This week I have felt that I and my class are beginning to turn the corner – I can almost feel that we are becoming a true learning community – not quite yet but almost. For most of the class behaviour is improving and so we are able to move forward – the special children remain a huge challenge but the majority are usually a delight to be with. I have been thinking about the language we use when we talk about behaviour with the children – the most common phrases are ‘Good sitting’, ‘Good listening’, ‘Good thinking’ and ‘Good choice’. What do we mean by this? What on earth is good thinking?
Let me begin by telling you a story passed on by the reception class teacher. They had been talking about the three little pigs but had changed it so it was about three little birds who were building their nests in the trees, pursued by a cat. The four year old children had been discussing how the birds could stop the cat from climbing the tree to destroy their nests. There had been several ideas – wrap the tree trunk with sticky tape so the cat would stick to it as they climbed up; spread honey over the tree so it was slippery; throw water down from the top of the tree over the cat. All the ideas were received and praised by the teacher as ‘Good thinking!’. Then F. shared his idea – ‘The bird could just shout ‘F*** off’ to the cat.’ Was that good thinking? I suspect it did not get the praise the other ideas received – but maybe the thinking behind the idea was as good as any of the others.
When we praise children for ‘Good sitting’ we mean they are sitting on their bottoms with their legs crossed – probably the most uncomfortable position imaginable. Have you ever tried it? When we praise children for ‘Good listening’, we mean they have been listening to us not to their friend, the conversation they can hear in the corridor or even the ideas inside their heads. When we praise children for making a good choice, we mean that they conformed to what we wanted them to do at the time. In other words, while creating the illusion that the children have decided what to do, in fact we are imposing our own wishes on them.
Tom Bennett (2016) in his recent report on what trainee teachers should be told about behaviour management identified the three ‘Rs’ – routines, responses and relationships. I have been using these to reflect on my past few weeks in the classroom. Before the term started my partner teacher and I talked about the ethos we would have in our classroom and how we would establish it through the routines; some of these ideas were translated into practice but others have been abandoned because of the nature of the class. The school behaviour management policy has both rewards and sanctions which are used but some children make no connection between these and their long term behaviour. For me it is the relationships we create between ourselves and the children which are crucial and my relationship with my class is that of teacher and pupil – not friend, not parent, not social worker. The reason I am in that room with those children is so that they can learn what the government intends them to learn and it is my responsibility to ensure that happens. In order for it to happen clear boundaries need to be established and expectations set – in my mind these are not negotiable. The children need to understand why certain behaviours are appropriate in school and others are not.
In a recent circle time the children talked about what helped them to learn; nearly all of them said that a quiet classroom was best. We then talked about how that means we all have to take responsibility for that – a quiet classroom will only happen when each person keeps the noise at an acceptable level. We practised talking at different volumes and decided what was best for learning. Of course, that does not mean the classroom is now always quiet! It does mean though that when I tell the children they are making too much noise they have a frame of reference for what is acceptable.
A teaching assistant commented to me a few weeks ago that she noticed I used, what she described as ‘the ‘n’ word’. Before you get too shocked, she meant ‘naughty’ – or maybe you are still shocked! She told me that previously she had been told never to tell a child s/he was naughty. The dictionary defines ‘naughty’ as ‘disobedient’ and so the use of the word implies a hierarchy of authority within a classroom; if we say children can never be naughty we are saying they have an equal status. Is that the case? The problem is, that as with the noise question, children have no frame of reference for behaviour which leads to successful learning in school – and that is not always the same as behaviour which leads to successful learning at home or in other contexts. They need to be told what is acceptable. It is not fair to ask children to make good choices when they do not know what a good choice is and what the consequences of making a ‘bad’ choice are.
S chats all the time in school; sometimes she chats about the focus of the lesson but sometimes about whatever happens to take her fancy. She will chat to me, to other children or to herself – it depends who will listen. She will listen to the lesson and then follow an idea which springs into her mind – talking to herself or her neighbour during carpet time. In independent learning time, she will wander around the classroom tidying the book corner, picking things up from the floor, explaining to other children what they should be doing – anything except do what she should be doing! She does all this with a happy smile on her face – she loves life and all it offers her. Watching her interact with her parents it is easy to see that this behaviour has been reinforced at home – she is endearing, a delight to talk to and full of ideas. In school this needs to be channelled – S needs to know that this behaviour is not appropriate in the classroom because it is getting in the way of her school learning.
M will not sit still and does not listen; he never knows what he should be doing and usually has no idea what the lesson is about. He will crouch down instead of sit; he pokes and pinches other children to see how they will react; he plays with anything he finds on the floor or on his table; he never looks at me in case I ask him a question or want to talk about the empty piece of paper in front of him. M needs to learn why it is not a good idea to hurt other children in the class and why the reason I constantly interrupt him to remind him of what the lesson is about is so that he can share in the learning – which is why he is there!
J has been taught how to do a lot of things at home and believes that is the way things are done. The other day when we were playing about with number sentences and writing them as both 3+2=5 and 5=3+2, he was most emphatic that the second one was wrong. He told me that I was teaching the class wrongly and did not know how to do Mathematics; he would not discuss it – he said he knew and I clearly did not. J needs to know that learning requires an open mind and the ability to take risks, that knowledge is not tightly defined and learning opens up all sorts of exciting possibilities.
I have described just three of the wonderful children in my class and have not even begun to talk about the ‘six’ special children who bring their own particular perspectives to learning and behaviour. In the first paragraph I said I felt we are just about turning the corner to creating a positive learning environment; I believe this is because we have been very firm in defining our expectations of acceptable behaviour in the classroom. The children have learned that as members of a group they have to conform and not behave in a way that disrupts others. As teachers, it is our task to define and ‘teach’ those expectations. It is only when those boundaries are made explicit and are clearly understood that the idea of children making choices is meaningful; they know the expectations and can decide if they are going to conform or not – in other words if they are going to be good or ‘naughty’.
So what is ‘good thinking’ in my classroom? It is thinking which takes account of all the possibilities and weighs them up; it is thinking which is able to respond and justify that response; it is thinking which listens to a whole range of ideas from other people; it is thinking which works out solutions to problems. So yes – F did demonstrate good thinking but maybe needs to learn about how his ideas can best be expressed – some forms of expression are not acceptable in school!