My latest column for the wonderful folk at Teach Secondary magazine looks at the ins and outs of “Zero Tolerance” behaviour systems.

There is a limit at which forbearance ceases to be a virtue.

Edmund Burke

If you’re going to manage children’s behaviour you need a healthy balance of carrot and stick. Positive reinforcement is great, but at some point children confront us with behaviour that requires sanctioning. After many years of the education system tolerating woefully low standards of behaviour (we all have our particular horror stories) the pendulum has swung to the right. More and more schools are adopting a ‘zero-tolerance’ or ‘no excuses’ culture in which any infringements of
school rules are met with non-negotiable sanctions, often permanent exclusion.

In the US, the rationale for adopting this approach has been that school violence was so widespread and pervasive that something drastic needed to be done. Arguably the context is quite different in the UK where the ‘no excuses’ approach has been far more about intolerance of so-called ‘low-level disruption’. But here’s the thing: there really isn’t all that much evidence available, and what there is seems to contradict the effectiveness of zero-tolerance policies.

Let’s agree that the goal of an effective disciplinary
 system should be to ensure a safe school climate, while avoiding policies and practices that may reduce students’ opportunity to learn. That sounds pretty reasonable, doesn’t it? Well, despite the strongly intuitive assumption that orderly classrooms will result in better learning, recent research indicates a negative relationship between the
use of school suspension and expulsion and academic achievement across the whole school, even when controlling for demographics such as socioeconomic status. Why on earth should that be the case?

It turns out that strictly adhering to a zero-tolerance policy ignores the normal adolescent psychological and biological development. Professor of Neurology, Frances E. Jensen, explains the science in The Teenage Brain: as we develop, synaptic connections between parts of the brain are myelinated in a gradual process which moves gradually from the brain stem to the frontal lobes. By adolescence, the brain is only about 80 per cent of the way to maturity. That 20 per cent gap, where the wiring is thinnest, goes some
way toward explaining teenage stereotypes: mood swings, irritability and impulsiveness; an inability to focus, follow through, and connect with adults; and their temptations to use drugs and alcohol and to engage in other risky behaviour.

This immaturity is also psychological. As any secondary school teacher will know, your average teenager is subject to peer pressure, takes unnecessary risks, doesn’t think about consequences and finds self-control tricky. But if this just part of normal development then does this make punitive behaviour policies unreasonable? According to psychologists, certain characteristics of secondary schools are often at odds with the developmental challenges of adolescence, including the need for “close peer relationships, autonomy, support from adults other than one’s parents, identity negotiation, and academic self-efficacy.” No one’s suggesting some students don’t make very poor choices, but if teenagers are being punished for being, well, teenagers, isn’t that a bit absurd?

Now obviously, some behaviours are absolutely intolerable and schools need to be able to exclude students where their behaviour endangers others in any way. About this there is no controversy. The point of debate is about what to do instead of just kicking out everyone who struggles to toe the line. Hans Price Academy in Weston-super-Mare has recently adopted an approach which is intolerant of classroom disruption rather than hardline zero tolerance, and the atmosphere of school has completely transformed. Students are happier and teachers can teach. Vice Principal Nicky Munro explained that students are given one warning and then, if disruptive behaviour persists, the teacher enters the decision to send them to exclusion on the school’s computer system after which the students has five minutes to arrive. All the pressure is removed from the teacher and the student is forced to take responsibility for his or her actions.

When I asked Mrs Munro why children were given one chance to disrupt before being sent out, she said, “Everyone deserves a second chance.” I am a living testament to this wise maxim. Poor behaviour choices result in after-school detentions and a day spent making reparations. A hard-core of repeat offenders have been removed from the mainstream, assessed to see if there are underlying reasons for their behaviour and then put through a programme designed to help them make better choices and given tailored instruction to help ensure they can access the curriculum. This more flexible, human approach seems to be working.

That’s not to say students should be let off for ‘minor’ behaviour issues, just that they shouldn’t be expelled.
When it comes to punishment, sanctions, consequences
or whatever you feel most comfortable saying, certainty – not severity – should be our watchword. And permanent exclusion ought always to be reserved for the toughest, most intractable nuts. Schools should adopt policies which don’t excuse disruption or defiance, but it would seem sane and rational to make these policies flexible enough to anticipate and cope with the normal range of teenage behaviour and provide a proportionate response which helps young people to learn from their mistakes. We should always remember that while social disadvantage is no excuse for bad behaviour, ‘no excuses’ is no excuse for inflexible tyranny.