behaviour policy – beyond your 4 walls

Once upon a time, in a small isolated village of just 2000 people in the south of Utopia, there existed a single school, and in this school they decided that enough was enough with poor behaviour. They were fed up with the loss of learning caused by recalcitrants simply not following the school’s expectations, and their disruptive behaviours impinging upon others who either wanted to learn, or at least had some sense of it being good for them, if not now, but for their future. It was reflecting in poor results, which seemed to entrench a self-fulfilling prophecy plaguing the town that it would never amount to much, but it also just wasn’t fair to those who deserved a good education. This school, unbeknown to the general community, had an epiphany: it would implement a utilitarian policy, and weed out the negative influence, brand it as ‘operation engage’, aware of the obvious ironic possibilities with such a title, and follow the policy unwaveringly to its natural conclusion when students refused to cooperate with it. Contentedly, and assuredly, the school believed it had found the solution to its behavioural problems.  

Suddenly, in a short amount of time, the village found itself with 5 students who had been excluded from the school. This was a shock to the villagers, who had never witnessed such a situation before. A community meeting was urgently called, and at the beginning of the meeting residents expressed a wave of near hysteric concern: what would these students now do? Who would educate them? What would be the price for the community in terms of what these students wouldn’t be able to contribute to the village considering their now lack of education? Who would look after them during school hours? Who would counsel them in coming to terms with the blatant message that they were now different from the rest of the village, and who would be there to guide and monitor the inevitable emotional fallout from this awareness? Why were they behaving as they were to result in the exclusion? Why did they react to the enforcement of the rules differently to the other children? And how did a relatively minor infraction escalate so quickly to an expulsion for 2 of the students?   

Some in the community then turned their discussion to more philosophical considerations, and about what it meant to be an educator. They inquired whether the village was happy enough to believe that the children, who by definition required learning in every context, were mature enough to truly understand the consequences of their behaviours? or whether they had the skills or indeed capacity to modify and reflect on that behaviour when it was challenged? and whether the popularity of a progression model of curriculum to assist academic learning seemed contradictory when not being applied to behavioural and emotional learning, especially considering the contexts and family life of the 5 excluded children? They enquired as to whether the exclusion would create a culture of cyclical deviance, with the child likely to seek other forms of deviance or people stigmatised with the same label, and if so, what measures would then have to be put in place to prevent, or worse, manage those subsequent behaviours? And finally they wondered whether such an inflexible approach to infraction would produce a happy community in the long run?

When these questions were put to the school, the principal looked up with sincerity, and explained that even though the decision to implement their policy seemed harsh, that providing firm and consistent boundaries was a necessary strategy for all children, but especially for those children with the most troubling of behaviours. In fact, he suggested it was the most effective strategy to prevent this type of student from falling further into deviance, because what many of the students who have behavioural issues have in common is a lack of control of their emotions and a lack of experience and exposure to the application of consistent boundaries, boundaries that he hoped everyone would agree were important in raising a child. He said that the repeated behaviourist approach to ensuring rules were followed was in fact incrementally training students to take more responsibility for their own behaviours, the ultimate and collectively understood goal of citizens in the town.

He said that since the exclusions the school’s results had improved. In terms of the 5 who were excluded, the principal explained that after attempts to bring the students into line with expectations had failed, the school simply didn’t have the necessary resources to assign to the explicit and substantive training the handful of students, who for some reason or another couldn’t emotionally engage with what the school was offering, realistically needed. In terms of what the excluded students would now do during regular school time, again, the principal highlighted the need for him to be pragmatic, that the exclusions had resulted in substantial benefits to the majority of students now learning more, and reiterated that it was not in his capacity to be able to manage the outcomes in what now eventuated for the 5.

In terms of the philosophical concerns, he added that it was a utilitarian society by nature, in how capitalist ideology naturally excluded villagers from certain privileges and opportunities, and how exam grade boundaries reinforce this natural division and in fact require certain percentages of children to fail for it to work, and that as a corollary school life could be no different.  When one of the villagers rebutted about the cyclical deviance, the principal highlighted the notion of having high expectations, and that if you tolerate and thereby accept the deviant behaviour of the few, the whole suffers. He also said again that it was beyond his remit and that prospective offenders would be a matter for the law.

