If you tolerate this then your children will be next

//If you tolerate this then your children will be next

What kinds of poor behaviour should we tolerate? How much should we tolerate? There’s a wellspring of opinion that zero tolerance is too much, that we ought to tolerate some poor behaviour, but how much? I don’t think anyone would be prepared to argue that we should tolerate 100%, so is 50% OK? 25%? 10%?

Clearly, having a discussion about the percentage of poor behaviour which we ought to tolerate is absurd. Maybe we’d be better off debating whether some kinds of poor behaviour are just ‘high spirits’? The trouble with this is that it’s devilishly difficult to distinguish between good-humoured banter and bullying. What might to some look like ‘letting off steam,’ to others feels like inhabiting a climate of intimidation and fear. Just as senior leaders work in a very different school to their more junior colleagues, the experience of teachers and students, in the same school, can be hugely different. And, of course, it follows that the experiences of children within the same school varies enormously also. Some children maybe thrive on a tide rufty-tufty boisterousness. Some children can get the most out of lessons where shouting the loudest gets the most attention. Some children are fortunate enough to have the resources not to need school nearly as much as some of their less fortunate peers.

One of the problems is that some parents actively work against their children’s schools being safe, orderly institutions. Of course parents ought to support their children, but some undermine teachers at every turn and take their children’s part to an unhelpful degree. As a parent I support my children’s school’s right not to accept excuses for bad behaviour. Of course, as I’ve argued before, there are usually reasons for such behaviour and some of these reasons may even be good ones, but these reasons, heartbreaking though they may be, are not an excuse to break the rules. But I’m not sure most of the bad behaviour in schools can be laid at the feet of the most disadvantaged. In my experience, badly behaved children from more affluent backgrounds present far more of a problem.

And at least part of that problem is the attitude of their parents. There is never an excuse for parents actively fighting against the school when their children are in breach of the school’s behaviour policy.  If we accept children’s, or parents’, excuses then we tolerate a worse educational experience for everyone. If instead we take account of children’s, and parents’ reasons and work with them to take responsibility for these reasons not to be used as excuses, then the experience of everyone involved in education – children, parents and teachers – ought to improve.

The late comedian and Radio 4 panelist, Jeremy Hardy’s routine on ‘bright children‘ gets to the heart of the problem: middle class parents routinely excuse their children’s terrible behaviour because they’re “so bright”:

That’s why they’re doing so badly at school, because they’re so bright. Teachers don’t understand their answers, you see, because they’re so bright. The reason they misbehave in the classroom is because they’re bored, because they’re so bright. They’re not being stretched. Hermione’s so bright and that’s why she misbehaves; she so much brighter than the other children. That’s why she sets fire to them, I think.

Some of the schools I visit with the worst behaviour climate are those with the most privileged intakes. Children feel entitled to misbehave, see themselves as better than their teachers and have contempt for all adult authority. Learning contempt for adult authority is a terrible life lesson, not least because children are destined to become adults themselves. If they learn that the adult world routinely accepts insolence, laziness and aggression, what are they learning about their own futures?

Children – like adults – are not naturally good. Human beings are naturally out for themselves. Morality emerges as a results of what types of behaviour are most likely to get us what we want. Over the millennia, we have collectively worked out that being honest and reliable is a much better bet than being shiftless and unscrupulous. As a general rule, wider society is far more intolerant of bad behaviour than schools are. No one else is ever going to love our children as much as we do. Like all parents, there are times when my children’s behaviour makes me dislike them. If I allow them to behave in ways that annoy me, then odds are, people who are not predisposed to love them will be infinitely less tolerant of their foibles.

Here are some principles* which might help us in our endeavours to be ‘warm but strict’:

  1. Limit the rules – if there are too many rules – or if they are too complicated – then they become hard to follow. We naturally want to follow desire paths and rules should take account of this. What are the fewest possible rules we need in schools?
  2. Use minimum force necessary – obviously (OBVIOUSLY!) we should always avoid physical force unless there’s an imminent risk of someone getting hurt. What’s important is we should use the minimum compulsion necessary. What is the least severe sanction that might be effective?
  3. Don’t do it alone –  if you’re operating in isolation, without the support of your school, everything is harder. If children don’t obey the school’s rules it is each individual teacher’s responsibility to do something about it. This only works if the there is a system designed to support teachers.
  4. Understand your own capacity for injustice– we’re much more likely to do something unjust when not being our best selves. It’s far easier to fool ourselves if we’re alone, but if we have support a calmer head can hep us out. We should always ask whether students have really broken the rules or whether we’re taking out our frustrations unjustly.
  5. Act as a proxy for the real world – school is a relatively safe environment to fail in. The punishments for mistakes are infinitely less harsh than those children will experience when they’re adults. If we balk at our duty to help socialise our students we will be setting them up for a life of misery.

What we tolerate teaches children important life lessons. The more tolerant we are of anti-social behaviour, the harder children will find it to find their place in the adult world. When considering what we’re prepared to put up with in school, we should remember that if we tolerate this then our children will be next.

