Me: Why can’t you all just behave? Cheryl: Because we’re children, Miss.

One of the tricky but unspoken things about being a teacher is that often you’re the only adult in a room full of children. And children are not adults.

Because adult members of school communities are charged with preparing the children in our care for

adulthood, there is a temptation for schools to require students to behave as if they were adults already,

rather than working with their adolescent rhythms to give them the best possible chances of success in

getting there.

In the Strictly Positive Teaching model, schools would give students the best possible chances by working

insofar as possible with their natural inclinations, abilities and hindering factors, rather than forcing them

too young to conform to adult expectations of adult behaviour. This emphatically does not mean putting up

with poor behaviour; it is more of a question of doing what parents have always known is wise – you pick

your battles and you win them before moving on.

Obviously young people are not a homogeneous group and their natural inclinations will vary according to

their age, gender, background, learning history, learning ability or disability, physical or mental ability or

disability among many, many other factors.

However, a cursory acquaintance with child development means that we can apply certain key principles.

School age children, and yes, I mean all of them, are not mini-adults, and they are at different stages of

development at different times. We would never give a seven year old a lesson on quadratic equations,

nor would we hand picture dictionaries to our sixth formers thinking they will help them, and it’s well-known

that adults have a maximum attention span of 45 minutes, which is why we get fed so much coffee when

we go on conferences. Yet we expect four year olds to sit quietly in circle time and run activities in year ten

where students sit immobile and concentrate for up to an hour.

It doesn’t make sense to start from the aims of the adults in the community and then try to force the

students into conforming with those aims, if they work contrary to children’s developmental stages. Starting

from this point means that we are forever correcting behaviour, imposing sanctions and getting frustrated

because the young people in our charge are not doing what we want them to.

In my first year of teaching I was trying to explain some nuanced point of German grammar to a year

of utterly uninterested year 9s, and some of them were off-task and chatting.

Frustrated, I asked nobody in particular: “Why can’t you all just be quiet and listen?”

From the first row Cheryl piped up, “Because we’re children, Miss.”

It doesn’t sound like a eureka moment, but it was. I still remember Cheryl for this one utterance, which she

had probably forgotten by breaktime. From then on I started trying to construct my lessons with this basic

truth in mind. Obviously there will always be times when I have to make a huge effort to bring the kids with

me, and sometimes they won’t and I won’t be successful, but I will try and keep in mind certain

fundamentals of human behaviour in mind when planning.

Image: Shutterstock

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