Notes on behaviour: an honest, primary perspective

Trigger warning: contains references to feminism

After reading Greg’s latest notes on approaches to behaviour (in which I always learn something new), I thought I’d offer up a few notes from a primary perspective. The most important message here is that I believe nurseries and primary schools have a bigger potential influence on pupils’ behaviour than secondary or further education.  This is not just because younger pupils are less obstreperous than teenagers, but because the window of ‘wanting to impress the adults’ is mostly open during nursery and primary years and closes towards the back end of primary school (starting in year 4, I reckon). After that, the window of ‘wanting to impress peers’ opens up in its place and then teachers and leaders have to get round this other dimension whereby getting a rise out of an adult can become a deliberate act to raise one’s status (later on, this is replaced by wanting to impress the opposite sex). Teachers and leaders in secondary schools therefore do not have as much currency on the whole positive enforcement side as us pre-school and primary phase educators.

The dangers of labeling

I’ve had a hard time getting people to understand that the way a child is at that particular point in time (when they’re angry and out of control) is not an indication of ‘that’s just the way he is’. A few subconscious and common assumptions contribute to the tendency to label:

  • ‘Good’ or civil, relatively compliant behaviour is something that develops naturally and will arrive when the child is ready. Therefore, we mustn’t, or can’t, interfere with nature
  • ‘Behaviour’ is part of what constitutes a child’s personality and this is pre-determined, or innate. Therefore, we cannot change this
  • Because some children seem to be able to intuit the ‘code’ for acceptable behaviour by merely being immersed in polite, respectful and kind behaviour of the lovely smiley adults around them, then all children can and should intuit in the same way

The upshot is that certain groups of children who do not experience the explicit teaching/modelling of ‘good’ behaviour coupled to opportunities to practice to the point of automaticity in the home are at risk of being allowed to ‘naturally’ develop into out of control young adults at school and in public who are mostly concerned with getting high on and then addicted to the adrenalin of risk taking and defiance. As a society, we also educate the new mother to wait for her child’s ‘innate’ personality and talents to unfurl with only the merest of guide-on-the-side facilitation (ie. lots of free play), and she is minded to mostly use positive praise and modeling of what the child should in theory intuit over time. The mother-to-be is excited and wonders what kind of little person she is being gifted by nature and then we blame her when her child’s toddler tantrums, in the absence of explicit corrective instruction and rehearsal to the point of automaticity that some children need, then becomes the child’s MO all the way through his or her school career.

For some women, this means that their child ends up developing a habit of continuously hitting them and they must tread on eggshells in order to keep them happy and content lest they lash out. It’s a shame that feminism is no longer right-on, fashionable or even allowable these days because only a misogynistic society would take away women’s power (including nursery workers – who are mostly female) to proactively educate their own children and then the same society punishes and blame them when some of their children do not miraculously learn. The exhausted mother and her wayward child is shunned, the dedicated nursery worker leaves out of frustration. These are just my own opinions – I do not influence policy by the way, so don’t worry!

Based on my understanding of neuroplasticity, habits and the science of addiction, my belief is that people, including the youngest of people, can change, adapt and renew, but within all populations there are some people who cannot intuit whatever it is we want them to learn (including habits). Some people need explicit teaching and lots more practice than the average ‘intuitive, rapid grasper’. This includes children with SEN. It goes without saying, therefore, that I do not believe in innate this, that or the other, or that behaviour, knowledge, writing, reading develop naturally or ‘when the child is ready’. I’m in the minority here, just like Engelmann was half a century ago and Froome was a century ago!

What I also see is that the more a child practises and gets used to certain behaviours, the more difficult it is to re-write the circuitry of the mind, particularly if those behaviours inhibit their being able to learn how to communicate effectively with others, form friendships and receive the warmth of praise that would provide a substitute to the ‘drug’ of misbehaviour-induced adrenalin. Having worked with all the age groups, I would say that by 6 or 7, it’s *almost* too late (not that we should give up, ever ever ever). What begins as a little bit of silliness, pushing the boundaries and trying to get out of doing work can all too easily develop into anti-social, out-of-control, angry, defiant and violent behaviour as the child becomes engaged in chasing the high of adrenalin. The parents may say that the child is never a problem at home, but that may well be because he or she is used to doing whatever they want and getting their own way.

