An obvious way of managing behaviour is to punish the bad and reward the good. But teachers must maintain an effective balance, being especially vigilant about continuing to reward those pupils who are consistently well behaved, warns Dave Stott

The basis of most behaviour management policies is formed around the clear rules and expectations of the school and classroom. These rules may be presented as clear statements such as:

“Follow directions the first time they are given.”

Other times they may be phrased as part of the school charter or expectations such as:

“Respect each other’s views; listen and allow others to speak without interruption.”

Whichever way your school or class phrases its guidelines and rules, it is essential that you also have a system in place to reinforce these expectations. It is simply not enough to have a set of rules and expect each and every pupil to follow them to the letter. All pupils will need both encouragement and reminders if the system is to be effective. These reminders will often take the form of verbal and non-verbal messages, together with concrete rewards and sanctions. To put this into a very simple context, many teachers will present their behaviour management policy as:

“Here are the rules and expectations; if you follow them, this will happen (praise/reward). If you don’t follow them, then this will happen (consequence/sanction).”

This is a very simplistic interpretation of a behaviour management system in operation but it is clearly based on the belief that appropriate behaviour is rewarded and praised, while inappropriate behaviour results in a negative response or consequence.

On the face of it, this would appear to be a sensible and likely effective approach to managing behaviour. Unfortunately, in practice this is not always the case. For many reasons, teachers often find it difficult to use such a system in a balanced and fair way. There are many potential issues that can affect teachers’ ability to apply this “rules, praise and consequence” system consistently and, just as importantly, fairly.

Influences that may affect teachers include:

  • preconceived view of the pupil
  • “baggage” or problems outside school
  • inability to manage own emotions effectively
  • lack of basic teaching skills
  • lack of subject knowledge
  • out of comfort zone (cover lessons, supply staff).

If you find that you are affected by any of the above, it can become very difficult to apply the agreed system with consistency. When applied inconsistently, the behaviour management system will be severely off balance. Invariably the rules will be referred to but reinforcement of the rules will often be solely through the range of consequences.

Practical Tips
It is worth setting a baseline for your own school or individual teaching area. Work with a colleague and take an objective look at how the rules, rewards and consequences are applied. A quick and easy reference giving you a place to start may be to construct two lists; don’t just refer to the printed guidelines for the school, construct your lists from your own knowledge of what is actually being used by teaching staff:

1. Name the types of rewards regularly used
2. Name the types of consequences regularly used

The chances are that list number two will be longer than list number one. If this is the case then the management of behaviour in your school or individual teaching area is certainly out of balance. An overuse of consequences confirms that teachers are:

  • Failing to regularly recognise good behaviour, so pupils will fail to be motivated to behave well.
  • Giving attention to inappropriate behaviour, so pupils will realise that attention may be gained by poor behaviour.
  • Presenting a negative attitude towards learning and behaviour.

While it is true to say that many pupils may be intrinsically motivated to behave well, there needs to be an element of “What’s in it for me”. Even the most motivated pupil will require a level of recognition and reward to maintain their motivation.

If the overall atmosphere in the teaching and learning environment is one of issuing sanctions for poor behaviour and a failure to recognise good, then again the system is out of balance.

Consideration should also be given as to who is receiving the praise and the consequences. If they are constantly directed towards only the difficult or challenging pupils, then the system will be seen as unfair. There are many classrooms where pupils who conform receive little or no recognition for their efforts, while pupils who challenge the rules and expectations receive endless sanctions, yet when they finally do manage to control their behaviour and conform, they also receive an avalanche of praise and rewards.

Don’t reduce your use of rewards when the challenging pupil manages to behave appropriately, but do make sure you address the balance and use a similar approach to all your pupils.

Rewards and sanctions, when used correctly, should be hierarchical and distributed fairly and consistently; address the balance using these tools.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in November 2008

About the author: Dave Stott has nearly 30 years’ teaching experience including seven years as a headteacher. He has worked in mainstream and special schools and Local Authority Behaviour Support Services, and is now a wrtier, consultant and trainer.