15 May 2016

The Behaviour Lie

Recently one of my students - I work with 16-19 year olds in an FE college - overheard a comment I made to a colleague at lesson changeover. It's a comment which should have been made in a more guarded fashion but nevertheless it was true. I simply said 'they've been tough going today!'. The student interjected a response which has since caused me much thought.

"It's your job to control us."

I didn't respond, because I was taken aback.

The unfortunate reality is that I spent a good 5 years of my teaching career believing that what that student said was true. I believed that it was my job to control them. If they misbehaved it was my fault. Perhaps my lessons weren't engaging enough; perhaps I'd not differentiated adequately; maybe I'd failed to recognise their preferred learning styles (let's not go there!). I was supposed to be some kind of educational pied piper. If only I play the right tune, all the kids would blithely follow me to the land of learning.

In short, if they behaved badly, it meant I was a poor teacher.

The consequences of this way of thinking were substantial. In short, I quit. I quit at the end of my first term as an NQT. A spectacular dewy-eyed failure, frankly. Some of the goings on during year 8 lessons are burned into my brain and still, when I think back, the angst of those days swells again to taunt me. But let's not wallow; I'm back in the fold.

My point is simply that had I been reassured that it was entirely legitimate for me to treat and discipline (yes, I used the d-word) the children according to their behaviour and not relentlessly second-guess myself, I'd have made a much better fist of the experience.

After 10 or so years in education I've come to the conclusion that the students' behaviour is entirely a choice of their own - be there never so many mitigating circumstances - and is not a consequence of my ability or ineptitude. As a result of this I firmly believe that they should learn to be held accountable for their behaviour. What is more, to acknowledge this is to empower them, to give them the dignity and agency they often seek through misbehaviour.

Of course this is not to say I don't sympathise with a student whose home life is in turmoil and who lashes out at another student - I'm not a completely merciless idiot - but even in the most trying of circumstances our behaviour is still ours. This is vital for a well-functioning civil society, and is a lesson which is not learned unless it is explicitly taught.

I'd like to see the profession acknowledge this, and amend its attitudes towards what is erringly called 'behaviour management'. The entire premise of so much behaviour management advice is that responsibility for words, deeds and actions of pupils and students lies less with the individual and more with the teacher. As a consequence, too many in and around education are furnishing young people with behavioural get-out clauses, and more often than not those get-out clauses are at the expense of the teacher.

Teachers are not pied pipers. Model good behaviour - of course; provide conditions for good behaviour - yes; but expect compliance and reprimand non-compliance. Do so without self-doubt, hand-wringing or paralysing introspection.

The great behaviour lie?

"It's your job to control us."

No, dear student, it's your job to control you; and I expect you to do so. It's my job to teach you. Now sit down and stop talking, we have a lot to get through...


  1. "Facets of the post-natal environment including the type and complexity of environmental stimuli, the quality of parenting behaviors, and the amount and type of stress experienced by a child affects brain and behavioral functioning. Poverty is a type of pervasive experience that is likely to influence biobehavioral processes because children developing in such environments often encounter high levels of stress and reduced environmental stimulation. This study explores the association between socioeconomic status and the hippocampus, a brain region involved in learning and memory that is known to be affected by stress. We employ a voxel-based morphometry analytic framework with region of interest drawing for structural brain images acquired from participants across the socioeconomic spectrum (n = 317). Children from lower income backgrounds had lower hippocampal gray matter density, a measure of volume. This finding is discussed in terms of disparities in education and health that are observed across the socioeconomic spectrum."
    -----From: http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0018712

    "Many of the children who I had the opportunity to work with there simply did not have the choice to experience bedtime stories, museum visits, free time outside, or see folks resolve conflict in a positive way. Way too many of those children had to be more concerned with where their next meal would come from, finding clean clothes to wear to school, or wondering when their mother would get out of jail, than concern with becoming college-ready."
    "‘Choice’ implies choices. If there are no choices to choose from, do we really have any choice? If our choices are limited to choices others chose for us are we still as responsible for them? …

