I wanted to write this blog post as a reflection on behaviour in schools, behaviour systems more generally and the binary stances being thrashed around on social media. I also write this in the context of being a parent struggling not to burden my own children with my issues and anxieties and as someone who shares their life with a psychiatrist.
As a student I hated school and was often in trouble, being ‘gated’ (made to stay indoors over a weekend whilst my friends cut around) on many occasions and receiving more Saturday detentions then I can remember. I often misbehaved for two main reasons – I generally found lessons dull and I also found it very difficult at the time to admit if I found the work difficult and so messed around instead. As a general rule I have always hated authority and being told what to do and so I had poor relationships with most of my teachers and a very bad relationship with my House Master. So whilst I had the extremely privileged experience of boarding at a ‘top’ public school, I did not get on too well with school.
So my position as a Head is a great source of conversation in my weekly sessions with my psychotherapist (not my wife). The reason for the rambling introduction is to set the context for my views on school behaviour systems – I lead a school with complex issues in a deprived part of town but I am also tuned into the issues and concerns around mental health.
Lessons from parenting
The title for this blog is stolen from a book of the same name by Dr Robin Berman. (Berman, R. ‘Hate me now, Thank me later.’ Harper Collins 2014.) This post is mainly going to be a synopsis of the main ideas in this book as I understand them and it will be in 2 parts. I am conscious that I am in danger of misrepresenting or distorting the views in the book but I am trying to explain them as I understand them.
Firstly I will use Berman’s work to suggest why I believe rules and consequences are important for schools. Then I will go on to look at the importance of love and relationship-building in schools as a framework for maintaining a school that develops and nurtures the individual.
The back cover to Berman’s book reads as follows:
“Children used to be seen and not heard, but now they are at the centre of their parents’ universe. Parents today seem skittish about asserting their authority. They indulge their children’s demands and tantrums, and enter into endless negotiations, all for fear of hurting their children’s feelings. Sadly, this indulgence is creating a generation of psychologically fragile individuals, undermining the very self-esteem it seeks to build. In between these parenting extremes lies a better way to raise thriving, well-adjusted children.”
Perhaps more pertinent to the current behaviour debate about school discipline, the next paragraph reads as follows:
“Parents need to know that it is not only OK but essential to be in charge. Children with too much power often become anxious, and not allowing children to work through negative emotions leads to a lack of resilience in their lives.”
The importance of rules and consequences:
It is this underlying principle that has driven my approach to setting and maintaining discipline and good order in school. Children need and want boundaries and we cannot protect them, and should not want to protect them, from negative emotions and not getting their own way. Having a mental health crisis is not the same as having a negative emotion and we need to teach children to own their emotions and not be scared of them. The big idea in life that we all need to come to terms with is that you cannot have everything you want in life and that everything eventually comes to an end. We do children no favours for their adult life by capitulating and giving in to tantrums – or in a secondary school – defiant behaviour. The adults are in charge, there are rules to follow and we all follow the rules.
So whilst on a personal level I was a Premier League rule-breaker at school; I think I survived into adult life and more importantly, employment, because of the many unfair systemic advantages I had as a white privately educated male. So for me rules and boundaries are important for helping our young people negotiate adolescence successfully and to leave school with the currency they need to have choices and options.
Berman summarises this view as follows:
- Parenting is a benevolent dictatorship. Rules make kids feel safe.
- Don’t be emotionally bullied by your child. Emotionally wimpy parenting leads to emotionally fragile kids.
- A child who has too much power often becomes anxious.
- Catering to your child’s every whim can lead to a child who is self-centred and lacks resilience.
- Consistent follow-through of rules is essential for a child’s emotional safety and your sanity.
- Talk less, give fewer choices, keep it simple.
- When you say no, mean it.
These 7 ideas can clearly apply to a school setting.
- Rules make kids feel safe – In School this is clearly not ‘zero tolerance’ which is a weasely phrase at best; a distraction from the reality of most schools. This is simply having rules and expectations and ensuring that they are calmly and consistently enforced by every adult in the school. This is probably most easily done through a centralised system whereby all consequences are run centrally to reduce workload on teachers. Teachers might meet with a student to explain the reason for the detention but they do not run the detention nor chase up if the student misses it.
- Don’t be emotionally bullied by your child– This is about calmly asserting your adult authority. In School we have rules, the adults enforce the rules and sometimes a student does not like this. However, this is the way it must be. I am sorry if you are upset and don’t want to own your disappointment but the consequence stays.
- A child who has too much power often becomes anxious – Students should not have control over adults in a school. They should not be able to influence the way things work. Our aim is to help create resilient young people; to do this we need to allow our students to tolerate unhappy or disappointing emotions. This means allowing them to deal with the disappointment of facing a consequence. We are helping them to “build an emotional immune system.”
