Confident application is key to behaviour management
The best policy is not to stick rigidly to one theory, but to sample a range of theories to find the solution that fits
A couple of years ago, a colleague was roundly castigated at a behaviour management conference for daring to suggest that limit-setting strategies could co-exist in a school that employed restorative practices. The castigator - a restorative expert with books and a consultancy to peddle - was adamant that limit setting was some form of draconian Gothic horror philosophy that turned teaching into the Spanish Inquisition.
My colleague and I agreed that this seemed to be a fairly basic misunderstanding of what “restoration” means, and we failed to see where the conflict between restorative practices and limit setting lies: indeed, the former can only exist in the context of the latter.
Restorative practices come from restorative justice, a huge success within the criminal justice system, and the word within is crucial. When someone commits a crime, it is a crime because some limit - the law - has been broken. Criminals who break laws are punished and then engage in a restorative process that looks to mend the situation, attend to the needs of the victim and ensure that it never happens again. In many restorative justice processes, the perpetrator accepts punishment as part of the process of repairing the harm done. If there are no limits set and no limits broken, what is to be restored?
I was reminded of this last session when talking to some principal teachers about student practice placements. One of them told me, rather sheepishly, that pupils known for persistent misbehaviour were often removed from students’ classes before we assessed their lessons. The PT knew that we advise against this, simply because we want to see students managing real children who exhibit real behaviour, but I found the reasoning strange: if the pupils misbehaved, I was told, the student would waste too much time having a restorative conversation in the corridor with them.
This type of scenario is becoming more common and indicates one of the biggest problems in developing a behaviour management policy by committing too many eggs to the basket of one “theory”, whether it is a limit-setting approach such as positive assertive discipline or a solutions-focused strategy such as restorative practice. I would argue that the best behaviour management is that which samples from a range of theories to find the best solution for each of the myriad contexts that might arise in a school.
And this suggests a further difficulty: the notion that restoration is a “fit for all” solution to incidents of misbehaviour. The international evidence is clear that restorative practices in the criminal justice system work far more effectively with more serious or persistent offenders. In schools, the message should be that restorative conversations are best used with the most difficult children, those who cause persistent problems, who are severely disruptive, who are potentially or actually violent. The boy who kicks out at his teacher benefits from a restorative conversation because it is an intentionally difficult, draining, but ultimately affirmative, process by which real emotional awareness is achieved. Conversely, the girl who talks out of turn to her pal should be issued a sanction and praised when she modifies her behaviour. A chat in the corridor is a travesty of restorative justice, and quite simply gives such an important and valuable process a bad name.
A third difficulty is the confusion over whom restorative processes are for. What I respect so much about restorative justice in the criminal justice system is that it seems to be the only process that takes account of the real needs of the victim. In restorative justice, all the stakeholders must come to the table willingly, but when I asked the principal teacher what alternative was in place should a pupil refuse that conversation in the corridor, the answer was a shrug and a frustrated acknowledgment of powerlessness. Under those circumstances, nothing is “restored”, the offender makes no positive choice, no consequences are imposed, the “victim” - the teacher, the class, the school’s ethos - suffers and “justice” is utterly absent.
Those with a theory to promote see it otherwise. Limit setting has no place in a democratic school, they say, and is merely an expression of the powerful (the teacher) over the powerless (the pupil). Tell that to stressed-out teachers who have no recourse to end relatively minor disruption other than a lengthy talk in the corridor, or to the self- disciplined and respectful pupils who sit in the classroom unattended while that is going on. “Democratic principles” mean nothing in a classroom that isn’t working and teachers are rightly more interested in the pragmatic than the dogmatic.
And, of course, limit setting is no more “undemocratic” than laws that prevent us from doing harm to others and others doing harm to us. It is the beginning of a continuum that sets the boundaries that ensure that we all behave towards each other as if we had respect. The next step in that continuum is the process by which we learn from example, by which we are coached and counselled by those around us towards an awareness of why it is best to behave in ways that demonstrate respect for each other; and the final step, achieved by restorative processes, is full-blown emotional intelligence, the awareness of our own needs and the needs of others, which allows us to make rational decisions for ourselves about the ways we choose to behave.
Raymond Soltysek, Education lecturer.
Raymond Soltysek lectures on behaviour management on the PGDE course at Strathclyde University.