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Battling Behaviour

With the school year kicking off, it’s the perfect time to think about your approach to setting classroom expectations and managing poor behaviour choices that pop up in our classroom. We’ll all be hopeful for a calm start and, no doubt, probably enjoy a short honeymoon period, but how will you handle it when that wears off?

When students act up in the classroom, it’s our natural instinct to want to come down hard and squash the negative behaviour. It’s mainly driven by our desire for a calm and orderly classroom, but this desire often leads us to send a cue to our students that we are trying to control their behaviour. When we try to control someone else’s behaviour, at best, we might get compliance for a small period of time, but then we’ll start to get resistance.

So, if control is not the answer, what works?

The most effective response to dealing with these behaviours is often counterintuitive. Rather than fix the behaviour for someone else, the most effective approach is to provide a high level of accountability coupled with a high level of support. This is where the person doing the wrong thing starts to take responsibility for improvement.

If we respond to negative behaviour with a harsh response or consequence, it will potentially lead us to one thing – a damaged relationship where the young person resents us.

When faced with this situation, we need to resist the urge to put in a hefty punishment, hoping it will curve the behaviour. We’re better off taking a more meaningful approach, where we increase the chances of a behaviour shift for the better. This doesn’t mean we don’t have high expectations or a consequence. It just means we’ll do it in a way where our students will hopefully step towards taking a bit of responsibility. They are more likely to respond positively because we move away from an authoritarian approach and towards being authoritative. Authoritarian is where we use our power over people, it’s impersonal, and it’s based on control and order. Authoritative is the opposite; it’s where we are firm but fair, relational, supportive and respectful. There is authority and power in both, but the difference is how we harness and leverage it.

One of the best examples of this approach coming to fruition is from Daniel Coye’s book, Culture Code and a case study he provides on the 2004 European Championships in Portugal. Yes, it’s not an education setting, but the parallels in the behaviour are astounding. Poor crowd behaviour had marked previous European Cups that resulted in violence, unruly behaviour, destruction and damage, both at games and afterwards in the streets. In preparation, the Portuguese Government invested more than $20 million in riot control tools and approaches. Despite the significant investment, it was a psychologist by the name of Clifford Stott that made the difference. Stott’s strategy was to remove the riot gear and change the social cues. He contended that the previous poor behaviour was caused by the demonstration of power from those in authority. The strategy was underpinned by the police developing their social skills and building relationships with the fans. Police were required to study the teams and players, and then make small talk with the fans. They dressed in calm colours and not traditional uniforms, avoided confiscating soccer balls, and, if needed, were coached on the right way to frame conversations when behaviour escalated so arrests wouldn’t lead to rioting. In the region this strategy was deployed, only one fan was arrested for unruly behaviour, compared to thousands in other areas where police used traditional tactics.

What does it look like in the schoolyard?

The starting point for better behaviour in our schools is underpinned by the relationship. When we care about the people around us, we are less likely to act out and let them down. But there will be times when we are presented with poor behaviour; in this instance, our approach is important. That approach is about helping our young people to link inappropriate behaviour to an appropriate way of making things right again. The best chance of a behaviour change is when we get the student to think about, talk about and take action on the shift required. Our job is to support them, to do that, not control them.

Check out other articles Simon has written here.