Teaching behaviour rather than controlling it.
When I was in my mid 20s I spent a couple of years doing relief teaching in London. I spent a few months doing day-to-day relieving and then spent the rest of the time in a position doing the release time for teachers – half a day a week in 10 classes.
Something I found really interesting in this role was how the students responded to a relief teacher in terms of their learning behaviour. One observation I made was the classes of teachers who were thought of as having extremely good ‘control’ of their classes were often the worst classes to go into as a reliever. There were other classes however that were really easy to step into as a reliever and the students carried on in their normal manner, despite having a different person in the room with them. As I was in the same school but in different classes all the time I had plenty of opportunity to watch the ways these teachers interacted with their classes. It seemed to me that the teachers that were overly controlling of their classes failed to teach their students to manage their own behaviour, as it was always being managed for them. The moment the teacher was not in the room managing the behaviour the children were lost, with no desire or skills for behaving in a way that was helpful to their learning.
Prior to this experience I had worked at a school where controlling student behaviour was a high priority. Working in London really challenged me to change my mindset. I moved from a ‘controlling’ behaviour mindset to a teaching behaviour mindset.
There are a couple of things that I learnt from my experiences.
Firstly, teaching behaviour takes time. As with anything that is well worth learning, learning to manage one’s own behaviour takes time and many mistakes will be made along the way. In a school environment it is really important for school staff to scaffold this process. It is important to put structures in place that keep children safe as they learn these important lessons. It is important to give students plenty of opportunity to practice behavioural things, especially if they are struggling with these. It is important to be patient as mistakes are made and help children to reflect critically on their own choices.
Secondly, teaching behaviour involves high expectations and role-modelling. Everyone needs to know what they are aiming for. Putting in the boundaries and expectations for appropriate behaviour is essential. Different contexts require different types of behaviour and it is important that children learn these. It is important too that the adults in their lives are demonstrating what these look like. If I am expecting children to be organised for a lesson then I too need to be organised. If I expect children to say sorry when they made a mistake or hurt someone then I too need to apologise for things. If I expect children to talk calmly to each other when they are upset then I need to talk calmly to them when I am upset.
Lastly, teaching behaviour is always worth it. Once I adopted this mindset of teaching behaviour rather than controlling it there was always a period at the start of the year that seemed to require a lot of effort and a lot of patience. I was constantly having these long, reflective chats with certain children and having to revisit expectations, and at times wondering if I was getting through at all. Sometimes these periods would feel a little like when you tidy a room and it often gets messier before it gets tidier. The point that I love though is when 98% of the children have learned to manage their own behaviour. The point where very little energy goes into controlling behaviour anymore and all my energy can go into growing and developing children. The point when children can openly and honestly manage their own conflict. The point when children help to keep each other accountable for their behaviour. I love that tipping point. I love too that the children have learnt important skills that will help them through life, not just kept them restrained long enough to get their ‘school work’ done.
Over a period of time in a school where all the students are learning to manage their own behaviour and teachers are actively encouraging this, a learning culture develops that is self sustaining. The children that have learnt to manage their own behaviour set the expectation for others. In this type of culture the focus of teachers and students becomes less about behaviour and turns towards learning, growing and thriving.