Recently I have been reflecting on and talking with many teachers about behaviour management. Many teachers are saying that behaviour management isn’t working and student behaviour is becoming more and more difficult to manage. I have observed this too and added to this I have also seen children become more disruptive, frustrated or defiant due to some of the strategies that are being implemented.
When speaking with a group of University students who are studying to be teachers and nearing the end of their degree, many shared that student behaviour was their biggest worry. They were concerned that they did not feel equipped to deal with the complexity of behaviours they may be faced with in the classroom. Many teaching students felt that the behaviour management strategies they had been taught at University and on practicums seemed somewhat ineffective in dealing with inappropriate behaviours displayed by children.
We need to question the whole approach of ‘behaviour management’, those words are in themselves rather telling.
Behaviour management is often a way of managing behaviours, a way of coping and getting through.
From my experience, what I have seen is that often the strategies implemented through behaviour management techniques are often quick fixes so that we can attempt to get on with the day and the job of teaching with minimal disruptions.
We don’t always stop to really consider what is actually needed to support the development of the child.
As educators and the school system as a whole, we need to go deeper than this. We need to start to look at finding ways to really understand and deal with the issues that children are presenting in our schools. We need to not just focus on managing behaviours but also supporting children to deal with the issues and patterns that are underneath these and from which these behaviours emerge.
In my first few years as a teacher I once had a behaviour teacher observe my class as there was a child with very distinct needs in the group. The behaviour teacher gave me some strategies to cope with this student in an attempt to minimise the disruptions to the classroom. The suggestions given were: to set up a relaxed space in the classroom for this child so that they could choose to go there if they felt like they were in an aggressive state and felt like they couldn’t control themselves, to let the child go for a walk or get a drink if they felt they needed some time to themselves and that if this child completed one set task they would then get 20 minutes free time on the computer.
I could see where the behaviour teacher was coming from and why these strategies may be needed. However I considered these suggestions in the context of the whole class. For me as a teacher it was not about control but discerning what will support this child and the whole class. I considered what was being presented and I realised that more was needed than this and that this approach would give this one child a lot of power in the room. This child already intimidated other children. I could see that this child was incredibly hurt by some situations that were happening at home. The child was scared and felt threatened by what was happening that was outside of their control. When this child then came to school they displayed aggressive behaviours to get others to back off and ensure that they wouldn’t be vulnerable or feel threatened in this environment.
I contemplated what these strategies would actually teach this child and the other children in the room. I felt very strongly that it was saying to this child, if you use aggression as a means to control your environment then you will get others to step on egg shells around you and you will have power over the room and others. This child had a history of physically and verbally lashing out at other children in the room, so the other children felt very threatened and intimidated by this child.
I also considered what these strategies would be saying to the other kids. They would see that the child who displayed the most destructive or unsettling behaviour would also be getting rewarded for this by having their own relaxing space, not having to do work if they didn’t want to and by also getting more time on the computer than what they were getting.
In their eyes it would be seen that we were condoning this behaviour. There was also a child in the room who had been physically harmed by this child around this same time. This child felt scared to come to school, was having issues sleeping, often having nightmares about the incident and the parents were very concerned by this.
I asked the behaviour teacher that if they were here to support the child who had been hurt would they be giving me the same advice. My question was dismissed as irrelevant. So I asked again, this time saying “if you were sitting here with the parent of the child who was feeling scared would you be suggesting this same approach to dealing with the child who is showing these more aggressive behaviours?”
The specialist said “No I wouldn’t, but I am not here for that family today so this is what I suggest for this family and child”. This confirmed to me that we couldn’t undertake a plan that only considered the needs of one at the expense of all others. I replied that I needed to be there for every family and while I was more then happy to do something different to support the particular needs of a child, if the something different didn’t support the whole group then it also wouldn’t actually support that one child.
This child was starting to become identified by their behaviours. Underneath that I could actually see a very hurt child who at times would show me that they actually wanted to build relationships with the other kids in the class. Due to the child’s life experiences so far they didn’t know how to do that, they had been so hurt that they lacked trust in others so the child operated in an almost constant state of defense.
I realised that if I used strategies to manage this child’s behaviour that actually alienated or separated them even more from the group and in that I would be doing this child a great disservice. Now, many years later I have worked with thousands of children and have experienced many children with similar patterns to this child.
What I have seen is that regardless of the behaviours all children want to feel loved, cared about and included.
It is therefore important that we create school and classroom environments that are built on a foundation of love, care, respect, responsibility and relationships. These cannot be token words, it needs to be something that is lived and expressed across all areas of the school.
What I have learnt is that we need to take the time to really get to know the children in our class.
Relationships are crucial to the learning process and to life.
When we build relationships with the children we get a sense of who they really are and what they actually want underneath the behaviours they display. For the child who is displaying inappropriate behaviours we need to see through these behaviours and look for the real essence of them. We need to connect to them from this knowing of who they actually are and establish an environment where they can develop trust and learn to discard the behaviours that come from their hurts.
In my experience I have seen time and time again that when we establish a group or classroom environment that operates from foundations that are about establishing a sense of class community based on care and responsibility and that focuses on the quality of the relationships, all children want to be part of that. In that we then know what individuals need and it will be in line with developing qualities that will be in respect of other members of the class. It may be that a child needs a space to calm themselves down but this will not be exclusive to this one child but will be something that can be used by all if needed. When the children feel like you know them and they feel a quality in the relationship you have with them they feel safe and secure and are then more understanding when another child requires more of your time or attention, they having a knowing that when they need it, you will be there for them too.
This approach is not a quick fix solution, it takes time and energy to develop but it is worth it. This approach incorporates the big picture and it is based on developing the qualities in the child that will support them to function, build relationships and engage in life.
If we look for a quick fix strategy and we know that this strategy may get a child to comply because they want something but it sends a confusing or contradictory message to the other students then we know that this approach is not actually supporting anyone.
It is important not to negotiate with disturbing, disruptive or inappropriate behaviours. When we have a genuine relationship with the child and have taken the time to really know them we are then in a better position to be able to call the disruptive behaviours to account and say no to them. In this the child feels that you know they are more than what they are showing at that point and you don’t accept them playing lesser than that or harming another. These behaviours can be addressed firmly if needed and the child will still feel the care you have for them because you are not identifying them with the behaviour but saying to them, this is not on, I know you are more than this.
This then leaves the child with a choice and it encourages a level of self-responsibility and gives the child an opportunity to learn to self regulate and deal with their behaviour. It is about working with the child to become aware of how their behaviour impacts on themselves and those around them. When we go into rules, reaction and control we rob children of the opportunity to learn how to take responsibility for themselves and deal with life. We also then get lost in a power battle that is exhausting and more time consuming then what it takes to create a harmonious and responsible classroom environment.
How do you want to develop our children to be the adults of the future?