Behaviour: what can primary schools do?

Rather than leave it all to class teachers, primary school leaders could help by taking on some responsibility for behaviour

Secondary teachers, how would you like to teach your bottom set for every lesson, every day, all week and for a whole year? This is the lot of some primary teachers up and down the country, such is the nature of primary teaching that every now and then a teacher will be handed a notoriously difficult cohort for a year and there will be much sympathy in the staffroom for them.  This teacher will either be a really good teacher who has ‘broad shoulders’ and is known for being good with behaviour management such that they can reform an entire cohort, or SLT just hate them and are hoping they’ll have a mental breakdown and leave. This teacher will be responsible for and be physically with this cohort even through breaks and lunchtimes if the weather is bad.

I’ve often written about behaviour and you all know that I am a big believer in teaching children self-control through routine, discipline, high expectations and clear boundaries. I think this is especially important for disadvantaged children because in addition to the well documented lack of vocabulary and general knowledge, many also lack the self-control and ability to organise or be systematic due to not having routines, discipline or boundaries enforced at home. Lately, a reading journey into Confucianism has highlighted for me the importance of ritual and habit as a way of civilising human beings. The Chinese employed the Confucian principle of shaping character through repeated ‘proper actions’ because they believed that doing good not only made you a better person, but a happier one too; I can’t help but make a link here with Michaela Community School’s policy of enforcing good behaviour with rituals associated with ingraining politeness and civility and the fact that all accounts of the school state that the children seem very happy. Is there a place for rituals and behaviour policies like this in primary schools that would not only improve behaviour, but also make children happier? If there is, a beleaguered classroom teacher cannot do this alone.

Contrary to what I view as the MCS ideal (or idyll), primary schools are quite likely to employ child-centred behaviour policies that rely on the child making their own decision as to what constitutes good or kind behaviour and it is not uncommon for primary educators to believe that a black-and-white approach to behaviour is far too authoritarian, abusive even. Primary educators are also likely to subscribe to the developmentalist view that good behaviour somehow develops ‘naturally’ and I’ve quite often noted a collective sigh of acceptance in classrooms, corridors and schools whereby staff opt to follow an errant pupil, offering choices and kind words rather than just saying that enough is enough. What compounds this issue is that when children are very young it is assumed that their chatter and high jinks in class is not seen as quite so disruptive, partly because their little bodies do less damage and make less noise, partly because their slight misdemeanors may even be seen as quite cute; the upshot is the tendency towards low-level disruption is effectively ingrained over a few years until, usually, the year 5 or 6 is handed a riot of 30 large, loud and unruly children. Confounding this issue is the fact that primary schools are more inclusive than secondary schools; whereas the most disruptive children would go on to special schools or PRUs, or at least be spread around different classes in secondary schools come year 7, these same children have been with the same cohort for 7 years on the trot prior to that; the children that they shared a classroom with for 7 years would inevitably become desensitised to poor behaviour such that they become either angry at the injustice of seeing some children be allowed to break the rules (and receive rewards for things they should be doing anyway), or just be more likely to engage in low-level disruption because low-level disruption is actually good behaviour when compared to the lowest common denominator. I saw a year 5 class of 34 once at a multi-school event stand by and not even flinch as one of their peers proceeded to shout and kick the shit out of the classroom furniture in a science lab. The teacher stood by and occasionally interject with kind, soft words imploring the child to make a good choice.

Even if primary educators vehemently deny all this, instead verbally supporting a view that children should sit still, concentrate and face the teacher because it is the right thing to do, you look around schools and a good portion of children don’t even stop what they’re doing or bother to look at the adult when the adult is talking. Reality: primary schools may inadvertently have lower expectations of behaviour,  behaviour policies that seriously undermine adult authority and when dealing with bad behaviour are more likely to blame the teacher anyway for not making lessons fun enough etc.

I realised recently that I do SLANT, but only because it seems normal rather than because I have read about it; perhaps this is because I am a parent and wouldn’t dream of allowing my own children to ignore me when I am giving them an instruction. Unfortunately, children genuinely come up to my class every single September not bothering to look at the teacher and I find it a bit weird (this is worsened by children spending too much time at home staring at screens rather than getting used to talking and looking at human faces), so I’d have to repeatedly stop what I doing to enforce children’s attention and you wouldn’t believe the tutting, stropping, huffing, flouncing, eye rolling and scowling I would be treated to upon asking, politely, this most simple request for 100% attention. I don’t give up and behaviour does turn around such their next teacher says ‘Aren’t they a good class! You’re so lucky!’ completely unaware of the sheer ball-breaking relentlessness I have had to deploy to get cohorts straightened up. But is this troublesome class the fault of their previous teachers? No. It’s the fault of school management. Every single teacher in any primary school that does not have whole-school behaviour policies is utterly exhausted from constant behaviour management such that things slip, they get desensitised to the subtle rudeness and anyway, they are led to believe it’s somehow their fault for not be nice enough or having fun/interesting lessons. Inevitably, they choose to leave with their heads hung in shame. High turnover (which is a ‘Good Thing’ because SLT need to keep up the search for The Perfect Teacher) and the fact that children are given so much status through the use of student voice perpetuates this misery.

