I don’t agree.
I firmly believe that, as teachers, we have the power to ensure that students do not fail. We have that responsibility. I have seen many students’ behaviour change for the better from applying these principles. However, in each case it has either been in a controlled setting such as a special school setting, in a 1:1 intervention or in a school where the staff are of one accord and there are whole school measures available as well as effective CPD.
I have also taught in a school where the expectation was that teachers should manage the behaviour of their classes pretty much on their own. The dynamics of this approach were very apparent in the two classes I taught in addition to establishing a literacy intervention. I was given the task of teaching drama to the Year 7 and Year 8 ‘nurture groups’. I had never taught drama before, but I’ll happily give anything a go once.
The Year 7 class was a very positive experience – there were definitely some challenging students, but they had a nurture group teacher who was consistent and set very clear boundaries. My rules were similar, so we had continuity between us which gave the students clear expectations and security. I looked forward to my weekly class with them. The students would arrive at the end of break to carry my resources to the drama room, and compete with each other to carry them back to the Literacy Centre. It was also very rewarding to teach some of these students to catch up in their reading so that they were reading at the same level as their peers.
Conversely, the Year 8 class was a challenge, to say the least. Their nurture group teacher was quite inconsistent in setting out expectations and the class was, frankly, out of control. The students would openly ‘curse’ each other across the room – “I curse your mother! She is a %&^.” “No, I curse your sister!” But, hey – I knew techniques to manage kids like these. For the first lesson, the kids were seated on chairs in a horseshoe formation as I started to take the roll. The expectation was for the students to face the front, be silent and answer as their name was called. Simple. However, two students refused to comply with my request to face the front and instead completely ignored me, faced each other and very pointedly continued their animated conversation.
Rather than call attention to their behaviour I decided to use ‘tactical ignoring’. I asked the rest of the class to move their seats forward, thus cutting these two students out with the expectation that, as their behaviour wasn’t receiving any attention, they would choose to re-join the group and follow instructions. Oh, no. These dear boys stood up while holding their chairs to their butts and ran around circling us like a scene from a Wild West movie. Short of grabbing them and sitting on them, there wasn’t a lot I could do. You see, there was no school-wide behaviour management protocol. The mantra was – you just manage it on your own.
This is the only class that has ever reduced me to tears. Not during class – I would not succumb to that. But after teaching this class, most weeks, I would return to the Literacy Centre and quietly weep – out of the utter stress of it, the sense of powerlessness and the relief that it was over – well, until the following week.
So I know what it is like to be caught in the middle, trying to move students forward but where school systems – or the lack of them – mean that students who push the normal boundaries destroy not only their own learning but the education of entire classes. It often leaves teachers feeling that they have nothing but the force of their own personalities to establish order in the classroom.
The most obvious point, which many other people have made, is that there have to be effective school-wide systems for backup. Where these are in operation, everything else runs better. At my next school, some students were predictably resistant to being assigned to literacy interventions, especially when their previous experience of reading help had been unsuccessful. Because there was effective backup from the senior team and my line manager, these problems were quickly resolved, students attended lessons, and once they started making progress, the resistance disappeared.
Teamwork is enjoyable!
But there were many subtle adjustments I made for students using the principles of Applied Behaviour Analysis to encourage and motivate students. I don’t mean the classic misrepresentations of stickers and lollipops – these are often executed in ways that are quite contrary to the findings of ABA scientists – but things like beginning lessons with something we knew the student would succeed in, not engaging with avoidance behaviours (like ‘chatting’ to stall for time), and giving clear visual feedback on progress. The list is very long. For another list see here, for example.
Thinking Reading could not have had the impact it has had if I had not been trained in scientifically developed principles of behaviour management. Far from the cold, manipulative straw man that I have seen presented in teacher training and university education courses, Applied Behaviour Analysis is about helping people to learn behaviours that will help them to improve their lives, and the lives of those around them. It has helped me to engage and motivate hundreds of students to grasp the challenge of reading.
Lastly, it’s important to remember that often what underlies poor behavior is poor literacy. The attention-seeking, disruption, refusal to work, and truancy from lessons are often (though not always) a result of students experiencing frustration and despair that they will never be able to succeed at school. It is a vicious cycle, of course: failure leads to avoidance which leads to more failure – what Keith Stanovich called Matthew Effects. To genuinely address behaviour problems, in addition to effective whole school systems and skilled one-to-one adjustments for students, we also need to ensure that we have provision in place to address literacy problems.
At the beginning of this post I said that, as teachers, we have the power to ensure that students do not fail. I don’t say this lightly. I know it is not necessarily easy – I know what it has cost me. But I have also seen the impact of facing the challenges and accepting the responsibility, and I have seen students reap the rewards. I believe that the scientific knowledge and the professional experience to achieve this goal already exist. It is not the means, but the will, that is required to make it happen.
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