Where is the humanity in a behavioural approach?

19th October 2009  |  by Greg


A recent comment on one of my previous posts (many thanks to CM for the stimulus) and some of the conversations I had at a seminar on Friday reminded me of the real antagonism there is in some quarters to any interpretation of a behavioural approach to behaviour management. I thought it would be useful to clarify exactly where I stand.

What is behaviourism?

Behaviourism developed initially as a revolt against the then prevailing ways of doing psychology. It advocated (and still does) that psychology should be a science of behaviour, without reference to mental states that cannot be observed. It looks specifically at how behaviours can be learnt and unlearnt through reward and punishment, reinforcement and extinction.

The points raised so vociferously by opponents of this approach when it is applied to children, are pretty obvious. We can’t ignore what children are feeling or thinking, how much food or sleep they’ve had, whether they have just lost their bus money or fallen out with a friend. They’d say that we are humans and individuals who should be treated as such.

They’d be right. We can’t ignore personal circumstances but we also can’t give all children all the time they might need each day to talk through these issues. Targeted mental health initiatives and the role of learning mentors and inclusion managers have rightly moved the spotlight more directly on to addressing the specific needs of individuals. So what place does a behavioural approach have alongside these person/child-centred ways of working with pupils and young people?

Why do you say “Thank you”?

If I say, “Thanks for looking this way John”, am I cynically trying manipulate him? Am I trying to reinforce this behaviour for my own benefit or am I, perhaps, expressing my genuine gratitude to him for allowing me and the rest of the class get on with the great lesson I’ve got planned for them. Is there no humanity in that? When you thank someone for making a cup of tea, are you really only saying it so that they make you more cups of tea in the future? The intention is key. Students and adults alike can see what your intention is very easily. They know whether or not you have their best interests at heart, whether you care, whether the consequences you give are fair and consistent or simply punitive and designed only with retribution in mind.

The vast majority of the child-centred work I have undertaken in my career was facilitated by the fact that I started with a broadly behavioural approach. Circle time, philosophy for children, work around emotional intelligence, PSHE, SEAL and great relationships are all much easier when you have a calm and controlled basis from which to start. I gained control and then let the power go. I need to communicate my expectations because however we look at it, the classroom should be a benevolent dictatorship. We’re going to have to make unilateral decisions on a regular basis but like all good leaders we’ll share our reasons for doing things as fully as possible.

A behavioural approach should be seen as a foundation

It should not be seen as a means to an end. It can be used with incredible effectiveness as the foundation to build the ethos of a school upon- but it should not form the basis of the ethos. It can allow teachers and students the time and the space to explore more effective and much more person/child-centred approaches. We can do this with impunity if we are satisfied that our humanity underpins our behaviour.

Thanks for reading- and I mean that.

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