The role of rules in behavioural management

At the outset of my first role as a Deputy Head leading on behaviour I was amazed to find that my new school had no agreed and displayed rules which everyone applied and adhered to.

My initial surprise turned to a wave of selfish excitement as I sensed a ‘quick win’ and an early chance to have impact.

For the previous ten years I had been dutifully applying that which I had gleaned from Lee Canter, Bill Rogers, John Bailey et al about simple clear rules, positive behaviour management and classroom discipline, indeed its logic had been the backbone of the training I had been leading both within my previous schools and across schools locally. To the best of my knowledge this experience had been a key factor in my recent appointment so I assumed, naively it transpired, my proposal would be accepted.

However when I presented my new Head teacher with my simple proposal to engage staff in agreeing common rules which we could all apply consistently he wanted the evidence of impact. He was not moved by my experience of their value, nor the list of more qualified names supporting them either. He had been converted to the work of John Hattie and his evidence based learning. The simple corollary to this conversion was to require evidence of impact before adopting any new approach.

This marked the beginning of my journey into real, systematic tackling of behaviour. Never before had I been challenged to prove evidentially that commonly agreed approaches were of value, indeed I would not be permitted to implement them without convincing my boss. My response below is in no way perfect and I have subsequently learned, designed and applied more convincingly evidence based rationales for rules and other structures. The work of Robert Marzano, as one example, has tackled this very issue directly (many would also say convincingly) but this was a young leader’s first challenge as a Deputy Head and his best attempt to be allowed to lead on behaviour using consistent rules.

I share partly because I still believe in what I wrote, partly with a sentimental nod to where this work truly started but also to amuse and to begin our journey towards Here to Learn. Your views would be gratefully received.

In the interests of discretion I have changed the school’s name to Theobold’s simply as I know of no school of that name.

In Defence of Rules and Consequences

I once had the dubious pleasure of helping with a language trip that had run into a last minute staffing shortage. It took 26 hours for the coach to reach the German town of Aachen. The TV and video player were broken, one girl was sick more times than we had bags to catch and the head of MfL had a serious odour issue. The surrounding fields had been freshly manured in preparation for the sowing of seeds. As one boy stepped from the coach I asked him whether he was looking forward to the week ahead. He looked around, inhaled deeply through his nose, and replied ‘Nah … Germany smells’.

It is more common than we often credit that all of us reach conclusions before questioning the validity of our evidence sample. We have all encountered staff who have told us that approaches don’t work; ‘I was at a school that tried that … it was useless’. No doubt we have reached such conclusions ourselves from time to time.

For that very reason the appeal of Hattie’s work is obvious. Empirical evidence based on mammoth samples and coherently organised, validated meta-analyses illuminates the genuine impact of specific elements of teaching, intervention and learning. The concept of expert ahead of outstanding and even further ahead of experienced teaching is at the heart of our vision at Theobold’s. Sir Michael Wilshaw talks of classrooms as the place where change is to be affected and of teaching and learning as the beginning and end of the appropriate focus for school improvement. At Theobold’s we genuinely have goals that go further. Using Hattie’s analyses we challenge ourselves and our staff to do more than merely ‘have impact’, after all almost all approaches do that, but to focus on those that have the greatest impact above the hinge point of 0.4.

Successfully cutting through the dull defence of teachers that ‘they have impact’ comes at a cost however. Some previously automatic assumptions within education are now challenged to show their impact and equally to explain how they can assist rather than damage the achievement of higher goals than previously attained.

I refer here to the intrinsically motivated student. The child or young adult who has bought into our value system, has understood the contribution of their actions now to their futures so far that they are in a constant state of flow whilst learning. These students find reward not in extrinsic prizes but in the act of learning and contributing to the society that they are part of. Sanctions need not be advertised to these youngsters for they would never encounter them. The mere interruption of flow that distraction would bring would be so joyless that they would instantly bring their focus back to the task at hand.

