Is it time to rethink our fixation on behaviour management? 

A fixation on behaviour management can be a distraction from embedding our values in a way that would make the biggest sustainable difference, writes Adam Seldon

A fixation on behaviour management can be a distraction from embedding our values in a way that would make the biggest sustainable difference, writes Adam Seldon

10 Jul 2023, 5:00

Gavin Williamson backed heads cracking down on mobile phones and announced a behaviour survey in a speech to the CST conference.

Kurt Lewin, considered the founder of social psychology, ran an experiment involving two classrooms of teenagers run under different teaching philosophies. The ‘democratic’ style was co-operative and less aggressive. The ‘authoritarian’ style achieved more work, but when the teacher left the room students exploited the freedom and chaos ensued. 

During a temporary stint in the private sector following my formative years in the secondary state sector, I was struck by students left alone in classrooms. “Are they allowed to be in there?” I asked. “Of course,” my manager replied. How many state schools in the UK would do the same? 

I expect most state teachers would not leave them, at least not for very long. This reflects the dominant behaviour management paradigm in schools. While not authoritarian, it is very contingent on the authority of the teacher. 

Whether behaviour has declined since Covid is contested. Common chatter claims it has. But Teacher Tapp survey analysis showed behaviour issues were no worse in 2022 than 2018. Regardless, a persistent finding is that behaviour is an issue nationally. One report shows half of teachers in poorer areas expect behaviour to affect learning in lessons, as do a third in wealthier areas.

Meanwhile, attendance is an unambiguous post-Covid issue. The average pre-Covid was 5 per cent of classroom time missed. Now it’s closer to 9 per cent. A recent government report identified that just 15 per cent of children enjoy coming to school.

So what policy context could a new government set for schools beyond endorsing ‘no excuses’ and ‘silent corridors’? 

The problem may be an over-reliance on behaviour management. While effective in some regards, these techniques cannot foster a whole-school community identity in which students feel they belong. By contrast, a strong school culture that develops resilience among students is more likely to support attendance and foster a sense of community.

Behaviour management principles such as routines, consistent systems, sanctions and rewards play an essential role in ensuring order. But they are not sufficient. The tyranny of techniques which behaviour management relies on means it is a fragile tool where students are cajoled into behaviours almost unthinkingly. 

Behaviour management techniques are essential but not sufficient

Where problems occur, the focus is on how teachers can improve or how systems can be tweaked. Behaviour management can maintain order, but doesn’t necessarily develop characters sustainably. A change – like a cover teacher or a new teacher – can precipitate a system collapse.  

We should be unapologetically ambitious for students, not just for their academic outcomes but who they are as people. A common refrain I see or hear among teachers is how levels of disrespect have increased.  Sometimes schools can be bereft of basic civility. Rather than constantly reacting to behaviour, more could be done to upstream the issue, to consider how to get students to behave in the long-term, to nurture virtues as moral citizens beyond the school gates. 

State schools often have worthwhile values plastered on the school or website, but behaviour management distracts from thinking about how such values can be meaningfully embedded in the day-to-day experience of students. They should be leaned into so students become part of a powerful school culture in which they choose to behave primarily because it is the right thing to do rather than for fear of punishment.  In a word cloud of a school day, ‘detention’ should be outnumbered by use of school values. 

Graham Nuttall observed that “when there is a clash between the peer culture and the teacher’s management procedures, the peer culture wins every time”. Behaviour management offers little to develop peer culture. Schools could think more strategically on how to use students to positively influence their peers. 

Recently, my school ran a week focused on gratitude. As part of that, students gave speeches in assemblies. One student, who struggles behaviourally, thanked a teacher she clashes with for their care. This expression of thanks, in front of peers, generated a special moment with lasting impact beyond the hall.  

Schools have a responsibility to cultivate citizens of good character. Ideally, we want to be able to trust students to be alone in the classroom because of what it says about them as people and their relationship to their community. It prepares them for their future without a teacher to correct them when they get things wrong. 

