What makes students behave well?

This question has been considered by virtually every educator at every level. And probably every parent at some stage too.

Being an Assistant Principal for pastoral care, this is a question I am often grappling with. And not just after a fight has occurred between students, or just as I have discovered Year 7 boys have trashed the bathroom! Part of my responsibility is to create a culture of good behaviour amongst our student population. (I’ll deal with staff behaviour in another post!) This is why I am so concerned with the question ‘how do we get pupils to behave themselves?’

Human behaviour can perhaps be considered as being influenced by two broad areas: 1) external governance e.g. laws, rules and the great social contract, and 2) internal governance; personal identity, self regulation and positive agency. It is also worth stating that these two broad areas, external governance and internal governance, are not mutually exclusive. They co-exist and one supports the other. I would not know where to begin in defining the moment when an external governor, such as parent rules, becomes an individual’s personal locus of control.

How is all of this linked to student behaviour on a day to day basis? In the first place, let’s start with external governance in the form of school rules and expectations for behaviour. I think this is the most basic and rudimentary practice which every school should have without exception. All contexts have their own rules of engagement; from no talking in the library to removing your shoes at grandma’s house; and successful participation in each context is predicated upon knowing what these rules are. So, do all students know how to walk through the corridors? Do they know how to participate respectfully in class discussions? The UK government has provided a helpful checklist for school leaders to ensure they have the most basic of behaviour protocols in place, and you can find it here.

Secondly, all leaders should consider the role rewards and recognition play as an external force governing student behaviour. Some students can find this incredibly motivating. One drawback of this approach is that it is very short term. I have not seen any compelling evidence which suggests external rewards have a lasting impact on governing behaviour over the long term. It could be argued that rewards are more beneficial to the students who get it right most of the time as opposed to transforming those who struggle to meet expectations. Another major drawback is that external rewards rely on extrinsic motivation, and this does very little or nothing at all to change a student’s identity and how they see themselves as learners within a community.

Let us now consider internal governance, which perhaps is the most powerful driver of human behaviour. Author Paul Tough in his book ‘How children succeed’ suggests one of the key traits which makes students successful is personal identity. How students see themselves is critical in governing their behaviour. Let’s say we have two children, each naturally possessing a different self-identity. Child A holds the belief that they are not a bully. They feel it’s cowardly and cruel to prey on anyone who may be considered weaker or vulnerable. “I’m not the kind of person who bullies, therefore why would I antagonise my classmate” they say to themselves. Meanwhile, pupil B sees himself as a tough guy who takes no nonsense. “Anyone who confronts me with any trouble will regret it!” they self-affirm. From these two illustrations it’s clear to see which identity will be more conducive in any kind of community.

Below I suggest ways that schools can potentially foster healthy identities amongst their students:

  1. Provide sufficient opportunities for students to be successful outside of the academic curriculum. From programmes like the DofE Award to community service and volunteering, such opportunities give young people a chance to discover talents and develop non-academic skills.
  2. Working in tandem with number one, there should be systems and structures which ensure that every child is achieving success in the academic curriculum. This is no easy feat but no matter what alternative pathways we have in place, if a child feels they are languishing in the academic curriculum on a day to day basis, this is likely to have a profoundly damaging impact on their self-identity as learners. As a starting point, schools could adopt any number of strategies; growth mindset culture; provide academic mentoring; employ learning mentors; work with local tuition/supplementary education providers, all in order to support students who are struggling academically.
  3. Use data intelligently. Reliable and timely attainment data can provide valuable information about which students actually require additional support.
  4. Work on mindset! Learning isn’t just a cognitive endeavour, but highly psychological. It’s an incredibly powerful lever when you tap into the psyche of your pupils and make them realise that learning is something we can all get better at. This is where I think cognitive psychology has an immensely potent role to play in shifting learners’ self-perception to a more empowered position where they place themselves firmly in the driver’s seat.

This is an extensive and complex topic and I haven’t covered half as much as I could in this relatively short post. One significant area in which I am lacking knowledge is on the topic of how trauma impacts upon an individual’s self-identity. This is a very sad but real fact that many children will grow up in homes and communities where abuse is prevalent and the negative effects upon self-esteem and identity cannot be measured. As an educator, I am committed to providing an environment where all children can flourish and grow in spite of their adverse experiences.

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