The consequence of consequences

is unfairness. It’s as simple as that. But I will elaborate for the benefit of those who stuggle with an idea that for inclusive educators has always been blindingly obvious.

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Consequences are great when they work, but less great when they don’t work. And they often don’t work for the very children to whom they are most frequently applied. Adopted children, for example. Excluded at a rate twenty times greater than their peers, this cohort is clearly failing to thrive on a trad diet of rewards and sanctions, courtesy of Skinner (1950s, folks – we’ve had brain scanning technology since then. It should have been a game-changer).

All consequences do is remind children of the rules. Which I think they already know. Pupils understand that they should follow instructions, listen, not hit out or run away when embarrased etc etc. It’s not hard. When they fall short, it’s not because there is any degree of confusion about the rules ….. something different is going on.

Inclusive educators understand that children with chronic behavioural challenges lack some important thinking skills. Not in the traditional academic domains, necesssarily, but rather in domains such as regulating the emotions, responding to changes in plan, seeing from another’s point of view, having the language to communciate something is wrong, and so on. In the same way that some children are delayed in reading, challenging children experience difficulties mastering the skills required for proficiency in handing social and emotional challenges.

When a child has a reading delay, we teach them the lacking skills in increments they can handle. Inclusive educators meet behavioural challenges with the same compassion and specialised, steadfast support, such that struggling children develop over time those socioemotional skills that are lacking.

Rethink how to support children who are developmentally delayed, enshrine the notion of differentiation (‘inconsistency’, in its crudest, no excuses form) in behaviour policy, and we may just begin to address our enduring exclusions problem – a peculiarly English inequality that shames our system because it targets the most disadvantaged.

Chaos will not ensue. The truth is, well behaved children comply because they already have the skills to handle life’s challenges in an adaptive fashion. Their co-operation has precious little to do with consequences and an inordinate amount of time is wasted agonising over these. As Ross Greene puts it in ‘Lost at School’,  the trad behaviour policy “isn’t working for the kids who aren’t doing well and isn’t needed by the kids who are.” Flex it, and the pupils who don’t need it will not seize upon the opportunity to run amok. Their understanding of fairness, a value they hold dear, is much more subtle than our crudest, no excuses policies acknowledge.

So the next time your behaviour policy is reviewed, consider it as you would, say a literacy policy – in terms of support for catch-up rather than consequence for being behind. Don’t let it compound disadvantage.




Published by Mary Meredith

Working in schools for over 20 years, I've been a Head of English, a SENCO and a deputy headteacher. I'm currently Head of Inclusion at Lincolnshire County Council. I am a sucker for the underdog. Always have been, always will be.

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