Thinking Differently About Behaviour - By Jarlath O'Brien

By Jarlath O'Brien, A teacher in London and author of ‘Better Behaviour – a guide for teachers’, published by SAGE.

For a long time I have thought of negative behaviour as the indicator of an unmet need. It is a view that many disagree with and I often have very interesting discussions with parents, fellow teachers and psychologists about it. ‘Negative’ is obviously in the eye of the beholder – behaviour that I perceive as negative in a child may, as far as they are concerned, be absolutely necessary (and, therefore, positive). People seem to have little difficulty with the word negative and it is often the tail end – the indication of an unmet need – where the debate focuses. It is sometimes misunderstood as a premeditated strategy from a child to have us indulge their every whim. It is not.

We all have within us the potential to behave badly. Threaten the safety of my children and I will do what is necessary to keep them safe. Any consequences to me personally are secondary in that moment. I may give them no thought, or I might regard them as an acceptable result of my actions. The same is true of children. I have worked with many children who are doing the best they can to have their needs met, yet behaving appallingly at the same time. For example, a child failing to turn up to my lesson is unacceptably rude in my eyes, yet they may be protecting themselves from the shame of their perceived certain failure in the test I have prepared for them. There is obviously a better way for them to handle that situation and my job as an educator is to teach them to do that. Yes, that may involve sanctions (or it may not), but it is a moment for education, not simply retribution.

My frustrations – my unmet needs, if you will – when colleagues disagree about my views above are at least in part down to my inability to make my case convincingly enough. With that in mind I have started to think about this in a different way. Take William Powers’ view

“Instead of assuming that brains control behaviour based on sensory stimuli, it makes more sense to assume that brains adapt behaviour to control what stimuli they get from the world”

I like this a lot. Every time I read this Kieran springs to mind. I worked with Kieran for five years and the phrase above reminds me of the times he would pinball down the corridor, bouncing off walls, the times he would slam doors, the times he would talk in a booming voice to someone right next to him, the times he would jump from the first floor landing all the way down to the bottom floor – a distance of about 12 feet – a make a crashing noise as he landed or the times he would walk out of a lesson shouting “I’M NOT FUCKING DOING IT!”. He could be incredibly disruptive, but he could also be incredibly withdrawn. Powers’ phrase above allows me to understand better how Kieran’s sensory-seeking behaviour was working and, crucially, what I then needed to do in response – or ideally beforehand – to help Kieran. If we didn’t help Kieran to have his needs met – and, again, this is not about indulging a child – then he would seek other ways, consciously or not, to do so and that was more likely to be disruptive for everyone.

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