On my first day with Ms Lardy’s class she called me into the corridor just before the lesson.
“You’ve got to watch out for Lenny! He’s the most attention-seeking boy in the school. You mustn’t encourage him. Don’t give in to him”.
“Yes, miss”, I said with a poker face.
My approach was in fact completely the opposite. I reasoned that if I could meet Lenny’s need for attention then he wouldn’t need to use any of his ‘look-at-me!’ routines. These routines (which I have heard described by various professionals as strategies, scams, ploys, and rackets) were ones devised by a boy with limited intellectual capacity to help him meet this need. Surely, I could find a better way...
I tried to give every child in the class attention at some point in the lesson but for Lenny’s sake I introduced my own ‘racket’ - the greet-with-a-handshake routine. I greeted all the children as they filed into class, shaking hands with a random selection and making a cheery comment to a further handful.
But I always shook Lenny’s hand and I always passed a comment.
“That’s a nice jumper you’re wearing, Lenny.”
“Hey Lenny, how’s mum today? Is she better?”
The fact is I never, and I mean never, had any problems at all with Lenny seeking attention during class time. And when it came to planning the school concert I could draw on the very positive relationship I had with him to channel that love of attention into a barnstorming solo performance of ‘Little Donkey’.
All the children enjoyed the very positive start we made to each lesson, as well as not having to endure the interruptions and negativity which his previous ploys had caused.
And I enjoyed being nice and being liked and, yes... feeling that I had solved a problem the more experienced teacher hadn’t. I felt good – like I was doing something worthwhile, and not grinding out the day.
Economically speaking, I invested about 30 seconds per lesson ensuring I was free from any Lenny-related obstructions to lesson delivery. I chose this over control measures. The time wasted reprimanding and ‘dealing with problems’ (when I wanted to be relating to the pupils) would have been far greater without that initial investment.
My point is that relationally-based strategies take time, thought, and creativity. But ultimately, they yield greater benefits, more economically. They are wholly positive in intent, seeking the voluntary participation of others - and generate positive spin-offs. And they reduce the risk posed by unintended consequences of our actions. Control measures are horribly prone to unintended consequences.
If this makes sense to you...
This approach is based on sound psychological principles. It is an approach and not a method because it describes:
a different way of looking at the challenges teachers and professionals working with children (and adults with additional needs) need to resolve.
a different way to communicating
a different way to deal with social harm
We call these approaches Relational Approaches. Because they apply to our professional perspectives and how we conduct ourselves from within, they can be used in many dfiffernt work settings.
focus on relationships not behaviour
treat all social and antisocial behaviours as communications, which convey meaning.
We can only control – make choices about – our own behaviour, and try to guide the other person to make the right choices about their behaviour.
We are far more effective when we do this using the soft skills of persuasion and negotiation rather than trying to dominate every situation.
The soft skills of persuasion and negotiation
Control, authority and discipline are maintained using a mixture of relational techniques, good communications skills, and a willingness to engage in imaginative interpersonal transactions.
Teachers with soft skills are not ideologically committed to one style of response. They may be (within context) firm or flexible, patient or assertive, forgiving or determined, compromising or uncompromising … and so on.
The message children hear is
You are in control - make a choice!
(of course we mean ‘in control of yourself’)
Dominance and coercion
Teachers who apply a dominance style tend to over-control through regimentation, authoritarian but not authoritative, and hold punitive attitudes to wrongdoing instead of therapeutic attitudes to wrongdoers.
Teachers who use this approach are more likely to be pushed into handing out more sanctions, because unless children ‘obey’, there is nowhere to go except to up the ante with an additional sanction.
The message children hear is
You are bad - either confront me or comply!
Ideology or humanity?
Hardliners believe that the system will collapse if they ‘weaken’, but this view is not borne out by evidence from schools where all the staff use soft skills and there are few or no exclusions. Persuasive teachers understand that they no-one can ethically control another person, child or otherwise.
Soft skills teachers also understand that to develop motivation in a child, the child must make a voluntary choice to act. If you force anyone to do anything, there is a very high chance they will stop as soon as the force is removed. Making a child do something is not developing motivation.
So we can only control - make choices about - our behaviour and try to guide the other person to make the right choices about their behaviour.
What does this look like in the class?
An observer in such a class would see a teacher helping children
experience a sense of choosing as much as possible
benefiting themselves from what they are asked to do
experience a sense of being in control
have reasons to trust
They will see the children
being given clear honest explanations and time
being fully valued and involved as human beings
being encouraged to make and value agreements
When we use a restorative approach to deal with breaches of the school code which lead to social harm we ask the children to show a similar respect for us as fellow humans.
Of course, if they have never seen our human side, and only ever seen the teacher-face that is harder for them.
Soft skills teachers also know that showing their human face builds trust and creates opportunities for children to share their feelings in a safe way and ask for help in the right way.
