Challenging ‘Behaviour Policies’: Misunderstood, inappropriate and unfair

I believe that proper assessment would reveal that these children have a range of social, emotional and mental health (SEMH) problems that are the real cause of their misbehaviours.

Thanks to Rob Long, educational psychologist and author of SNAP-B, for the following article.

Recently I attended a meeting on school exclusions where clear evidence was presented which highlighted there are certain ‘at risk’ groups that are more likely to be excluded. For me this reinforced the article I had read by J O’Brian in which he suggested that there is a systemic bias in the education system against certain ethnic groups.

With this thought in mind I began to wonder if there is a similar bias to explain why children and young people with special educational needs and disability (SEND) or Educational Health and Care Plan (EHCP) statements are also a vulnerable group to being excluded as the data suggests that they are higher than other non-disabled groups on exclusions.

There is clear evidence that certain ‘at risk’ groups are more likely to be excluded from school, and pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) or Educational Health and Care Plans (EHCP) are much more likely to be excluded than other non-disabled groups.

The reasons for these exclusions can include:

  • Persistent disruptive behaviour
  • Physical assault against an adult
  • Physical assault against a pupil
  • Verbal abuse or threatening behaviour against an adult
  • Verbal abuse of threatening behaviour against a pupil
  • Damage
  • Bullying

These are the behaviours commonly associated with children who have some degree of social, emotional, mental health (SEMH) difficulty.

I would argue that these behaviours would be dealt with by a school’s Behaviour Policy. But there are clearly issues with this, and I have constructed three arguments that expose the problems with applying a whole school behaviour policy indiscriminately to all children.


Behaviour policies are misunderstood

Behaviour policies are heavily based on rewards and sanctions and much has been written on the problems of this system (Kohn, 1990). For many, the focus of the behavior policy is to reduce misbehaviours, with more time and energy spent on correcting and managing inappropriate behaviours than appropriate ones.

B. F. Skinner was the arch proponent of the use of consequences to control behaviour. He wrote how positive and negative reinforcement could shape behaviour, rather than rewards and sanctions. For him, something could only be either a positive or negative reinforcer of a behaviour after its effect on the behaviour was observed. It is worth noting that strictly speaking it is the behaviour that is being reinforced not the student. The effectiveness then is to be judged through observing whether the behaviour changes. So, while a student might not like being put into detention, the observed fact that they continue to have detentions shows that detention is not a negative sanction for the behaviour.

I suggest that when an adult reacts to a pupil’s behaviour, it is the pupil who is in control. Their behaviour results in a response from the adult, and as behaviour is rarely random and is usually motivated to obtain something or avoid something, it would seem that the pupil is in control. It is not difficult to see that if the focus is on correction techniques then school staff are more likely to experience failure and frustration as they unwittingly help meet a student’s needs. For example, the student who does not like a lesson, misbehaves and is sent out. Are they being sanctioned or rewarded? I suggest they are being rewarded.


Problems with rewards

  • They devalue learning. When a student is told, “Do “X” and I will give you Y”. There whatever X is, it is devalued, it becomes a means to an end. (Kohn 1999)
  • Rewards do not teach personal responsibility. A learner’s behaviour is under the control of external factors, the individual is not responsible for it (deCharms, 1967).
  • Learners are treated as a means to an end, namely a score. The learners’ interests and other basic needs are ignored.


Problems with sanctions

  • A student’s misbehaviour may be motivated to obtain attention. To administer a sanction will usually involve adult attention, and this attention given in conjunction with the sanction, may actually be rewarding the misbehaviour and in fact maintaining the misbehaviour.
  • If a sanction is frequently given by the same adult, then any negative emotional arousal linked to the sanction is likely to generalise to the person responsible, a conditioned fear may be acquired. This may result in a negative relationship which can prevent the adult being supportive/helpful in the future. It is not unusual for one member of staff to be seen in such a negative light through their association with sanctions.
  • When the threat of a sanction is present students may/can control their behaviour, but when the threat is removed the misbehaviour returns. It is not uncommon for students to misbehave when taught by supply teachers, or during free time, but not in class time.

I suggest unless we look more closely at how reinforcement can shape behaviour too use rewards and sanctions more effectively.


Behaviour policies are inappropriate

So why are behaviour policies inappropriate? In an everyday primary or secondary school there will be a significant number of children who enter school with the prerequisite classroom skills already. These will be such skills as the ability to:

  • Share
  • Say please and thank you
  • Take turns
  • Share
  • Cooperate with others
  • Listen

Many learners will have acquired these at home, their parents/carers will have modelled and taught them through repeated practice. Arguably, a school behaviour policy is almost not needed for these children. In fact, they are nearly always well behaved so to praise them and reward them for behaving/misbehaving would be condescending. In fact it is often these children that school staff feel are over looked. As a result, many schools have introduced ‘golden time’ so that these pupils can at least feel that they are recognised for behaving well.

If the aim of any Behaviour Policy is to enable pupils to engage more fully in their learning perhaps the school policy for the majority could be more appropriately focused on:

  • Motivation and engagement for learning.
  • Learning power (Guy Caxton, 2018)
  • Learning mindsets (Dweck, 1988)


Behaviour policies are unfair

This, for me is the crucial part.

“Behaviour Policies work for those who don’t need them, AND are unfair for those who do.”

In many mainstream schools there are often a small number of students (as low as 3%) responsible for a disproportionately high number of misbehaviours. Most students who have been excluded will have been initially dealt with through the school’s behaviour policy and exclusion will be the final step when all previous sanctions/rewards have failed.



We can assume that a high number of those who are excluded, either fixed or permanent, will have been through a school’s Behaviour Policy for managing persistent misbehaviours, namely a system of sanctions.  My argument is that these misbehaviours are in fact signs of social, emotional and mental health (SEMH) problems. I believe that proper assessment would reveal that these children have a range of difficulties that are the real cause of their misbehaviours and why sanctions do not help them to behave better.

I would also argue that these children have a range of associated difficulties such as:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Negative learning mind set
  • Emotionally illiterate
  • Poor self-regulation skills
  • Poor problem solving
  • Poor group interaction skills
  • Negative attitude towards authority

If a ‘one size fits all’ behaviour policy is applied to pupils with these difficulties deficits, then it is inevitable that they will progress towards the ultimate sanction of exclusion. Imagine if a pupil is assessed and diagnosed as having dyslexia. The intervention that is decided to address this is to carry on teaching the pupil the same as before. Pupils with SEMH difficulties need the assessments and then interventions. It is unfair to apply a behaviour policy that simplifies a problem that is more complex.


Behaviour, Primary, Secondary, SEN, SENCO

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