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  1. Patrick Obikwu

    A school is first and foremost a place for learning. Fundamental to effective learning is respect, discipline, and responsible behaviour. Where students lack respect, discipline, and responsible behaviour there is no safety. Without safety there can be no learning, much less effective learning.
    Education is about enriching, enlightening, empowering individuals. It is about expanding horizons, widening perspectives, deepening mental acumen, cognition, and enhancing skills, capacities and abilities for functionality, adaptability, opportunity and mobility in life.
    Good education cannot be separated from positive transformation and character development. In essence, education is the process of becoming a better individual, becoming cultured. Being cultured involves having a measure of self-respect, self-discipline, self-control, responsibility, empathy, consideration, and mutual respect.
    I taught in a rough inner city state school for 14 of my 20+ years as a science teacher and middle leader. In all my classes, students understood clearly my expectations of them, how they are to comport themselves in class and around the school. I had full confidence to leave my classes for extended periods of time without any fear of misbehaviour of any sort. Even the most recalcitrant students were impeccably behaved in my class. I had trust, belief, respect for and extremely high expectations of them, and I made them have same for themselves. It is about showing students that there is a better way, that they can do much better. This is education.
    DfE should consider introducing the following subjects: Character Development; Ethics and Philosophy; Civic and Social Responsibility; Psychology; and Stoicism. These will go a long way to imbuing students with the necessary values and the onus for responsible behaviour. Better still, a National Behaviour and Learning Charter formulated for the whole country.

  2. jaylee

    As a firm believer of trust is earned respect is gained. It has to work both ways & it should never be demanded by anyone superior to a child. There always has to be a middle ground & that just is not there anymore consistent punishment does not work! & if parents treated their children the way they do in schools they would be punished for child cruelty for negatively impacting their mental health, surpressing their personality & failing to provide them with a decent homelife. Kids attending Academy Schools managed by United Learning Trust have to follow a behavior policy stating zero tolerance to defiance & how the academies are relentless in their punishment where any rule they state is broken. Kids attending these academies have missed out on at least 60-80% of learning time in just one term due to this draconian system of consistent punishment for petty sometimes unreasonable rules. The values & ethos of these schools or home life do not match with the current behaviour system nor do they reflect the working & higher education world outside of school. These Academies are distributing future generations of either robots or long term sicknotes. Tom Bennett is using an out dated American behaviour system that did not work over there & is clearly not working here in the UK it is destroying kids education & making them hate school not encouraging them to be the best they can be his system has caused teacher/student relationships to become non existant. It needs to be removed & the UK need to come up with their own system instead of copying & tweaking other countries.
    The UK Academy Schools are Reform Schools & nothing more.

  3. E Vine

    Schools, certainty most secondary schools run on a regimented regime that reflects a Victorian and persistent factory batch production process. Batches of students called classes clock on and then at the ring of hourly bells are passed from department to department in an orderly factory production linear line after several cycles of this then major quality control and inspections take place called tests and exams. High quality learning isn’t like this, it’s not best achieved like this, humans don’t work like clockwork and most teens don’t function well under such conditions. If we want to develop of study and life skills and educate rather than cram to help students become self motivated, creative people then the whole silo’d regimented system needs to change. Education and the way we are collaborative processes. We need to use the ed tec tools and AI to develop individually tailored learning strategies including multidisciplinary and integrated project based learning to work in new ways that remove the confrontational barriers to learning. In short education needs to get into the 21st Century.

  4. Ben Gibbs

    Amen! Well said. The reason I couldn’t stay in teaching after my NQT year was because I wasn’t allowed to trust kids in situations that would have been highly developmental. That was in the early 2000s. Ten years later, I saw as a governor it had got worse, and now – thanks to the ever widening definition of ‘safeguarding’ – it’s almost unthinkable in schools to leave space for behavioural agency to develop. Even mentioning the possibility on social media involves a pile-on by the behaviour management thought-police.