My point here is not facetious, it merely illustrates the challenge when justifying the existence of a structure previously taken as read to be a cornerstone of any good or outstanding school. Sir Alan Steer’s knighthood stemmed from his mastery of it; Charlie Taylor is still employed by the Government as the chief advisor on it. I refer to a behavioural / school discipline policy with rules and consequences. Couched in such terms it cannot compare. The collapse of flow is instant. Streams of consciousness are reduced to essay plans in a heartbeat. The intrinsically motivated student instantly becomes a rule-bound, prize-chasing grunt.

And yet this can’t be right. For something to have existed for so long, have been so successful in so many contexts, to have been the very bedrock of many schools’ approaches – surely there needs to be some defence? However a defence is not what is needed. Rather a shot at justifying its existence does seem the least the old beast deserves before we cast it aside to sail along the flow of intrinsic motivation.

1. Do behavioural approaches have impact?

Hattie’s meta-analyses identify the following influences on achievement that specifically relate to behaviour and score above the 0.4 hinge-point:

• Classroom Behavioural 0.68

• Classroom Management 0.52

Yet there are further influences, which rest heavily on behavioural elements:

• Classroom Cohesion 0.53

• Peer influences 0.53

Furthermore it is hard to imagine either of the following would be successful without an appropriately focussed learning environment:

• Teacher Credibility 0.9

• Classroom Discussion 0.82

Using Hattie’s analyses there is therefore sufficient evidence to support the assertion, not that we need a classroom discipline plan nor a behavioural policy, but rather that behaviour and the appropriate learning environment matters. They have impact.

2. Hattie’s analyses do not show Classroom Discipline Plans, Sanction Escalation Structures, rewards or sanctions themselves to be impactful.

Indeed they are not analysed [directly] at all. But for that matter neither is the existence of a roof, a heating system or a decent provision of food and drink in the canteen. Nonetheless it would be difficult to imagine a school of intrinsically motivated learners in the often wet and cold environment in which they starved without the above. The absence from Hattie’s list of influences itself should not preclude the potential value and influence excluded elements may have.

3. By the nature of rules and consequence structures their coverage is so broad that testing their potential impact is difficult.

Here we must be careful when we use Hattie’s analyses too rigidly. Alan Watts’ Wisdom of Insecurity tackled the 21st Century western obsession with understanding the meaning of existence, indeed the role or otherwise of God in that existence. He argued that in many ways the search for understanding took people first away from it. In order to understand the great river they loved, they constantly took buckets of water from it to analyse for meaning. Of course in so doing the river ceased to flow and the static bucket of water before them taught them limited lessons. For it is in its very flow that the river has its meaning.

Hattie’s meta-analyses are full of lessons about impact and yet taken in isolation we run the risk of losing sight of the context from which they were taken.

Consider the likelihood of the following influences occurring in an environment that wasn’t orderly [at least during instruction], safe enough for students to take risks and get things wrong and in which we all listen to each other:

• Self reported grades / Student expectations 1.44

• Feedback 0.75

• Direct instruction 0.59

Behaviouralists often fall foul of presenting a narrow view of education whereby rules and consequences, along with relationships, lay at the heart of education. This fails to acknowledge, let alone harness, the most influential approaches identified by Hattie and consequently is flawed. However rules, consequences and indeed the fostering of appropriate positive relationships have a strategic role to play in order to allow the more telling influences to be our central focus. My assertion is that establishing expectations and consequences for fulfilling them or not is not the goal but rather a necessary precursor to an engaging learning environment.

Gordon Stobart’s strategic learners are worthy of consideration here. It is entirely consistent with Hattie’s concept of deliberate practice that our youngsters, on their journey to becoming intrinsically motivated learners, apply the correct approaches to their learning in a strategic way. In other words because they recognise that the consequences of doing so will be positive for them as opposed to the negative consequences that will follow if they do not adhere to our expectations.

The challenge therefore is to frame the expectations that we have and the consequences for fulfilling them or otherwise in such a way that we may make this strategic stage a stepping-stone towards intrinsic motivation. In order to achieve this the first principle is that rules must emerge from the right that students have to learn. The second principle is that consequences must be clearly framed as the inevitable results of pupils’ actions and approaches. The third is that the consequences must not undermine intrinsic motivation by encouraging the pursuit of reward.

a) Rules should be limited in number and emerge from the right of students.