So, like many primary teachers, I run my own ‘detentions’ and I dig deep to find the energy to get children to behave and pay 100% attention, never settling for anything less than that, but I can’t be with them 100% of the time. I get given the tough classes because I am a strong character, but what of the different kinds of teachers who also deserve to have the children’s attention? This is would I do if I had some say so in primary schools:

  1. Stop blaming the teacher for not making lessons fun enough
  2. Do what secondary schools do and have a system for removing the worst offenders from lessons without automatically blaming the teacher. Let them do something mundane while they’re out of class and have them apologise to their teacher and classmates for stealing precious learning time.
  3. Have visible SLT backing up teachers in public. This sends a very powerful signal to children that they cannot play adults off against each other and that just because their own class teacher isn’t with them, doesn’t mean they’ve got permission to turn into hooligans. Remember, young children lack the maturity to know and understand the right way to behave, which is why whole-school behaviour is probably more important in primary schools than in secondary schools.
  4. Have centralised ‘detentions’ run by SLT rather than just brushing everything under the carpet and turning a blind eye to the fact that teachers are having to cobble their own lunchtime ‘detentions’ together. Or maybe just allow junior school teachers to share the lunchtime detention responsibilities; this would free up time to run fun lunchtime clubs because, let’s face it, constantly spending lunchtime chivvying the same children to neaten up their writing books or actually do more than 3 calculations really grinds you down over time.
  5. Bring back some old-fashioned rituals that ingrain politeness and civility. Lining up in silence, standing up and greeting the head teacher when she enters the room etc. Not only would this massively improve behaviour, but ancient Chinese wisdom says that rituals like this makes people happier.
  6. Instead of constant learning walks that check up on the teacher, why not have learning walks to check up on the behaviour of children and how they’re making an effort with presentation in books? I can’t help but think that children get the wrong message when they see the look of fear on a teacher’s face as SLT burst in with their clipboards and iPads, poised to photograph and peer at everything the teacher does, as if trying to catch them out.
  7. Maybe those weekly arithmetic test results could be emailed out to parents? Yes, some parents won’t be bothered, but many will and there’s nothing like a bit o’ pressure from Dad or a threat of no pocket money to make an unruly child think twice before opting out of paying attention! Parents I speak to desperately want this information anyway and they also want to know a class average for comparison too; fundamentally this comes from a place of caring and wanting their child to do well. I once mentioned this in the staffroom and there was general disgust at the possibility of parents being a bit competitive with each other over their children’s test results, but if it’s ok for it to be widely known that a child is good at football, why is it such a sin for it to be known that a child is working hard at being a good mathematician?
  8. Have a whole-school expectation for SLANT policy in all classrooms. Make sure the TAs follow it too (the times I am trying to say something to the class and a TA simultaneously allows a child with SEN to opt out and witter on about mundane things…..).

The DH sat near to me recently in PPA and we were near her classroom. The supply teacher was ‘suffering’ and you could hear some high jinks just carrying on while the teacher tried to give out some instructions. The DH turned to me and said, ‘It’s such a shame. They behave for me, but why not for this teacher?’ I kept my mouth shut.

Whole-school behaviour policies. Come on, let’s get strict in primary schools.

Who’s with me?




5 thoughts on “Behaviour: what can primary schools do?

  1. Agree 100%. Your descriptions of behaviour and it’s management in Primary is for me chilling. I have seen the odd example of some of the things you have seen in Secondary but nothing like you describe. I am aware that others report similar from Secondary.

    I tend to dislike SLANT however. I like the sentiment but I feel the individual words are created simply to create the acronym.

    I prefer pay attention to the teacher rather than track for instance.


  2. I agree with you that your school sounds barmy. I don’t agree that this is representative of all primary schools. We do all the things in your lost ( except standing up when I enter the room- I wouldn’t want to disrupt their learning with that) and the schools run by my colleagues seem similar. I don’t think we are particularly strict- your list just seems like a common sense way to run a school. Is your class in a middle class area? I say that because I suspect that it’s more likely certain middle class parents want a child centred regime. Just a hunch. Anyway you sound like you’d be an asset on an SLT so why not apply and get out of that weird school you are in.


  3. While I agree totally with your analysis, you really do need to emphasise that when teachers are in control in a school, the entire atmosphere is so much more relaxed and good natured that you can lose sight of how this culture of shared values and mutual respect is built. The knee-jerk response of educators and probably most teachers is that you are advocating classrooms run like a military glass-house.

    It’s not really all that difficult. We tend to forget that a lot of kids will always try it on just to see what they can get away with. In the great majority of cases, they really aren’t rebelling–it’s more a game. A game with a serious side to it; kids always feel happier and more secure when they are in an ordered environment where adults are in control. So long as their challenges are nipped in the bud, the game ends very quickly.

    You are certainly right in observing that it’s the SLT at fault. This will always be the case so long as incompetent teachers can climb out of the classroom by getting post-graduate degrees in education.


  4. I work as a TA in a (admittedly middle class) elementary school in the US. I totally agree with you on whole school policies, etc. I do disagree to a small extent in that teachers also are to blame. What I see is that some teachers (not most by any means) are not consistent and are not paying enough attention to low level disruption. Some of them warn and warn, but never follow through. Their classrooms tend to be noisier, more chaotic and their students much less well behaved with those students carrying that behavior throughout the school until someone else calls them out on it. And I’m sorry, but I do blame the teacher.


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