* Adapted from Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life, p. 142

2019-04-19T21:32:35+00:00March 16th, 2019|behaviour|


  1. Beth Budden March 16, 2019 at 4:07 pm - Reply

    Good ideas here.
    This is probably going off on a tangent but how do schools tackle children with SEN who break all the ‘rules’ because of their needs? Children who spit, bite, swear and refuse to follow instructions etc due emotional, behavioural needs can’t be excluded because their behaviour is a result of their need (if I’m not mistaken? That’s illlegal right?). Schools have limited capacity to deal with this, often leaving teachers and support staff exhausted and behaviour of all pupils deteriorates. Staff attendance drops as well thus making it all worse as schools struggle financially to cover absence. External support is slow or non-existent for schools as agencies like CAHMS are on their knees too. It just seems like many schools I know have a collection of children no one can really cope with and have a massive impact on everyone’s behaviour.

  2. Beth Budden March 17, 2019 at 5:14 pm - Reply

    Good ideas. This may be going off on a tangent, but what about children with SEN who swear, hit, spit and don’t follow instructions? School can’t exclude them if their behaviour is because of the their SEN (I think that’s right??) So what you then get is a group of children in school who are hard to cope with and create a massive problem. Because of the crisis with CAMHS children displaying really extreme behaviour aren’t referred /assessed for literally months, sometimes a year. Schools try their best to meet needs, budgets cut to the bone so teaching assistants are then made into glorified LSAs trying to support these children. Then class teaching staff get worn out dealing with them, general behaviour goes down hill as attention is absorbed by all this highly challenging stuff which creates an unstable, erratic culture all round. Staff absence goes through the roof as everyone so tired out by it all. This then deregulates the poor SEN children further, behaviour get worse. It’s just a loop I hear about a lot.

    • David Didau March 17, 2019 at 5:24 pm - Reply

      Hi Beth, the big problem here is identifying to what extent a students’ special educational need or disability means that they might have no control over their behaviour. It would obviously be outrageous for a school to exclude a Tourette’s sufferer for swearing, but does, for instance, being diagnosed with ADHD mean you should have carte blanche to be aggressive or violent towards teachers or other students? This is a tricky line to walk. Consider a child who has been consider at risk for some time and is finally taken into care. Before the care order came into effect they were probably keeping their head down to avoid drawing attention to their situation, but as soon as they’ve been placed in care they have little left to lose. Such children are very predictably angry. Unless decisive preventative action is taken they are highly likely to behave in a way that cannot be tolerated. Just leaving them to their own devices would therefore be unethical.

      We also need to confront the fact that mainstream schools cannot accommodate excessively poor behaviour. Such traumatised children really do need carefully designed Alternative Provision and it cannot be the responsibility of schools to make this happen. This requires that adequate funding is put into AP to ensure there is both the capacity and the quality to ensure that all children within the system have the best possible chance to thrive.

      However, as I think you recognised, my post is not about these children. I’m writing about children who are perfectly capable of behaving well but, for a variety of reasons, choose not to. That, I argue, cannot be tolerated.

      • Beth Budden March 17, 2019 at 5:45 pm - Reply

        Yes agree all round. Your blog isn’t about these kinds of pupils but I feel general behaviour is affected by the extreme behaviour of some SEN children which is becoming increasingly hard to cope with. The number of places for AP in sharp decline etc. Bloody funding!!!
        Anyway, having parents on side is everything! You’re certainly right there.

  3. Tom Burkard March 18, 2019 at 5:10 pm - Reply

    This is the first time I’ve seen an education blog which so much as whispered the word ‘morality’, albeit in a rather utilitarian manner. I’m not sure when the word ‘discipline’ became a non-word in educational discussions, but the phrase ‘behaviour management’ says it all. We learn B4L techniques because we hope they’ll make our lives a bit easier, not because we have any moral right to say ‘no’ to a child.Unsurprisingly, B4L works just about as well as ‘real books’, whole language, contructivism and other products produced by a certain breed of education professional. It is, I would argue, the problem–once we feel that we have to view behaviour through the prism of the child’s putative needs and that we have to justify saying ‘no’, we’ve lost the battle.

    I’ve taught SEN pupils for almost 30 years, mostly privately but also in a Norwich comprehensive. However, before I started teaching, I worked almost 25 years in industry and the building trades. As discussed above, you get very little slack if you don’t do what is expected of you. So when I started teaching, I assumed that it was my job to set the expected standard of behaviour, and so long as I kept my pupils constructively engaged 100% of the time, I’d have no trouble. And of course I didn’t, even though discipline was mediocre at best in the school where I taught.

    I’d go so far as to say that it’s out educational system that has special needs. Granted, one of the most glaring of those needs is understanding the cold, cruel world outside school. Actually, it’s not at all cold and cruel, because organisations with good discipline are a pleasure to work in–very much as schools like Michaela are happy schools. Being that it is totally impractical to insist that part of teacher preparation should include a substantial amount of time working somewhere like McDonald’s, there isn’t much we can do about it, except perhaps raise our game as teachers. And this would involve a massive pruning of the SEN system, which has become little more than an extremely bureaucratic system for inventing excuses for failure. I doubt that more than one or two percent of the pupils I’ve taught to read and/or spell needed continuing support once their literacy skills were up to scratch. The SEN system encourages us to view the problem through the wrong end of the telescope.

    • jbjeannine March 18, 2019 at 11:11 pm - Reply

      Great post. Tom Burkard, I agree completely with your take on SEN and on behavior.

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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