The biggest mistake educators make when managing classroom behaviour

What is good behaviour, and how do you get a certain group of people to behave in a certain way that allows for teachers to teach, and learners to learn in the most productive ways possible?
These questions have been asked for many years, and there are many oppressive theories behind resolutions to ‘bad’ behaviour.
What is ‘bad’ behaviour anyway?
Behaviour is any action, namely interactional in groups, where you will see what we deem as productive or good behaviour, or unproductive or bad behaviour.
Bad behaviour tends to be anything that transgresses the expectations and the behaviours of a specific group. And so we make rules to provide guidelines around how people can assure they meet these expectations by behaving in a certain ways.
But here’s the problem with rules.
They are formed on a generic local and societal opinion of what the majority in that group subjectively believe is ‘acceptable’. What is that all about?
When I was teaching in a prison I met a group of guys who believed it was entirely ‘acceptable’ to enforce their local ‘rules’ with violence. They believed that ‘being polite’ to your equally aggressive neighbour would get you and your family killed.
When I was a (rebellious) teenager at school, I was endlessly being frog-marched to and from detention because my low self-esteem didn’t allow me to adhere to the very strict school rule of ‘no make-up’. How the hell was mascara going to stop me from learning? If anything, NOT wearing make-up impeded my learning because my confidence had been stripped from my face!
So who’s right? …… (I would love to open this up for discussion below)
We need to check whether our classroom rules are meaningful, or just a matter of opinion.
For example swearing or littering in the streets could simply be a matter of culture.
Are they aligned to cultural prohibitions or individual norms, values and expectations? Are they a wider application of rules such as human rights that are universally applicable?
Practical advice:
Firstly, immediately STOP using the term ‘bad’ behaviour. Replace it with ‘unacceptable’ behaviour. You cannot call someone bad, if he believes he is doing good. It is the breaking of the local rule that is bad, NOT the individual.
Are you sure they even KNOW and understand the rules? It can’t be bad behaviour if somebody doesn’t know the rules.
Secondly, explain to them why this rule that has been broken is important in that environment. It cannot be bad behaviour if somebody does a bad thing but is not corrected about what they did.
How can we influence behaviour?
Schools, colleges, universities, training companies and trainers – they all actively go about changing behaviour through reward and punishment; right and wrong; good and bad.
Prisons do the same through punishment and rehabilitation. Therapists even can change people’s behaviour through insights, relaxation and medication.
Schools that have NO rules (yes they exist) teach through freedom and exploration.
Doctors control behaviour using medication and treatment.
We manipulate our behaviour using drugs and alcohol – some reading this will have themselves, or know others who have sipped on a ‘cup of courage’ before a night out, a date or a big event.
On the extreme end, the inflection of pain is used in some cultures to mediate certain kinds of behaviour.
We have to consider what the beliefs behind these systems are morally, scientifically and why we have the right to make rules anyway.
Practical advice:
So instead of inflicting pain, or getting our learners drunk – I believe that just one method we can use is to establish an appropriate vocabulary for behaviour.
Educators are CONSTANTLY using vocabulary to describe learner progress, behaviour and contributions – but MUST remember this:
You can use words on a sheet or a list to describe a person’s behaviour, but THE biggest mistake educators make, is using a list of words to describe an individual.
When you are dealing with ‘bad’ or rather, ‘unacceptable’ behaviour, describe what ACTION was unacceptable; not what your feelings are about the situation or the person conducting the behaviour.
e.g. saying somebody is irritating, is about your feelings. It just says that you are feeling irritated by something they are doing; when in fact what is it that’s irritating you is the behaviour.
Getting this distinction right makes a huge difference to whether you get a productive classroom, or a disaster-class!
I would love to hear your experiences and techniques for overcoming challenging classroom behaviour…
Sarah Cordiner