If punishment works why does punishment still exist? This is actually a question asked by a 7 year old child in a philosophical discussion using the picturebook Not Now Bernard by David McKee. The children had commented that they thought it strange that Bernard was ignored by his parents rather than punished for being annoying. By the end of the session the majority of children had constructed a theory that ignoring was the very worst punishment and that physical punishment never worked- it just made things harder for everyone to deal with it and it carried on.
As an educator my main concern was that I got it right, I wanted a class who were calm yet excited, physically busy yet quiet, a class where all the children were friends and shared everything and were attentive at all times. Where nobody was excluded or belittled and where all voices were equal. However as all educators know I was not working with 30 + little robots, but with individuals with emotions and thoughts, from many backgrounds and social advantages and disadvantages.
Many things influence a child’s behaviour, frustration, boredom, physical confinement, hunger, sleep deprivation, physical, emotional or sexual abuse, anxiety about family members, living with bereavement, not feeling they belong because they have the “wrong” uniform, or shoes, homelessness, illness or learning challenges. Most “difficult” children have stories that help us understand why they feel angry or sad or un co-operative , but how often do we see these issues as relevant to learning and behaviour? They might have a new baby in the house that keeps them awake, they might witness violence or maybe somebody was just a bit cross with them on the way to school It is probable that the child feels no control over what happens to them and seeking attention , even negative attention is a way of them feeling noticed.
It is therefore unrealistic to expect the perfectly imagined class. In fact we must first challenge our own reasons for wanting such a class. Maybe by examining the following questions we can start to unpack what role we as teachers have in helping each child find their place in a functioning learning environment.
Do we trust the children? And can we respect them if….
we expect them to sit on a hard floor until their bodies feel uncomfortable and sore?
we expect them to give up a toy that they are exploring because another child wants it?
we force them to say sorry when we don’t know the whole story?
we expect them to go to the toilet to fit into our routine?
we tell them where to sit or stand ?
we command them to eat when they are not hungry?
we do not allow them to eat when they are?
we do not take note of their interests because we learn that next term?
we expect them to play or work with others that they don’t get on with?
we bribe or blackmail them to complete tasks?
we reward or punish based on likes or dislikes of a child?
We hand out stickers on an arbitrary basis ?
we humiliate a child in front of their peers?
we provide them with tasks that they don’t understand?
we use language and vocabulary the child doesn’t understand?
How many of these scenarios would be acceptable if applied to us in our adult lives?
Even the youngest school children are beginning to understand the concept of fairness and will rebel against injustice. Citizens who can engage thoughtfully in conflict and resolution are those that have not had it beaten out of them. It is crucial that our children are encouraged ,guided and trusted to belong to a community that has had to work together, solve and share problems. This means that power of authority has to shift from that of teacher in charge to how can teacher and student solve these problems together?
Teachers who think that they must control behaviour at all costs are actually preventing the child from learning how to control their own behaviour. A child who is asked how can we solve this problem is trusted to take responsibility, to understand what self-control and competence looks and feels like to both themselves and others.
Teachers can instead better influence behaviour by observing the common problems that cause disruption and addressing them directly with the children, asking them to help solve the problem and the difficulties they present when for example …
children do not share
children fidget, fiddle, touch others or fight
children say unkind things/tell tales
make too much noise
children are reluctant to participate
children continually interrupt others
certain children always dominate the session
children become disruptive during transitions and timetabled routines
children constantly say “is this right?”
children day dream and work slowly
If punishment is the only option teachers are going to be spending most of the day dealing with and addressing behaviour rather than supporting learning. This is why it is important to create a more democratic learning ethos from the start, a few weeks of working alongside the children to address low level disruption frees up the need for teacher interventions that waste valuable learning time.
From the start the children should be able to know that the teacher is aware of the difficulties of learning to become part of a class of many children. We often address problems by asking “why did you do that?” but are we actually genuinely interested in the answer? taking time to listen helps children understand that they are trusted to solve this problem and have the support of the teacher to help. The most useful statements a teacher can use to facilitate responsibility for behaviour involve helping children use non confrontational language. For example when a child is hurt by another, the victim has to know that it is permissible to say to the other child “please don’t do that it hurts and I don’t feel good when that happens.” Or “ I need to explain why that happened” Initially the teacher will have to model the phrases in order for the children to know it is allowed. Supporting the children means they are less likely to need an adult to sort out problems in the future.
Other phrases to commonly teach and encourage children to use are…
Please don’t take that I haven’t finished with it yet, I’ll give it to you when I’m done with it
Can you let me know when you’ve finished with that so I can use it please?
Please can you stop, I can’t listen carefully when you are talking
Please can you move a little so we can both be comfortable?
I like you but I’m busy doing something else right now, we can play later.
Over time I have discovered that children become more able to articulate their phrases and adapt them according to the contexts in which they need to use them. In many cases and with time and experience the children come to value the interventions from their peers and accept them without complaint, moving on without incident.
Scientific research shows that children can actually reshape their brains and create new neurons when they learn and practice skills rather than being told what to do. Success in problem management increases levels of motivation and achievement. It is not the role of the teacher to “fix” children’s behaviour but instead nurture them to take responsibility for their own success. Despite the difficulties a child may face outside the classroom the teacher can make a difference inside it. Showing kindness, respect and genuine understanding can often be more than enough.