Born to be bad?

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Last month, Ofsted released a report attacking school leaders for not doing enough to prevent persistent low-level disruption from interrupting other students’ learning time – but were they right to do so?

A recent Ofsted report showed that teachers, parents and carers are rightly concerned about the frequent loss of learning time through low-level but persistent disruptive behaviour in classrooms. In too many schools, teachers are reported to be frustrated by bad behaviour and are critical of colleagues, particularly those in leadership positions, who aren’t doing enough to ensure high standards of pupil behaviour.

The report, ‘Below the radar’, came to the conclusion that schools leaders should take more responsibility for dealing with it. Furthermore, it identified a lack of effective training as a key problem.

What else did the report find?
According to the report, nearly 90 per cent of support staff, teachers, lecturers, school heads and college leaders said they have dealt with a challenging or disruptive student during this school year. The main targets of challenging behaviour were other students (cited by 72 per cent), followed by teaching staff (46 per cent), and then support staff (43 per cent). Between students, the most prevalent challenging behaviour was verbal aggression (cited by 77 per cent), followed by physical aggression (57 per cent), bullying in person (41 per cent), and breaking or ruining other students’ belongings (23 per cent).

Thankfully, most of the disruptive and challenging behaviour facing education staff was fairly low level with 79 per cent of staff complaining that students talked in class, did not pay attention and mucked around. Sixty-eight per cent said students were disrespectful and ignored their instructions and 55 per cent said they had had to deal with verbally aggressive students. Just over a fifth (21 per cent) had had to deal with a physically aggressive student.

The report generated a mixed response from teaching unions, who appeared torn between representing the interests of teachers suffering classroom disruption and simultaneously representing the hierarchy of school management, who were being blamed by the report.

On the one hand, teachers and support staff are suffering the backlash from deteriorating standards of behaviour. They are frequently on the receiving end of children’s frustration and unhappiness, and have to deal with the fall-out from parents failing to set boundaries and family breakdowns. And the huge funding cuts to local services mean that schools often have to deal with children’s problems without any help.

One the other hand, unions said that attacking schools and leaders regarding pupil behaviour at a time when recruitment and retention in education are approaching crisis levels was a particularly short-sighted and destructive approach by Ofsted.

It seems that neither teachers nor unions are in agreement as to who is to blame for degenerating pupil behaviour.

Can anyone be blamed?
The problem is that bad behaviour is a complex issue. Students are not automatons, where they respond automatically to certain input and produce a correspondingly unavoidable reaction to the stimuli.

The reality is that one also has to consider ‘deliberate choice’ as a reason to misbehave, and put aside the false assumption that the input students get from their teachers is far more important than the input they get from their peers. And because of these and some of the reasons highlighted below, the Ofsted report is probably hitting the nail on the head.

Students rarely act independently of their peers when they misbehave – most poor behaviour stems from interaction between students and shared expectations held by students. Students coordinate their behaviour. They behave badly when their peers behave badly. They behave badly when their peers expect them to behave badly. They behave badly when it will increase their standing with their peers. They behave badly when their peer group thinks they will get away with it, or when they think they should get away with it.

Behaviour incidents do not happen uniformly across the school. They cluster. Certain lessons, certain teachers, certain times of the day, certain times of the year or certain combinations of students will prompt more bad behaviour than others.

Sometimes they test the boundaries together, at other times they convince themselves that the boundaries should never have existed and that any attempt to impose discipline is unfair. One student’s behaviour or attitude will set off others.

That is why seemingly insignificant things can result in large amounts of bad behaviour, because it only takes a small change to prompt major problems. That is why some departments have more problems than others. That is why some year groups are worse than others even when comparing their entire time at the school.

That is also why some teachers get targeted by students and others see little poor behaviour. And it’s why if management is seen to be unsupportive over one incident, the knowledge of this can spread like wildfire and sabotage a teacher with every class they have.

The point is, if the approach to discipline is piece-meal and ad hoc, then you are more likely to move poor behaviour around rather than reduce it. If you try to devolve all behaviour management to the lowest possible level – the teacher – behaviour will start breaking down in some classes. The clustering effect means that some teachers will have to deal with more poor behaviour than others, making consistency with setting detentions or calling parents impossible.

Creating a positive climate for learning
Because of the complexity of bad behaviour, it is important for school managers to be uncompromising in the way they tackle incidents. Good managers ensure those teachers under siege from bad behaviour don’t have to manage the detentions or call parents themselves. Only a bad manager assumes that the teacher must have done something wrong and starts trying to change the teacher, often by getting them to lower expectations. They might even assume that getting involved directly to improve expectations will undermine the teacher.

The Ofsted report backs this up by concluding that in the best schools, the responsibility for creating a positive climate for learning is shared by leaders, teachers, parents and pupils.

Leaders in these schools are uncompromising in their expectations and do not settle for low standards of behaviour. They do not shy away from challenging teachers, parents or pupils, where this is necessary. These leaders:

  • are visible in classrooms, school corridors and grounds
  • know if – and where – low-level disruption occurs and ensure that all staff deal with it
  • have high expectations of behaviour and are consistent in dealing with disruptive pupils
  • explain and enforce their expectations successfully to staff, pupils and parents.

The best behaviour management is about setting universal expectations in a school. It is about creating a situation where every student sees their peers behaving.

Some of the biggest mistakes in behaviour management involve digging too deeply into the reasons individual students behave or misbehave. At the end of the day, it must be remembered that kids will always be kids... and if they can get away with it, they will.

School Leadership Today