Category Archives: Psychology

Is Ready To Learn the antidote to the scourge of misbehaviour in schools?

My brief experience as a part-time secondary school teacher was nothing if not memorable – and not altogether in a good way.

I was transported back to that time recently by a brilliant six-part BBC 2 documentary series called, with commendable brevity, School.

I started in the first week of the new millennium. Business at my micro-ad. agency had been going through a rather prolonged lean spell. I was always happy to ride the downturns and enjoy the upturns, but then I saw the ad. for a part-time English teacher at my local college for 15-18 year olds. A bit of extra cash for passing on my knowledge of Shakespeare, poetry and novels sounded like a win-win situation, so I thought “Why not?”

I was soon to find out the answer to that question.

After a week or so’s honeymoon period, my typical day became a Whitehall farce of (for instance) writing business documents and lesson plans in the morning, with maybe an hour or two of teaching squeezed in, followed by frantic catch-up advertising client calls and emails in mid-afternoon, with maybe a staff meeting on GCSE progress and overseeing some detention later the same day. Yes, it was hectic; but actually once I settled into a kind of chaotic rhythm, I started to feel it might be do-able.

Before long, though, I began increasingly to experience a factor I hadn’t really budgeted for: misbehaviour. My sons, both former pupils at the school, had warned me that “they’ll make mincemeat out of you”. They were so right. After a honeymoon period of about a fortnight, things started to get fractious.

It began with talking whilst I was talking; progressed to various pupils standing up and walking around; and ended up with some students walking out of class altogether, fighting, throwing things at each other and sometimes even more extreme activities. For instance, in the lowest ability class that I took, a stranger would occasionally appear outside the window of the classroom and one of my students would dash to the doorway and run through the corridor to meet him; I gathered from the other students that this was to do with exchanging drugs. There were frequent instances of boy:girl physical embraces, etc.; chairs were thrown on a few occasions; and then there was the memorable moment when smoke appeared at the back of the the class and I discovered that a boy had set fire to one of his (very old) trainers …

As someone whose vocal chords were toughened on the terraces of Ninian Park during my own formative years in supporting Cardiff City (alas, I am rarely able to see them live nowadays), I had no problem in raising my voice and maintaining high volume instructions and threats during the course of this behaviour. Senior teachers would frequently come into my classroom to assist in restoring order. But it soon became clear to me that even the most experienced staff members often had difficulty in coping with riotous situations. At that time, no physical contact between teachers and staff was allowed. So to keep a student from leaving the classroom involved pressing my foot against the bottom of the door to prevent it from being opened. In my day, I would have received a smack across the head if I had shown such a level of disobedience.

The reasons for bad behaviour in the classroom are very many and very varied; and they include both personal and social factors. The personal qualities and previous experience of the teacher are obviously a key influence; the ethos of a particular year group will often determine the nature and level of the disruption; and the psychological profiles – including their home environments – of individual students in a classroom is also a major factor. But whatever the reasons for an outbreak of bad behaviour, its effect on learning outcomes is critical. Frustratingly, I found that, on enquiring on a one-to-one basis, quite a few students who were disruptive really wanted to learn, but behaved badly only because they were pressurised into it by some of their peers.

I did take on board advice from other members of staff. There are some well-known techniques and classroom management strategies that can sometimes assist with maintaining a calm environment and keeping students focused. There is a whole seam of literature offering advice on keeping order. But the theory is all very fine: most often at the chalkface events can quickly prove that there are many exceptions to the rules. An ink pellet which hit the screen of my laptop as I was using it to project images from the First World War, teaching poetry, was the last straw and I resigned soon after.

But seeing the Ready To Learn system in action in the recent BBC2 documentary gave me real hope that there may be a way to solve this difficult problem …

Like many great ideas, it’s very simple. After just two instances of disruptive behaviour, students are sent to an “isolation room”, where they stay for a whole day, plus an hour after the school closes. As the documentary illustrated, it’s very boring. Talking or other bad behaviour is marked on a wallchart. After a given number of further transgressions the fixed system results in a call to the pupil’s home and may ultimately result in exclusion from the school. As the documentary also illustrated, the system is very effective. This is backed up by numerous reports available on the internet. Clear, consistent boundaries and the certainty of known sanctions seem to be the answer to much of the great scourge of bad behaviour in our schools.

Disruptive behaviour is the elephant in the classroom. It is rarely talked about in parliament, which focuses on “more important”, higher level considerations such as budgets and standards. Crime on the streets, violence in hospitals, domestic abuse – all these and other similar issues attract a goodly share of attention from the powers-that-be.

But bad behaviour in the classroom stunts the life chances of very many kids. It’s time for the education authorities to give this issue more attention. I hope they are ready to learn from the experiences of those schools that are implementing this system and will ensure its use becomes a requirement, rather than a very bright idea taken up by only a selection of enlightened schools.



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Friendship, Facebook addiction and games people play

New research commissioned by Diet Coke suggests that social media are making a significant contribution to the emotional state of people in Britain.

