The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Adele Bates

Beyond the big binary behaviour debate

We spend a lot of time talking about and dealing with pupil behaviour but are we always fair and equal? Do we recognise our own bias? Adele Bates explores how best to support our pupils.

There are binary debates around everywhere. 

  • Traditional vs. Progressive
  • Discipline vs. Liberal
  • Zero tolerance vs. Emotional understanding
  • Remain vs. Leave
  • Black vs. White
  • Us vs Them
  • Mods vs. Rockers *

I will limit myself to the topic of education and behaviour in this blog, although I believe the arguments translate across. 

Speaking in binaries, arguing over seemingly opposing viewpoints and setting up (imaginary) reasons to hate are just not useful for our young people.

Behaviour depends on context

Guess what: there are different approaches to supporting behaviour. That’s because there are many different factors involved in behaviour. If that were not true, we would have sorted it by now. We would train every teacher to adopt the strategies of The Demon Headmaster or Mary Poppins, there would be no need for suspensions and exclusions ever again, and our prisons would be empty.

But behaviour depends on context. How I approach behaviour with an early years pupil will be very different from how I approach it with my 18-year-old sixth formers. 

Even within the same ‘category’ of pupils there is difference; if a pupil throws a ball far in an exam hall there are likely to be consequences. If the same pupil does the same thing in their PE lesson, they’re more likely to be praised. How I expect my class to behave at the start of the year is different to my expectation at the end.

And even within that, there may be a pupil who bounces a ball in my English lesson as a sensory strategy: this pupil is a known school refuser, they are on their second day of setting foot beyond the school gates in three months and the ball is the regulator that helps them not become hypervigilant and need to leave.

Selecting the right tool

We need many different approaches, strategies and (temporary) solutions to supporting behaviour. We need as many as there are combinations of pupils to teachers (and sometimes a few more if we add in peer-to-peer relations). 

We need a toolbox of choice – the skill is in selecting the right tool at the right time for the right situation. 

But if every case is different how do we remain fair and equal?

As my Dad taught me, equality doesn’t mean the same. In fact, as teachers are also human (we will address this later), even if we think we are being equal and fair, that doesn’t mean we are. 

If I set a group task to discuss a topic it seems fair that everyone contributes verbally. However, if one pupil is on the school debating team and has won the poetry recital competition for the past three years, and another pupil is painfully shy, is it fair that their targets and expectations are the same? 

If every case is different how do we remain fair and equal?

Consistency, boundaries, and care

There are some keys that do seem to surpass the ‘big binary behaviour debate’ which I believe enables us to retain shared vision around behaviour (although people firmly in each camp will sometimes deny it): 

  • consistency
  • boundaries
  • care. 

Boundaries and consistency make us feel safe as humans. They give us order and, especially for pupils with SEMH (social, emotional mental health difficulties) or those who have experienced trauma, they can be the difference between knowing if you need to fight, fly or have a go at the algebra in front them. 

The care part can be a little more disguised however, in nearly 18 years of working in education, I have found very few educators who don’t care. 

They may be on a seemingly opposite belief system to me as to how to care, but the care is there. We all want the best for our children.

For some schools and some pupils this works well when there’s a very strict set of rules; these pupils receive the message that there is a clear place and expectation of them, things are predictable and there are clear structures of how to succeed within this context. 

Others cannot work in this way. They are the creatives and the innovators who find themselves restricted, or success is something else for them and the behaviour comes out.  

For other schools, the consistency is based around consistency of relationship and boundaries of safety. For most schools it is a hodgepodge of the two and everything in between.

The big binary behaviour debate is in fact not a binary at all. It’s a spectrum and we can be anywhere we need to be on that spectrum.

How to use what works for you

Back to those human teachers. We’re all different types of human beings. 

What works for Mary Poppins would not work for The Demon Headmaster. If they attempted to swap behaviour strategies, they would struggle. While Mary has clear boundaries, she also seeks to inspire the children’s imagination – she couldn’t do that if all the children were hypnotised. 

Equally, if The Demon Headmaster started jolly-holidaying with Dick Van Dyke, it might look more like a horror film and scare the children away. These are ridiculous examples I know, but the principle is there. 

I am not ‘down with the kids.’ I cannot adopt ‘street’ language or do fist bumps. However, a colleague of mine who, in my opinion, can come across as much more ‘strict’ does all of these things because it works for him and the type of relationship he builds with a certain set of pupils. 

On the other hand, I have never seen this colleague sing Puccini’s aria O Mio Babbino to make a point about comma usage, as is one of my strategies. Children know when we are inauthentic, and it feels pretty awkward to us too as we attempt it.

Recognising our negative bias

Another issue with us being humans is that we all have our own biases: when I was young, my friend’s big brother bullied me. He was very clever, rich, and white. 

Now when I teach a pupil who matches this description, unless I consciously check my bias, I will be more hostile towards this pupil. I will look for his faults and find reasons to bring him down a peg-or-two. 

The pupil has done nothing badly behaved for me, yet my negative bias is looking for it. I am more likely to punish him than his jovial class clown mate. I think I am being fair as I am unconsciously trying to readdress an imbalance that I experienced myself, but I am a human reacting to my own biases. 

Now switch that pupil’s description for ‘a pupil in care’ or ‘a pupil from the traveller community’ or ‘a black boy’ and we start to understand why these categories of pupils are statistically more likely to be excluded. 

I’m digressing to another blog post.

Yes, there are binary debates everywhere, and we can engage in them if it helps our practices, forces us to reflect and re-evaluate what we think we know – but it’s only useful if we’re willing to be wrong, to try new things and to realise: 

The big binary behaviour debate is in fact not a binary at all. It’s a spectrum and we can be anywhere we need to be on that spectrum. The best place is the place that enables to support our pupils in a way that enables their learning to thrive.


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