According to the philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris, free will is an illusion. If I ask you whether you’d like a cup of tea or coffee, you feel like you’re choosing.
Harris, however, would argue that you didn’t choose your preferences. You didn’t choose whether you prefer tea or coffee, either as a general rule or in any specific moment. You feel like a nice cup of tea this morning – but did you decide that was your preference or, more likely, did your preference dictate your choice?
It could be argued that you’re free to choose coffee over your preferred tea. But then you didn’t choose to be the type of person who’d drink coffee in defiance of their preference in order to prove free will exists (while accidentally helping to prove that it doesn’t).
Applying this idea to school behaviour, to what extent do children and young people freely choose to behave in a negative way? They won’t have chosen their genetics, family, previous life experiences, the school they attend, their teacher or indeed their brain chemistry. Is that incomplete list of unchosen circumstances a list of excuses or a list of reasons? What’s the difference between a reason and an excuse?
I’d argue that excuses are usually used to deny personal responsibility. A reason places responsibility in the correct place/s and to the correct degree.
An important distinction needs to be made here. If a ‘No Excuses’ behaviour policy means there are no acceptable reasons for poor behaviour, then I’m not prepared to advocate it. If, however, a ‘No Excuses’ policy means that no individuals should be given extra chances within a behaviour system, then I’d agree wholeheartedly.
I’m frequently asked whether we should allow some students more leeway in terms of negative behaviour because they have, for example, a difficult home life. I’d say never – though I’m not suggesting that we don’t make more effort to look at the reasons for their poor behaviour and put extra effort into preventing it.
I’d recommend avoiding a further trap that many schools fall into, which is to simply ratchet up punishments. Lots of schools try this and it doesn’t work. What’s needed is a careful and robust analysis of the triggers for poor behaviour, while looking at and changing reinforcing consequences. How often in primary schools do children get withdrawn from class for poor behaviour, only to end up with loveliest person in school playing with Lego or on a computer? We’re then surprised when they end up being sent out again the following day.
Finding the trigger
Many schools will look very carefully at any recognisable barriers to learning, including those related to behaviour. They’ll collect, analyse and act upon behaviour data, just as they would with data concerning academic progress.
They’ll have access to that key information at a school-wide, class-byclass and individual level, just like progress data, and use it to inform their systems, priorities and interventions. Let’s take a common example. A teacher has identified that a specific student is displaying negative behaviour, most often in maths lessons. The teacher takes an educated guess that the student’s perceived difficulty of maths problems, coupled with a fear of looking foolish in front of their classmates, is the trigger for their poor behaviour.
Certain ‘No Excuses’ policies might simply escalate the formal consequences, ultimately leading to the student’s withdrawal from class.
It should be obvious, though, that this won’t get to the root of the problem. In contrast, some teachers will try to prove what the trigger is. They could, for example, ensure that the next two weeks worth of maths lessons begin with 10 minutes of very easy challenges and then examine whether the student’s negative behaviour starts when the work gets more difficult. After this intervention and other attempts have been made, we’ll have either proven that difficulty is indeed the trigger and can now adapt our planning accordingly, or moved on to testing for other possible triggers.
Whether your school’s policy is dubbed ‘No Excuses’ or something else is far less relevant than your belief in what can prevent further negative behaviours and increase the likelihood of positive ones.
If you feel the answer to that lies in punishment alone, then good luck. Your success will, at best, be limited. But if you’re ready to look at the possible roots of students’ negative behaviour, feel free to call your policy whatever you want. You’ll ultimately be helping the adults of the future make positive choices that will serve them well for a lifetime. You’ll change their lives forever. Any once you know how to do it, you’ll keep doing it, because it works.
What made you read this article and not another? It’s hard to get to the root of the reason, isn’t it? Yet read it you did, all the way to the end. Has your mind been changed, or have your views been reinforced? Can you choose to disagree with your own view?
If we can accept that free will is an illusion, then we can change our view on how to support people whose genetics, family circumstances, life experiences, health and numerous other variables lead them to negative behaviour. I can’t help thinking that’s got to be a good thing.
‘No excuses’ behaviour policies fall into the common trap of assuming ‘pupil choices’ are the only variable when it comes to poor behaviour. in fact, there are actually four broad variables in play:
1. Individual students
We’ve all met them. The reasons for them presenting negative behaviour are complex and a few million words above my given word count.
Sometimes, when two or more students get together their behaviour is far worse than when they’re not in the company of these classmates.
Some teachers are inexperienced, poorly trained, poorly motivated or underprepared for the challenges they face. Others may be more experienced, but repeating ineffective strategies.
The quality of school-wide systems for dealing with negative behaviour can be variable.
Greg Perry is a former teacher and co-founder, with Jill Perry, of the behaviour training provider and consultancy Future Behaviour