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Our evolving approach to managing relationships in school (a new way of thinking about behaviour)

Much of our direction of travel these days is heavily influenced by Carol Dweck work on growth mindsets. In the context of our relationships policy which is still evolving, we have drawn on a range of educationalists but all of them fall broadly under the umbrella of ‘behaviour for learning.’ One basic premise of much of this work is that approaches to managing behaviour which are influenced by behaviourist theories have too often been about control. Most school behaviour policies are driven by behaviourism and are essentially about control. It’s an ‘oh gosh, we have 315 children milling about- if we don’t ‘control’ the situation, we’ll end up with anarchy’ kind of approach to life. However it is entirely possible that, if we want ‘strong and motivated learners,’ we need learners with more self-determination than this kind of control sometimes allows for.

The problem with rewards & punishments is that they often do not lead to lasting change. The behaviour change lasts as long as the rewards and punishments last. Why- because rewards and punishments do not alter the attitudes and emotional commitments that underlie our behaviours…they only effect what we do while the reward or punishment lasts. They do not work to turn children into careful thinkers/ self-directed learners or help them to develop good values; in fact in this respect they can often be counter-productive. Why?

1.Rewards and praise can punish people. The recipient of the reward may feel pleasure in the short term but ultimately they feel controlled. Also some people can end up not getting the reward they hoped for or deserved which undermines their trust and resolve. It is impossible for a reward giver to know who/ judge who most deserves a reward.

2.Rewards and praise can rupture relationships: rewards are often preoccupied with individual performance rather than cooperation/ collaboration and the ways of working we associate with good learning.

3.Rewards and praise can rupture motivation. Rewards can not only have little impact on intrinsic motivation, they can undermine it. They will undermine it most when used to encourage children with the most intrinsically motivating tasks.

4.Rewards and praise can discourage risk taking—because the recipient becomes pre-occupied with getting the reward again and taking a risk might put the reward at risk..

5.Rewards and praise can lower the quality of performance—because pupils become pre-occupied with their performance as opposed to the learning.

Many of the systems we had in place were long standing and embedded and many of our habits are bound up with how we were brought up and what feels a natural default position for us. As a staff we have discussed the research at length and begun a journey of change towards approaches which better support the development of growth mindsets in our children.

We have re-modelled our approach to extrinsic rewards (these being the ones you are most likely to get to hear about). We are no longer using raffle tickets, house points, stickers or gold awards. Thus far, as promised by the experts, the children have hardly noticed: thus confirming our suspicion that these rewards were there more for us than the children themselves. We are focusing instead on providing them with carefully worded feedback. This doesn’t stop us jumping about and getting excited about the children’s learning; it’s just that we are trying to consider the individual, not just dole out meaningless praise. Instead of our gold book assemblies, children volunteer to share learning that they feel pleased about. When they come to me with some work, I now try much harder to encourage them to articulate/ explain their learning themselves rather than them standing there and receiving my vain efforts at wisdom. They dictate what they want to write on a text home and sign it from themselves and if they want to share it in assembly as well, I make a note of their names for the next Wednesday. All this relies heavily on pupils becoming better at self- evaluation. Children are then far more likely to internalise the attitudes and the emotional commitments that underlie good behaviour than they are if the ‘thing’ is being foisted upon them.

We want pupils taking control of their learning and how they feel about it. We have a particular focus on something called ‘learning powers’ which will help with this and all classes are gradually adopting and ‘Our marvellous mistakes’ board on which the class’s favourite mistakes can be displayed. We are also trying to provide feedback that demands more thinking from the pupils.

There are two key outcomes we think are more possible with this approach:-

  1. Pupil autonomy—expecting the children to self-evaluate/ describe their own learning asks for them to be thinking independently about their learning and achievements (rather than necessarily waiting for us to prompt them); for this thinking to be that much deeper than previously (my conversations with pupils when they now visit my office are much more demanding for me and them); for them to articulate it to another person (rather than simply receiving our wisdom). The outcome appears, at this early stage, (although of course with our work on growth mindset etc over the last year we already have a very real sense of the benefits of this way of working) to be pupils who are much better able to think about and understand themselves as learners (as opposed to pupils who when asked why they got a sticker or certificate often couldn’t remember why) and therefore learning of a higher quality. Trying to provide pupils with feedback rather than outright praise pushes them to self-evaluate their achievement rather than handing down our judgement on it.
  2. Pupil self-esteem—ultimately there is a risk at the point of doling out an extrinsic reward/ grade/ score etc—that the person being rewarded feels buoyed up but someone else feels deflated- especially when the reward is given publicly—at the same time there can be a drop in trust because rewards are by their very nature rather arbitrary—who really ‘deserves’ a reward is a very complex conundrum. We want a school full of confident, interested people, not a school full of winners and losers.

So- we are treading boldly and carefully in a new direction and will review it all along the way to make sure it delivers the best possible outcomes for our pupils. Given this represents a significant departure from past norms, I’d like to offer some reassurances. Firstly please appreciate we are unlikely to be taking an approach that leads to worse behaviour in school- with 320 pupils milling around, this is clearly not in our interest. Secondly please rest assured, if you hadn’t worked it out already, that we care very deeply about your children’s welfare- it is what drives us, it is our job. Many of us work very long weeks- and all that time is devoted to finding what ways we can to give your children the very best education we can. The dialogue, which is constant and deep, is about the children and little else. Having said that this new policy which is developing and the vision behind it is based on relationships – the quality of teaching and learning always closely correlates with the quality of relationships. Relationships are clearly two-sided: we are therefore finding ourselves considering for staff more or less exactly what we are considering for pupils and edging our way to something that will in all likelihood be called a relationships policy as opposed to a behaviour policy. A behaviour policy sounds still too like something we do to children, as opposed to something we do with them. The governors themselves pointed out something very similar when they considered the new draft vision statements, suggesting that all the statements could and possibly should be relevant for adults as well as pupils in school and in turn this would give it far greater potential impact.

The context of this behaviour policy is also important and could offer up a further reassurance. We don’t see the policy as separate from the many other changes and new approaches that have been trialled and introduced and shared with you over the last 2 years;  all of which signposted us this way; all of which are complementary to our approach here with behaviour and in fact when all this practice is pieced together – it forms a coherent and very positive whole. Although Alfie Kohn’s book ‘Punished by Rewards’ has been an influence, he is just one of many sources (including notably our own research) that we have drawn upon. As I mentioned the specific area of behaviour management theory we are interested in is the ‘behaviour for learning’ approach—(ref Tod and Ellis). This approach stresses that the single most important thing to do with reference to behaviour management is, as has already been indicated, to nurture relationships :-children’s relationships with themselves, their relationships with others and their relationship with the curriculum—this is where we are really coming from with all this. We draw on many sources for our thinking including critically Carol Dwecke and Ellis and Tod—and the behaviour specialist Rob Long who gave an INSET to staff last January. Even more importantly we have an active research culture now thriving in school which means we have worked directly with Shirley Clarke- (one of the country’s leading educational experts) with staff from across Gloucestershire—this is very exciting stuff and improves the job we’re doing.

We will continue to consider the above and will be systematically reviewing our approach throughout this year -primarily through conversations with the children themselves and through class meetings. We will also be looking closely at how we work with children when they are struggling with their learning behaviours.


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