A clearly displayed, consistent set of rules enables us to collectively reinforce our expectations of the learning environment at Theobold’s. Having a core of shared expectations enables us to support each other through their application and to make the consequences that follow to be the result of pupil choice. By framing these expectations as emerging from the rights of students it gives us a positive and purposeful framework for our language when we refer to them. It helps us to remain consistent with the values we want the students to accept and eventually embrace. Rather than simply ‘be quiet and listen’ we have ‘we all have the right to learn here and your talking is preventing that from happening. I need you to listen to what Shafak is saying’.

The Behaviour Learning Community has been considering the framing of our expectations and the following has emerged as a proposal:

We have the right to learn to the best of our ability

Turn up to lessons on time, fully equipped and ready to learn

Listen when others are talking

Follow Teacher instructions straight away

We have the right to feel emotionally and physically safe

Keep hands, objects and unhelpful comments to yourselves

We have the right to learn in a tidy and pleasant environment

Keep classrooms free from litter and graffiti

Whilst individual subjects and teachers will have separate, additional rules according to their learning environments [for example PE changing rules or Science experiment routines] these core rules should be applicable to all learning environments around the building.

b) Consequences should be framed as the inevitable results of pupils’ actions and approaches.

There are several reasons for this. Firstly we are training youngsters to make better decisions. This doesn’t simply apply to school; it is an essential life skill that hey must understand. The consequences of their decision at school are advertised in the classroom discipline plan to aid their understanding of this reality, indeed to ensure that they have had fair opportunity to do so. The consequences of their choices are just as real in life but less clearly advertised at times. We owe it to our youngsters to make the connection between actions and consequences.

Secondly it removes potential conflict with teachers as those that choose punishments. Teachers highlight that a rule has been broken and that a right has been undermined but the discipline plan has already made the consequence clear. As a result consequences are less personal and relationships are easier to repair and rebuild.

Thirdly the severity of a consequence has been misunderstood to be the key factor in correcting misbehaviour. On the contrary undue severity is simply likely to lead to disaffection and alienation from the member of staff imposing it. It is also far more likely to lead to heated conflict and non-compliance. It is actually in the certainty of consequence that behaviour is affected. A five minute detention, for example is much easier to administer, less likely to cause resentment, yet will still cause a student to be at the back of a queue or leave them missing out on the start of their social time.

c) Consequences must not undermine intrinsic motivation

Daniel Pink’s Drive provides a compelling case for the damage that poorly designed and administered reward system can actually cause. He demonstrates that in many cases these rewards actually demotivate and undermine the values that hey were intended to celebrate and encourage. The rewards can too often become the goal that is striven for leading to diminishing returns as rewards become more common and less exciting followed by a lack of motivation unless a reward is attainable.

Pink argues that where we want to motivate creativity and higher order engagement it is far better to focus on Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose. He does however recognise that there are circumstances whereby rewards can be effective, indeed are beneficial. Where a task or compliance with a rule is not creative, in fact it is routine, rewards are shown to increase productivity and compliance in the world of business. For all other tasks recognition is a far more powerful and effective motivator.

Behavioural expectations are not creative – they are by their nature routine and complying dull. This would fit the profile of something worthy of reward in Pink’s thesis. However the motivational power of recognition remains ‘better’ and would not run the risk of reward chasing rather than the development of intrinsic motivation. As such our positive consequences will focus on progressions of recognition for behaviours that adhere to the values we promote. Meaningful, appropriate praise will be the first stage, with progressive levels of communication of that praise being the escalation of recognition that follows. In practice a pupil focussing well on a problem may well have a quiet positive word from the teacher as he or she circulates the class, the student who helps others to understand a problem may find that a note / message is sent to their From Tutor acknowledging them, the pupil who tries their best yet again at a class challenge may have a positive phone call home and so on. Hence we can learn from Pink’s warning about poor rewards without failing to acknowledge and encourage the behaviours we seek.

Therefore our consequences will develop autonomy because they are the results of pupil choices; mastery because the recognition will be for the quality and consistency of the application of approaches that most help students learn and have clear purpose because they are always attached to a right that students have at Theobold’s.

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