An assembly and a chit-chat won’t do

Based on my belief that everyone can learn and everyone can change, I like to observe the child and analyse why he’s like that before thinking about how the circuitry for those behaviours can be overwritten. What caused those tiny little moments of defiance and inadvertent cruelty in the classroom? Almost always, the causes seem to be to do with:

  • lack of ability to communicate
  • lack of social knowledge
  • frustration/confusion with learning
  • lack of ability to concentrate

Communication: not being able to articulate what you want and need and not being able to share in a joke or game is going to prevent you from starting to make friends and joining in. Instead, you’ll be more likely to start learning that pushing and shoving, possibly even hitting, enables you to get your own way. When a child gets into this habit, they also become deeply unhappy, not just because they aren’t experiencing friendship, but also because they can sense that they are not liked and as the rejections build up, they may either become resentful and angry (males are more likely to externalise like this) or incredibly withdrawn (females are more likely to be like this). Yes, we’re talking about 5 year olds. The solution is ensuring that everyone can communicate and if they can’t, then don’t wait, just get stuck in with teaching and practice. I recommend something like this.

Social knowledge: P & Qs. Some children just do not intuit our cultural rules and norms. You know, things like not standing too near someone’s face when you’re talking to them. Pre-school educators are actually really good at teaching all of this, but I think where we all come unstuck is in ensuring enough practice to automaticity and autistic children are particularly at risk here. A social faux pas is met with disapproval and then the child feels a sense of injustice – no one told him exactly what to do, or they did tell him what to do and then he forgot because it wasn’t a habit, yet. So he rebels.

Academic frustration and confusion: very early on, some children become aware that their friends seem to find reading, writing and adding up much easier than them. They see their friends receiving praise and gold stars and they want some of that love, but even though they need more practice than their peers, they don’t want to practice because they don’t like the feeling of frustration or confusion. They choose something else, something that will get them praise and a gold star and then this becomes a habit. As they progress up the year groups, the choice of what to do isn’t exactly on offer. What are you going to do? Try to get out of doing that activity by ‘choosing’ something else by force, like mucking about and being sent to the reflection room. Never underestimate the power of giving a young lad the ability to read and write as well as his peers, and therefore he has the opportunity to show off in a positive way.

Concentration: just like our futile initial attempts to meditate, children who are not taught how to concentrate and then practice to the point of automaticity aren’t going to miraculously develop the ability to concentrate. This includes sitting down and staying sat down. If I had a pound for every time someone said to me ‘Maybe he’s not ready to sit down, yet’…….this is why I’m in favour of whole-class instruction for small parts of the day for even the youngest of pre-schoolers because otherwise there’s no way of guaranteeing the right amount of practice of concentration for all. How a newb to concentration can be expected to develop the habit of concentration amidst a sea of distraction of the kind prevalent in pre-schools and a play-based KS1 is beyond me! So, some children become addicted to distraction and then their bodies and minds seek distraction constantly. This is never going to miraculously right itself, rather it will get worse over time.

Basically, for everything we want children to learn or do, if they don’t know it or can’t do it in a suitable time frame then explicit teaching and practice to the point of automaticity is needed. Rewards and consequences also help that child to stay on the right track. The child who is feeling rejected, angry, defiant and is starting to push the boundaries and act out may needs more than rewards and consequences. It may be that they need explicit teaching and practice of what their friends seem to have naturally developed/intuited. While they are young, they want to please you, so act now before it is too late.

Who’s with me?


2 thoughts on “Notes on behaviour: an honest, primary perspective

  1. Having taught SEN pupils of all ages (including the occasional adult), I’ve never found older pupils any more difficult to engage. Maybe this is because men are genetically programmed to spend more time mentoring boys when they’re old enough to hunt–but when you consider Katherine Birbalsingh, I’m not so sure about this. Rather, it’s more likely a factor of spending a 25 years in the building trades, where it’s taken for granted that apprentices do as they are asked, and my training in the TA. The Military Methods of Instruction syllabus has the same theoretical base as Englemann’s Direct Instruction programmes, and when I started teaching kids to read I used them right from the start.
    Of course, it’s absolutely pointless to waste the early years when pupils should be taught to self-regulate, but Michaela’s success shows that it’s never too late to work miracles.


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