When “the stare” isn’t enough

February 2012


Facebook       Tweet

VALERIE MARGRAIN discusses the complexities of engaging with challenging behaviour in her new book, Responsive Pedagogy: Engaging Restoratively with Challenging Behaviour.

When I learned to be a teacher I was taught about “the stare” – the one that you use to bore into a student that makes them squirm. If you use it effectively it can be felt from behind. I tried it out recently at the public swimming pool, applying it to young people acting inappropriately with mixed results. I applied the stare to the back of one young man, he squirmed, turned around, saw me looking and changed behaviour. Aha, I thought, I still have it! However, no matter how long I spent glaring at another target, I remained invisible and there was no reaction.

In my early years of classroom teaching it came as a shock to discover that the strategies I learned as a student teacher don’t readily apply to all students. Classroom management is challenging. Engagement is not just something we expect of students. Teachers join the profession because they feel they can make a difference and they care about students and communities.

However, we don’t always know how challenging it will be. In the movies and on TV the dedicated teacher always finds a connection with challenging youth (To Sir, With Love; Take the Lead; Glee). The day I had a chair thrown at me I realised it was not so easy. However, teachers who engage don’t give up; they believe in the potential of students, they advocate for best outcome opportunities, they constantly experiment with alternatives, and they provide opportunities in which it is easier to make better choices.

Misbehaviour occurs for many reasons, including impulsiveness, provocation, disability, abuse and experimentation. Any system that suggests a single set of rules and consequences ignores this. Images of what a quality learning environment is are constantly juxtaposed: a quiet, well-ordered and focused setting, or a dynamic place where young people can grow in independence, assertiveness and creativity. Above all, I have always aimed to foster settings that are respectful and learning-oriented. While safety is fundamental, care for, and connection with, students are equally critical. Schools, and all places of learning, only work when people feel a sense of belonging, when they are engaged.

Just under 20,000 students were stood down from New Zealand schools in 2010, with 70 of them being just five years old, and year-on-year the numbers are growing. That the overwhelming majority are Māori and Pasifika boys also tells us about the education system’s failure to engage. Then there are the things the statistics don’t tell us; such as the number of students who were ‘encouraged’ to leave particular schools, or how many children have had problems during their experiences of early childhood education. We know that challenging and severe behaviour is evident amongst three- and four-year-old children, some of whom are in education settings for 50 or more hours per week. Stand-downs, or encouragement to go elsewhere, are not long-term solutions and do not solve ‘problems’, they simply shift them, and they aren’t necessarily good for the students’ peers. Children who witness stand-downs, suspensions, exclusions and expulsions may feel less, rather than more, safe and worry about what will happen when they make a mistake themselves.

Twelve writers have collaborated in the recently released text, Responsive Pedagogy: Engaging Restoratively with Challenging Behaviour, edited by myself and Professor Angus Macfarlane, and published by NZCER Press. The authors bring their considerable classroom and research experience together to provide case studies, scripts, strategies and evidence that supports teachers to engage with a range of challenging behaviour. We are convinced that there has to be better ways of responding to dealing with challenging behaviours and enabling children to not only progress academically but also to adhere to the social norms and expectations that apply during childhood and life generally.

The book acknowledges that behaviour is on a continuum and sometimes it is the small and annoying but frequent behaviour that causes as much concern as the high profile incidents. However, teachers need support to develop skills that serve both ends of the continuum.

“The stare” won’t work for all students, or in all situations, or for all teachers. The book adds to the toolkit of resources and strategies teachers have but constantly add to. It justifies why teachers engage, and supports them to engage further.

Dr Valerie Margrain co-edited Responsive Pedagogy: Engaging Restoratively with Challenging Behaviour with Professor Angus Macfarlane, Professor of Māori Research, University of Canterbury. Dr Margrain is a senior lecturer at Massey University.