s point of view is eye-opening. While experienced educators may consider much of this common sense, it’s solid advice.
Chapter ten, on pupils with special educational needs, is another gem, and it is clear that this is where O’Brien’s expertise really lies. He outlines a range of common needs affecting pupils, offers practical ways of supporting them and clarifies his points with amusing and relatable anecdotes. I will definitely be sharing this chapter with my trainees. However, I am concerned that O’Brien’s message may be (mis)interpreted as “all misbehaviour is the fault of the teacher” – so caveats apply when sharing his book with less confident colleagues.
Now for the bits I found less convincing…
The book opens by exhorting schools to adapt to their pupils’ needs – but O’Brien seems to contradict himself later when he (quite rightly) reminds us that the role of schools is to prepare children for the adult world. Very few would argue against reasonable modifications to meet children’s needs, but some of the approaches suggested by O’Brien may give children unrealistic expectations that the adult world will simply bend to accommodate them.
Does anyone actually do this?
In chapters four to six, O’Brien examines the use of rules, rewards and sanctions. This section of the book has a more practical focus and fans of Lemov’s “Teach Like a Champion” will recognise many of the suggestions here. However, there are several arguments in these chapters that seem to over-exaggerate to emphasise a point. Reading his characterisation of schools rigidly enforcing boy/girl seating plans regardless of behaviour and additional needs, I wrote in the margin “does anyone actually do this?”.
Whilst I wholeheartedly agree with his emphasis on the role of the teacher in children’s behaviour, I bristle at his warning to teachers that their feedback may be taken as “scathing criticism”. Reading out test scores can be done in a way that does not unduly upset pupils, and I take umbrage at his assertion that such a practice shows “no regard to the dignity of the children”.
The final chapter proved the most controversial for me as, at times, O’Brien appears to be encouraging teachers to subvert their school’s behaviour system with suggestions such as, “Are there any behaviourist customs in your school that you can simply cease doing?”. While I agree that teachers need to make systems work for their pupils, I worry that this risks setting up conflict between teachers and leaders. Surely the ideal is for teachers with doubts about the behaviour policy to discuss them with their managers, rather than stop enforcing the policy?
Overall, “Better Behaviour” has plenty to offer both novice teachers and more experienced educators. Every chapter starts with “Headlines”, in which O’Brien’s key arguments are laid out and there are regular “Reflection Points” that encourage readers to interrogate their own beliefs about behaviour management. By far the most useful elements for leaders are the “Taking it further” boxes at the end of each chapter. These contain activities and questions to promote discussion and deeper consideration of a wide range of behaviour management strategies and would be useful at all levels of school leadership.