    Third graders struggling with reading don’t choose to become ashamed of their minds. As children shame out of learning to read, they don’t understand they are making a ‘choice’ that will disable an uncountable number of future life options and therefore future life choices. Do the choices of a literate person and a markedly less literate person differ? Sure they do. Did they choose to have those differences? Do children choose to be inadequately prepared, confused, or feel ashamed of their reading (or math or…)? No they don’t. Children don’t choose to grow up in families that are low literate, taciturn, or emotionally unhealthy. They don’t realize that any one of those factors can cause them to struggle with the challenges of learning to read. Is the child responsible for their parents’ ignorance or their schools’ inability to teach them (in a way that provides what they need given their level of readiness)? Of course not. Yet, we all (unintentionally, yet pervasively) conspire to cause them to think that they are. … What aspect of ‘choice’ isn’t learned?

    If it’s the differences in our learning environments that most affect our learning differences and our differences in learning that most affects our ‘choices’ in life, on what basis can we judge others for their choices?

    I am not saying we aren’t responsible for our choices. I am saying that it’s no where near that simple…. Ultimately wealth inequality, like so many inequalities, boils down to learning opportunity inequality."
    -----From: http://theglobalnaturalist.com/2012/07/16/getting-the-kids-ready-for-the-competition-happiness-choice-success-and-aristotles-paralogism/

    From your article:
    "After 10 or so years in education I've come to the conclusion that the students' behaviour is entirely a choice of their own - be there never so many mitigating circumstances - and is not a consequence of my ability or ineptitude."

    How can you be so certain? Is it really that simple? Is behavior not complex?

    1. How are we helping to create a choice if we won't teach them either? Extraordinary claims made about poverty, childhood circumstances and behaviour when the research is next to non-existent. I say this as someone from the circumstances you refer to - illiterate father, domestic abuse going on, etc. Behaviour is a choice as my older brother who did take over my parenting despite being only slightly older than me taught me to see from a young age. Now where are the people who have the guts to do it like he did for me? Too busy making excuses. This is where it might be helpful to actually go out there and find the people who have experienced these circumstances and study rather than make poor assumptions that lead to even poorer conclusions.

  2. Hi Nate, there's a lot in your reply to discuss. Thanks for getting in touch.

    The blog is not about attainment, or intelligence, or progress, but about behaviour. Much of what you quoted I would broadly concede because it is discussing the link between home situations and educational attainment. I don't doubt that children experience different home situations that impinge on their subsequent life chances, but I do believe that their behaviour can and should be held to high standards by teachers in their schools regardless.

    Secondly, my post says that the children should be taught to behave. It is granted that in some cases they don't know how to behave appropriately for reasons your reply makes plain, and I know that perfection is impossible, but high expectations are always preferable to low expectations. They get up to speed pretty quickly.

    Thirdly, I'm not saying that there aren't environments which constrain or enable students to select and exhibit appropriate behaviours. My central argument is that in any given situation their behaviours are their own choices, and therefore it is legitimate to reprimand them based on their behaviours. Also, my belief is that every human being retains sufficient agency that in (nearly) any situation you can make a choice to behave in a moral, honest and good manner.

    What frustrates me is the excuse-making of the well-intentioned. That is primarily what I am seeking to challenge, because I believe it to be counter-productive.

    Fourthly, I have taken for granted that a student retains the intellectual capacity to weigh up possible actions in their own mind. Perhaps I should have included something on this. There are - of course - certain specific learning difficulties and disabilities which do delimit available behavioural choices, but that is a whole separate blog, let alone post. In those cases plainly I would take a different view.

    Finally, I am as certain as is reasonable for a person to be! Call it hubris if you will but it's my contention that while circumstances may be complex, behaviour is simple.

    Thanks for taking the time to read and reply. Your contributions are always thoughtful and challenging and I welcome them!


  3. Mike,

    I enjoyed your response. It acknowledges the nuance and complexity that a topic like this requires.