Whenever a teacher must apply ‘the rules’, the option to find a way to position themselves on the same side of the rules as the child will always provide a more beneficial outcome. The College of Policing promotes a similar ethic for their officers.
Sharing this image with children triggers interesting responses which provide the teacher with valuable insight into their perspectives. Younger children connect the behaviour with the sanction which it triggers. How does the punishment help them understand why something is 'naughty'? When we explain the purpose of the rule, children are more likely to accept it as reasonable and right, but this is not always shared with them.
This resource includes two Keystage 2 class activities.
“I have a problem you might be able to help me with.”
The boy looked up in surprise.
“Yes! You see the school rules say that if a pupil is chewing gum in class the teacher must give them a detention. I can see you are chewing but you seem like a nice young man - I don’t want to have to give you a punishment.
I’m just going to help that boy over there, and then I’ll come back to you.”
There was no further sign of the chewing gum, nor any need to mention it again. Of course, she could have just said “you’re chewing. If you don’t stop I will give you a detention.” And perhaps that would have worked just as easily. There again, perhaps not.
Anyone who has had to deal with an outbreak of gum-chewing in class will know how much fun children can have sticking it behind their teeth or under the tongue, or swallowing it at the last minute, or having a coughing fit to conceal it. What a wonderful waste of time that can be!
The sub-text of this teacher’s communication conveyed humour, kindness, and the phrase ‘you seem like a nice young man’. A more positive basis for the next interaction than a straightforward challenge would have been.
This image portrays a child’s view of the world (and perhaps that of some parents) not a teachers’ view.
Research suggests that older children are much more likely to accept rules if the purpose of the rule is seen as reasonable. Research also suggests that younger children are more likely to see rules as things connecting proscribed behaviours with punishments. Older children have an understanding that rules make communities safe and functional. Younger children are still forming this understanding and are in awe, and sometimes fear, of the dominant adults in the room.
So children in kindergarten will see rules as something handed down from on high. Tiffany Barnikis gives two good examples of this:
‘if you are being silly you have to go to the white chair and you have to think about what you have done’.
‘if you are not listening you have to go in time out … it’s where you have to go off the carpet and sit in a chair and do nothing’.
There is no understanding of what specifically constitutes silly, or why that particular silliness merited a punishment. While the threat of that punishment may discourage the behaviour, it teaches the child nothing about why it needs to be discouraged.
Perhaps we should have an additional picture showing a kindly teacher holding a book of rules for contrast. It’s almost as if teachers of younger children are obliged to be judge and jury in this way when caring for children at the beginning of their learning journey towards citizenship, responsibility, and the harmonious exercise of personal freedom in a rules-based society.
While some teenagers may passively and unquestioningly conform to received rules without question, many others choose to accept some rules and oppose others. As Robert Thornberg says:
“The perception of reasonable meaning behind a rule seems to be – not surprisingly – significant to students’ acceptance of the rule.”
Speak politely, listen to others, and don’t tease are all social rules which are generally understand and supported by children.
Ask before leaving your chair, walk on the left wide of the corridor, and put your reading book back are activity rules which may be conducive to the public good, but to the individual can seem petty and unnecessary.
So with older children it’s increasingly important to teach them the rule’s ‘reasonable meaning’. The problem arises when that meaning is in doubt. Etiquette rules for instance. What actual harm does it do if a child picks their nose or dyes their hair purple?
Safety rules often place a strain on the obedience of the average child because the risk to the individual is often small. The rule is there to protect the school from the cumulative risk that sooner or later someone might be injured.
Why not try explaining cumulative risk to children in the context of your school rules? It’s an ideal focus for understanding Probability.
From the start we should be teaching children the meaning of the rules we apply to them, and trying to help the child see rules as something which applies to adults as much as to children.
But there’s two more things we can draw from this image.
When our reasonable approach doesn’t work, we may revert to the ‘my way or the highway approach’, ‘because I said so’. That’s OK up to a point – the child might simply not get it yet and time is precious. But that way risks a build-up of resentment and little has been learned. It may also sow the seeds of confrontation because there is nowhere to go if the child opts for trying the highway and things escalate.
Some children take much longer to learn self-control and understand social rules - for developmental or family reasons. Some children enter their teens still seeing rules as something 'handed down' by adults, and are more likely to shrug off the rules as they shrug off the adults in their search for 'independence'. Many children with special needs or emotional problems are very reactive to coercive approaches.
With these children getting on ‘the right side of the rules’, with the child and family, is essential.
Those who have most difficulty with social compliance are the ones who most need the teacher on their side, helping them understand and adapt to rules which enable harmonious collective activity.
The relational approach offers professionals a perspective, a philosophy, and a framework for understanding children with social emotional and mental health needs. It offers a new way to look at behaviour and understand what promotes satisfying and sustainable relationships even under adverse conditions. Whilst behaviour management approaches seek to change the behaviour of another, the relational approach seeks to enable the other to change their own behaviour.