In one of my previous career incarnations, I was given the opportunity to lead Behaviour & Wellbeing Coordination across all schools in the Northern Territory. It was a tough gig … and I was wildly unprepared. And so I read. I read all manner of books on various behaviourists’ theories from tough love and through to constructivist approaches. That’s all fine for me in that role, but classroom teachers simply don’t have the time to do that level of research.
If I were to synthesize the material I read into something short that I know to be undeniably true it would be this – that every behaviour has a Meaning and a Context. That’s the Golden BM Rule. When teachers can accept and believe this they take what I call the High Road. They are able to think about the behaviours they see and learn to respond rather than react.
High Road : Recognise >>> Understand >>> Respond
Low Road : Assume >>> Guess >>> React
The Meaning of Behaviour
Whenever a student exhibits a behaviour they are attempting one of three things. To GET, to AVOID or to ACHIEVE something. If we can make a considered choice about which, upon observing these behaviours, then we immediately choose to take the High Road and towards an effective response.
Let me give you an example. A Year 3 student throws a wild tantrum every time you ask him to do something evil and painful like … I don’t know … count! Is she they trying to GET, AVOID or ACHIEVE something? My guess is it’s AVOID. And she may be doing it brilliantly having learned through many years to avoid unwanted tasks through just this tactic. Your role as a gentle circuit-breaker of this unproductive cycle is critical, and it may just involve asking yourself “What is it about counting that’s causing this wild anxiety?”
The Importance of Context
Even our youngest students understand Context. After all, haven’t you been frustrated just once by the parent who tells you defiantly “Well, he doesn’t behave like that at home!”. Of course he doesn’t, the Context is completely different. I chuckled last year when Prince Charles and Camilla visited a Rugby League clinic on Bondi Beach. Where once there were a dozen buffed and brave footballers with their ‘guns’ on display for all and sundry, suddenly there were a group of quivering, sweaty-palmed schoolboys trying to work out whether to curtsy or bow. The arrival of the Royal couple had entirely altered the Context.
The wonderful news is that, as teachers, you have total control over the Context. Where students sit, what learning stimulus is on display, how the timetable works, use of breakout spaces, use of teacher aides, group work and technology use. Changes in any of these aspects can have a fundamental impact on behaviour. The lesson is to tweak. Make small changes at first, give them an appropriate period of time to have impact and informally evaluate your effectiveness. You might just be surprised at just how good you are at this if you shift your focus from the students to the environment occasionally.
Teachers who choose the High Road are more effective, less stressed and also more regularly promoted. They don’t waste their time justifying ineffective practice in the staffroom by blaming students with a quick “Well, Billy is being his usual so-and-so self today” and waiting for support. High Road teachers resist the urge to stamp students with labels that they will eventually learn to live up to.