- Catering to your child’s every whim can lead to a child who is self-centred and lacks resilience– Just as authoritative parenting – defined by Berman as “listening to your child, encouraging independence, and giving fair and consistent consequences” – yields very well-adjusted children, also in school we should encourage ownership of a decision and the possible consequences of that.
- Consistent follow-through of rules is essential for a child’s emotional safety– In psychiatry following through some times but not others is called ‘variable reinforcement’ and it is a disaster. Unless there is a certainty of consequence each and every time, words and ultimately a schools policies mean nothing. Consistent follow through helps students learn to trust what you say and that you say what you mean.
- Talk less, give fewer choices, keep it simple– To aid this we might script certain stock responses or phrases for intervening with a student before there becomes the need for a tangible consequence. This keeps most decisions simple.
- When you say no, mean no – Don’t be the teacher that cried wolf. No means no and consequence means consequence.
In short, have a few rules and enforce them consistently without debate. Make sure every member of the community knows the rules and expectations and that there is a certainty of consequence.
This is not bullying a child or damaging their emotional state or removing their Human Rights; this is helping them to grow into a balanced young person who can self-regulate but also hold onto and cope with negative emotions.
The importance of rituals and routines
The second part of the book that has profoundly influenced my views of school is around the central role of routines and rituals in creating a safe space. Berman calls this ‘Love’s lasting legacy.’ Part of what I am sure is so appealing about being a teacher and working with young people is that in some small way you can help them become the best version of themselves. My understanding of what Berman writes is that we can help secure this at family level through having rituals and traditions that we attend to and that we should also bring the best of what we have seen from other models of parenting – not just our own experience of being parented – into how we parent. I find this particularly relevant to school. Berman summarises this as follows:
- Family traditions and rituals create a sense of identity and belonging.
- Routines in your home create predictability and safety for your child.
- A child with a strong sense of we, starts to develop a strong sense of I.
- Give voice to your love, and demonstrate it with your actions.
- Teach optimism; instill a positive outlook.
- Focus on what is right, not on what is wrong.
- Install a high ceiling; support your children’s dreams.
For me this resonated powerfully with what we try to build in school through our culture. Do we have a set of routines and rituals that are particular to the school that help to foster a sense of belonging and identity. This is one of the more powerful arguments for school uniform – if it helps create a sense of belonging. Private schools, with their often long history and corridors adorned with photographs of sports teams and previous student leaders, tend to have very powerful identities that are nourished through set routines, rituals and artefacts. All of this goes to create a sense of collective identity that a student can relate to and feel security within.
Routines are crucial to creating a safe and predictable space. The reason we insist on set practices such as the way a teacher stands on the door to greet every child every lesson or how we get silence from a class is all to create a predictable experience that reduces anxiety. So far from creating robots and removing the individual from the equation; these set routines offer a safe and predictable experience for all young people. So routines and consistency are important and schools should not shy away from insisting on this.
The other part of this is much harder to do as a teacher rather than a parent; and that is to help create an environment that is brimming over with optimism and high aspirations for everyone. So we need to have a clear structure to School where we expect all students to comply but we should do this in an environment of optimism and high aspiration.
Berman also writes at length on the need to focus on what is right, not on what is wrong. Difficult to do in the heat of the moment but we should all, as teachers, maintain a focus on ‘narrating the positive.’ We should try, as far as we can, to comment on the good things we see going on far more than on the negatives. This is not to ignore the negatives but to bring to the fore the great things happening in schools every day.
As Young and Muller (2010) explain so articulately in ‘Three educational scenarios for the future: lessons from the sociology of knowledge’, the two main stances in education debate appear to be between those who want to maintain traditional structures and power relationships and those who – born in progressive opposition to this – want to remove boundaries and invert traditional structures and relationships.
This appears has become apparent recently in the binary arguments going on over exclusions and the desire to connect stances on exclusions to beliefs about curriculum design. Understandable from a sociological perspective but probably misplaced; whereby ‘trads’ want direct instruction with rote learning and high exclusions and ‘progs’ seem to aspire to discovery learning of generic matter with no punishments. Neither of these caricatures are helpful for developing an important dialogue over this issue.
I also feel that far more helpfully than just an annual statistic would have been a 3 or 5 year trend. A calm and happy school might have a spike in short term exclusions in one year if they have a change of personnel or introduce a new system that would dissipate the following year. So a snapshot is not helpful in making anything other than sensationalist headlines. We definitely need to analyse the data, but do it over a meaningful period of time to allow for accurate analysis rather than meaningless snapshot.
So to conclude with a paraphrase from the book: we should be comfortable setting boundaries while fostering self-esteem, respect and emotional maturity. Children need limits more than they need indulgences.
As a school leader we should not shy away from setting and maintaining a clear set of rules and expectations and ensuring that these are calmly enforced every day. Equally, we should grow and nurture an aspirational school culture where we expect and look for the best in everyone and maintain a positive outlook for every child.
Like most things in school leadership – technically simple to write about, socially complex to put into action.