Is negative behaviour a choice?

10th September 2018  |  by Greg

Excuses and reasons- the real root of poor behaviour and what to do about it.

According to philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris, free will is an illusion. If I ask you whether you’d like a cup of tea or coffee, you feel like you’re choosing. However Harris would argue that you didn’t choose your preferences; you didn’t choose whether you prefer tea or coffee, either as a general rule or in any specific moment. You feel like a nice cup of tea this morning, but did you decide that was your preference or, more likely, did your preference dictate your choice? Here, we could argue that you are free to choose coffee instead of your preferred tea. However, you didn’t choose to be the type of person who would drink coffee when they preferred tea in order to try and prove that free will existed (but accidentally helping to prove that it doesn’t).

Applying this idea to school behaviour, to what extent do children and young people choose, freely, to behave in a negative way? They didn’t choose their genetics, their family, their life experiences, their school, their teacher or their brain chemistry.

Is this incomplete list of unchosen circumstances a list of excuses or a list of reasons? What’s the difference between a reason and an excuse? I’d argue that excuses are usually used to deny personal responsibilty. A reason places responsibility in the correct place/s and to the correct degree.

Even if we dismiss Harris’s assertion of free will as an illusion, ‘no-excuses’ behaviour policies fall into the common trap of assuming that pupil ‘choices’ are the only variable when it comes to poor behaviour.

In terms of negative behaviour, four broad variables come into play:

1. Individual students. We’ve all met them. The reasons for them presenting negative behaviour are complex and a few million words above my given word count.

2. Cohort. Sometimes when two or more students get together their behaviour is far worse than when they are not in the company of these classmates.

3. Teachers. Some teachers are inexperienced, poorly trained, poorly motivated or underprepared for the challenges they face. They could also be more experienced but be repeating ineffective strategies.

4. Leadership. This variable includes the quality of school -wide systems designed to prevent and deal with negative behaviour.

An important distinction needs to be made here. If a ‘no-excuses’ behaviour policy means there are no acceptable reasons for poor behaviour then I’m not an advocate of them. However if a ‘no-excuses’ policy means that no individuals should be given extra chances within a behaviour system then I agree whole-heartedly.

I’m frequently asked whether we should allow some students more leeway in terms of negative because they have, for example, a difficult home life. I’d say never. I’m not suggesting though, that we don’t make more effort to look at the reasons for poor behaviour and put extra effort into the prevention of poor behaviour with some students. I’d also recommend avoiding the trap many schools fall into, which is simply to ratchet up punishments; lots of schools try this and it doesn’t work. Careful and robust analysis of the triggers for poor behaviour, as well as looking at and changing reinforcing consequences. (How many times in a primary school does a child get withdrawn from class for poor behaviour only to end up with loveliest person in school playing with Lego or on a computer? We are then surprised the next day when they end up being sent out again.)

Many school are looking very carefully at all barriers to learning, including those related to behaviour. They start by collecting, analysing and acting upon behaviour data just as expertly as they do with academic progress data- and which schools haven’t got that part of their game sorted? They have key information on a school-wide, class-by-class and individual level – just like progress data – and use this to inform their systems, priorities and interventions. Let’s take a common example. A teacher has identified that a specific student is displaying negative behaviour most often in maths lessons. The teacher takes an educated guess that perceived difficulty of maths problems and a fear of looking foolish in front of classmates is the trigger for poor behaviour. Certain types of ‘no-excuses’ policies might simply escalate formal consequences leading to withdrawal from class. It’s obvious though that this doesn’t get to the root of the problem. In contrast, some teachers will try to prove what the trigger is. They could, for example, ensure the next two weeks worth of maths lessons start with 10 mins of very easy challenges and then examine whether negative behaviour starts when the work gets more difficult. If after this intervention and other similar attempts have been made, either we’ve proven this is a trigger (and can adapt our planning accordingly) or we’ve moved on to trying to test for other possible triggers.

Whether your school’s policy is called ‘no-excuses’ or something else is far less relevant than your belief in what can prevent further negative behaviours and increase the likelihood of positive ones. If you believe the answer lies in punishment alone then good luck- your success will be, at best, limited. If you’re ready to look at the possible roots of negative behaviour then you can call your policy whatever you want. You’ll be helping the adults of the future make positive choices that will serve them well for a lifetime. You’ll change their lives forever. Once you know how to do it, you’ll keep doing it because it works.

What made you read this article and not another? It’s hard to get to the root of the reason, isn’t it? However you did read it, all the way to the end. Has your mind been changed, or your view reinforced? Can you choose to disagree with your own view? If we accept free-will is an illusion, we change our view on how we should treat people who’s genetics, family circumstances, life experiences, health and a thousand other variables leads them to negative behaviour. I just can’t help thinking that’s a good thing.

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