The principal’s message was assertive, and charismatic, and ostensibly logical, and the crowd of villages found themselves eventually acquiescent to it. Except one. Seated in the middle of the now encouraged and practically effusive group, she rose to signal their attention. Whilst respectful and understanding of the points presented, she had several queries: she was unsure as to why it hadn’t been a community decision to implement the utilitarian policy, and why the school had taken it on without consultation since it most certainly had ramifications to the community having 5 uneducated children wondering around; she wondered why the exclusions had been made before any significant researched remediation process had been designed; she wondered why preparations had not been made before exclusions were carried out as to what provision was on offer and how these children would now be educated, as it being a small village, the children couldn’t be passed off somewhere else; she wondered why, despite the acknowledgement of the utilitarian ideology, why people were content with it, and whether their complaisance would alter if they indeed found themselves to be one of the necessary few who missed the positive boundary, and what long term psychological effects this sense of failure may have for those subsequently branded; she wondered how proactive the school had been in ‘teaching’ behaviour, and whether school staff suffered from the curse of knowledge, unaware of the challenges that some students, and most likely the excluded 5, face in conforming to the expectations when they haven’t had sufficient practice in learning them; she wondered whether staff in the school had been given sufficient training to handle contexts where students were presenting behavioural cognitive overload, and whether they were adequately skilled in de-escalating those contexts and not exacerbating them, which usually resulted in the (unintended) entrapment of the child, pushing them into an emotional corner, and ultimately affecting the ramping up and accumulation of misdemeanours when reacting to that overload.    

To her there seemed a great many unanswered questions that made her surprised at the assertiveness of the principal.

The principal retorted that ideally he would be able to provide a mediation phase for students who were struggling for one reason or another to follow the school’s rules, a phase that was supported by trained counsellors who could help the student unpick where behaviours have emanated from and provide appropriate strategies to help students negotiate the feelings that have previously caused deviant reactions. He would love to able to provide several teachers who could assist students to catch up with missed content, so when they returned back to class they didn’t feel overwhelmed by their lack of knowledge and understandably feel inadequate, often resulting in a negative, almost defence-like reaction that often perpetuated the behaviour cycle. The reality was, according to the principal, that he simply didn’t have the funds to create such a pathway, a restorative pathway that would ultimately prevent exclusions from occurring. He also added that sometimes that within a school context the restorative path was in fact untenable, with some students, blighted by family context, essentially needing one to one counselling for extended periods of time, especially if homelife behaviours were continuously deleterious. And how could you only have one or two teachers working full time as ‘gap’ fillers? Would they be trained in every subject for every year level, and how would they know what has been missed, and what if there are 10 students out of classes at any one time?   

The woman, initially immovable at the seemingly rash direction the school had taken, now, with more information, felt a greater understanding of where the principal was coming from, but was still not completely convinced. She too conceded that the situation was not straightforward, understood the need for pragmatism and that there were no easy answers, but that this only reinforced her concerns that the policy had actually been enacted. Because of this, she wanted to reiterate again that the school should have thought a great deal more about the mechanics and logistics and responsibilities involved in implementing a radical behaviour policy. It would need to think considerably more about training teachers and students to engage with it. It would need to think considerably more about the amount of time needed to train teachers how to minimise behavioural cognitive overload. It would need to think considerably more about providing students with sufficient opportunity to learn and practice what is learnt in how to react to behavioural challenge, and especially how to react when faced with behavioural cognitive overload. It would need to think considerably more about what would then happen if a student still couldn’t respond to these learning opportunities, and have provision in place that facilitated that learning with the goal of getting the student back to mainstream education as soon as possible, where appropriate. After all, in such a small town there was no brushing the issue under the carpet.

The principal conceded that possibly the decision had been a little rushed, and vowed to adjust the current approach and initiate more training for both teachers and students. The community conceded that more funding HAD to go into the school to support such an initiative, and that it would need to design the necessary infrastructure for the students who were excluded. The meeting adjourned, and the folk of Utopia went home satisfied.

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger and follow this blog for more discussions about education.

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