Are you struggling to impose your school’s agreed framework of graded sanctions and consequences successfully? Dave Stott explains how to tailor the system to individuals so that it has a more positive effect on behaviour

Many schools use a behaviour management system involving several levels of sanctions and consequences as a response to difficult behaviour from students, with the sanctions becoming more severe as the levels increase. This is sometimes known as a ‘levels of response’ system. For instance, a student with a persistent behaviour problem may initially receive a warning (level 1) as a consequence; if this has no effect the teacher may then move to a second warning (level 2); and thereafter follow a series of consequences graded according to strength. These levels and types of consequence will be different for each school, but a typical system might consist of:

  • Level 1: a warning
  • Level 2: a second warning
  • Level 3: moving seats
  • Level 4: detention
  • Level 5: a note home
  • Level 6: time out.

There should also be levels of response for recognition of good behaviour.

For schools operating this type of system, there is always the risk of:

  • teachers’ responses quickly moving up the levels and thus escalating the problem
  • low-level responses being seen as ineffectual by both student and teacher
  • responses being viewed as threats when not followed up, which can encourage students to test the system even more
  • difficulties in individualising the system to meet the personal needs of individual students
  • an over-emphasis on the use of sanctions and consequences as the only solution to difficult behaviour. This can lead to a view that poor behaviour is simply punished, rather than the student being helped to make better choices.

It is clearly not true to say that if levels of response are used then all of the above will happen. However, there is a danger that the use of sanctions or consequences becomes the only way to alter student behaviour. Therefore there needs to be a collective understanding that sanctions and consequences, while they can have a positive effect on difficult behaviour, should be part of a range of responses from the school. These other responses, when linked to a system of levels, can then really begin to make positive changes. Other tactics and responses should include:

  • clear teaching of expected behaviour, rules and routines
  • effective communication systems within school and between home and school, and outside agencies when involved
  • one-to-one meetings between student and teacher or support staff
  • a clear balance between sanctions and rewards. It is difficult to motivate oneself to change if the only form of encouragement is a sanction!

So, working within the schools framework and behaviour policy, how can this system of levels be effective in helping students to make good choices about their behaviour?

Practical tips
First of all, it is essential that you are familiar with, and are prepared to consistently use, the school’s agreed framework of levels. Designing your own ad hoc system may appear to work in your own classroom or with an individual student, but this approach can cause problems across the whole school. The net result will be students ‘testing’ the resolve and consistency of different members of staff and possibly learning that they can behave in one way with some staff and completely differently with others.

Try not to simply view the whole issue of managing behaviour as reactive or negative, ie only responding when a student does something wrong and then using the levels approach as a means of changing behaviour. This style of response will invariably be seen by students as simply a hierarchy of punishments, and many students are quite prepared to go through a series of levels in order to:

  • antagonise you
  • improve their perceived standing among their peers
  • test out the system
  • emphasise their own lack of interest or involvement in school and their own learning.

If you do use a level in response to behaviour, don’t forget it’s your role to stop the student escalating the issue. Your own style of approach has a huge effect on this. Using rewards and/or recognition of appropriate behaviour can also stop any escalation.

If behaviour is not improving – in spite of using rewards, being an excellent role model and remaining consistent in your application of the levels system – then there is a strong case for tailoring your system to meet the needs of individual students. Ensure that you communicate what has happened to-date to parents, all staff within your department and the student. This can be done by using whatever tracking systems the school operates, notes/phone calls home and, perhaps most effectively, through face-to-face meetings. When meeting with the student, it is important that you state clearly exactly what is going wrong and why you can’t allow things to continue. For some students it may be necessary to restructure the school’s levels system, eliminating the levels which are ineffective and, in agreement with senior staff and the students involved, perhaps ‘dropping down’ your responses for individuals. This means that, if low levels such as physical proximity and the three warnings have had no effect on these students, you change to using only one warning before moving to the next level. Have a record or tracking sheet to back up your statements and ensure that the student understands that this meeting is part of your ‘levels of response’ behaviour management system. It is also important during this meeting to cover rewards and how you can help the student with his/her behaviour. Write a record of the meeting and any agreements which have been made, and set an early date to review and evaluate.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in November 2010

About the author: Dave Stott has 30 years’ teaching experience including seven years as a headteacher. He has worked in mainstream and special schools, and Local Authority behaviour support services. Dave is now a writer, consultant and trainer.