‘Should we put someone in detention for not having a pencil?’ I asked. That caused a Twitter storm. Some children don’t have it easy. In fact, they don’t have very much at all. They face the daily struggle of life in a way that most of us could never truly comprehend unless we see it, experience it and live it for ourselves.
The poem I had quoted, written by Joshua T Dickerson, opens a can of worms that we call ‘consistency’. Consistency is a term that’s used relentlessly in schools to underpin and justify behaviour policy. It’s preached to newly qualified and trainee teachers as the one thing we should all have, without fail, in our behaviour management armoury.
Circle of intimacy
Many years ago, I was involved in a behaviour training session that’s stayed with me throughout my career. It’s a model that I come back to repeatedly, and one I feel should be known to everyone working in education. It was shared by David Moore, one of Her Majesty’s Inspectors, and was part of the National Programme for Specialist Leaders of Behaviour and Attendance. It was called the ‘circle of intimacy’ and it goes like this.
First, every child is born into a ‘circle of intimacy’. Here, they learn the behaviour that will forge the basis of their lifelong personality and disposition. They may be exposed to poverty and neglect.
Swearing may be commonplace, with violence and aggression a part of everyday life.
Here, a child learns to behave based on their experiences and the activities of the people around them. They may be susceptible to drug or alcohol abuse, and in some cases grow up being cared for by siblings not much older than themselves. There may be love and care, but this may be tainted by the strain on family life exerted by poverty and deprivation, and a daily struggle to pay the bills and make ends meet.
Friendship and participation
Children are then exposed to a ‘circle of friendship’. This includes grandparents, neighbours and the trusted adults who are close family friends. For those of us who remember the 1970s, these people may have been referred to as ‘aunties’ and ‘uncles’.
If these individuals are kind, supportive and loving, they contribute to the child’s emotional growth with a new and powerful learning experience. A child learns how to be with other people who care. (They also learn how to conspire against their parents: ‘Here’s some chocolate, Jonny, don’t tell your mum!’) This is fundamental to behaviour development. Consider what might happen when a child doesn’t have a positive circle of friendship, or has no circle of friendship at all.
Next comes what’s called the ‘circle of participation’. This is the middle class stronghold of behaviour development. This is where children participate in voluntary activities beyond the family environment that allow them to develop and grow. They’re exposed to authority, structure and rules – Brownies, Scouts, football, netball, cricket, swimming and music. They learn how to be with supportive adults who have a certain level of authority over them.
Here, they develop relationships that will influence their personalities for the rest of their lives. But as I say, this is in so many ways a middle class domain. What of the children who simply have no circle of participation? We all know children who have missed out on this significant and powerful developmental phase. But it’s not their fault.
A circle of participation can be very expensive and a drain on family finances. Historically, the working classes were heavily dependent on local sports teams, the church and the local working men’s club for this area of development, but those community clubs no longer exist. Participation in sports teams has become an expensive pastime, and there’s been a significant decline in churchgoing and other such community activities.
Circle of exchange
Finally, we have the ‘circle of exchange’. Teachers, doctors and the police are all part of this group. Here, children are compelled through societal structures to be exposed to adults who have real authority over them. These are the adults on the receiving end of the behaviours that have already been learned and embedded.
Those children who move smoothly through the three previous circles access school and the fourth circle almost entirely without concern. However, those who have been exposed to a chaotic circle of intimacy can often skip the other two developmental phases. The behaviour they learn is transferred directly into school and they become immediately exposed.
So how do we deal with this? In the same way that we teach children how to read and write, rather than punishing them into it, we also need to teach children how to behave, rather than simply issuing sanctions for not knowing how to behave.
In this way, we move towards the concept of ‘flexible consistency’. This means that we adjust our systems to meet the needs of the children. Yes, we have clear expectations and high standards, but we start to understand the influence life has had on our children’s development. It also brings (back) to the fore is the concept of in loco parentis.
Remember that? Zero tolerance approaches have rather squeezed out this idea, yet it’s a moral, as well as legal obligation on teachers and school leaders. It’s the part of our job that entails us acting as reasonable parents would for the children in our care.
This takes on a whole new concept when we consider the circles of influence. It’s beholden on us to not only have high expectations for behaviour, but also to model the behaviour that we expect. We have to encourage and support those who have experienced neither encouragement nor support. We have to provide safe and caring environments that are full of warmth and love.
We must provide opportunities for children to participate in activities that challenge and develop them away from their academic studies. It’s essential that we encourage those who need it most to participate in after-school clubs and school trips. Even if we know it will be hard work. We need to do ‘in loco parentis with bells on’, so that those children are able to fill those developmental gaps in their behaviour.
On top of that, we also need to support families and parents, rather than hassle and punish them. There are too many stories of consistency in school systems leading to family misery and anxiety. What support can you give the mother who is on her own with four children?
She has to get them up, and get them dressed and fed on her own every morning. The oldest girl helps her mum with the others, as well as getting herself ready for school. She has to drop them off at two different schools and the school bus has recently been cancelled.
When the oldest child arrives at school she’s one minute late. She’s broken the school attendance policy and receives an automatic 15-minute detention. There’s no flexibility in this rule; consistency is king.
But there’s no excuse for ‘no excuses’
This article is based on an edited extract from The Working Class: Poverty, Education and Alternative Voices – a book of collected essays, reflections and poetry edited by Ian Gilbert and published by Independent Thinking Press. Dave Whitaker is the executive principal of Springwell Learning Community