No great insight there, maybe. We Are Flint’s latest report suggests that 78% of over 18s in the UK use Facebook; back in 2015, Instagram claimed 14 million UK users; then there are the huge UK user bases of other platforms such as Snapchat, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, etc., not to mention all the newer (like Periscope and Facebook Live) or more niche platforms, large and small. Even businessy site LinkedIn claims 23m+ UK users.

“I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself.”
Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

All these digital highways and byways confront our mind’s eye with a signpost showing innumerable possible avenues leading to social intercourse. New ways to chat, to comment, to update, to get back in touch. And let’s face it, we’re all children at heart – we all seek acknowledgement, praise and encouragement. Positive feedback from our friends and acquaintances keeps us motivated. Facebook and other social media provide (lots of) us with new and ample opportunities to build our circle of friends, an important well spring of reassurance and encouragement.

Social media is also proving to be a necessary source of confidence for many, given that, according to the study, 23% admit that it takes just 10-25 likes to make us feel valued by our online friends, with 60% also stating that getting likes helps to boost their confidence.

Confidence and the emotional stability that flows from it are basic human needs. Self-esteem is a key driver of that confidence.

Esteem comes quite high up Abraham Maslow‘s famous Hierarchy of Needs theory, published in 1943 as A Theory of Human Motivation.

According to Maslow: “All people in our society (with a few pathological exceptions) have a need or desire for a stable, firmly based, (usually) high evaluation of themselves, for self-respect, or self-esteem, and for the esteem of others. By firmly based self-esteem, we mean that which is soundly based upon real capacity, achievement and respect from others. These needs may be classified into two subsidiary sets. These are, first, the desire for strength, for achievement, for adequacy, for confidence in the face of the world, and for independence and freedom.

“I think everybody’s weird. We should all celebrate our individuality and not be embarrassed or ashamed of it.”
Johnny Depp

“Secondly, we have what we may call the desire for reputation or prestige (defining it as respect or esteem from other people), recognition, attention, importance or appreciation. These needs have been relatively stressed by Alfred Adler and his followers, and have been relatively neglected by Freud and the psychoanalysts. More and more today however there is appearing widespread appreciation of their central importance”.

Now the Diet Coke study says that “… social media appears to be playing a significant role in the way that we form some friendships in the first place. Over half of Brits (54%) claim to have met up with someone they originally met on social media and 44% say they made a new best friend thanks to their online networks”.

But it also finds that, although Brits have an average of between 100 and 200 social media followers, on average they consider only 3-5 of them as ‘close’ friends offline.

So as the effects of all this ballooning of social interaction continue to be felt, it’s perhaps worth reflecting on whether our definition of friendship has changed. While sheer numbers soar, the balance between friendship and acquaintanceship is tipping markedly towards the latter.

In Games People Play, published in 1964, Eric Berne highlighted the importance of ‘stroking’. He was referring to the psychological theory that adults continue to seek the same kind of physical intimacy with others that they experienced with their mothers.

“Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.”
Ernest Hemingway, The Garden of Eden

Not that this craving for stimulus routinely leads to actual physical interactions – rather, the individual “… learns to do with more subtle, even symbolic, forms of handling, until the merest nod of recognition may serve the purpose to some extent, although his original craving for physical contact may remain unabated”. (Perhaps, though, one does see a physical manifestation of this basic need when seeing those who have suffered terrible loss, for instance, being comforted by hugs from sympathisers).

Nods of recognition, in their multifarious forms, are clearly of much more significance to us than is generally acknowledged. A Facebook ‘like’ or other emoji, or a Twitter or Periscopeheart‘, can each work as a stroking mechanism, reinforcing our feelings that we are ‘one of the gang’. Like individual children in a vast playground of kids, our comments, holiday snaps, selected memes or news links, our jokes – original or recommended – our music, our family portraits or selfies – all of these, our social media ‘progeny’, compete to be noticed on the ever-moving social media timeline.

(This desire to be seen to be one of the gang is a common personality trait. I confess that when I was a young boy, and the youngest member of a “gang” of four, I frequently felt like an outsider, never quite able to compete with the physical strength and prowess of my older “friends”. I sometimes found solace by losing myself in one of the William books, written by Richmal Crompton).

One problem is that the interest we accrue from the time we invest in social media is unpredictable and of variable value – like most investments, its value can go up or down. Just as likes can help satisfy the hunger for recognition, so the lack of them can make us feel ignored and thereby affect our self-esteem adversely. For all its benefits, social media can have negative consequences. Indeed there is a growing body of evidence that Facebook addiction can be linked to social loneliness, social anxiety or depressive episodes.

“And, above all things, never think that you’re not good enough yourself. A man should never think that. My belief is that in life people will take you very much at your own reckoning.”
Anthony Trollope, The Small House at Allington

For some, a perceived shortfall in acknowledgement – likes, comments, emojis, hearts, etc. – coupled with envy of the lifestyles of others reported in the Facebook newsfeed, can have consequences. “The problem is there are rarely terrible consequences, but rather it sucks the life out of an individual slowly, so clinicians miss it” (source: ‘Facebook Addiction Associated With Social Insecurity‘, Psychiatry Advisor, January 17, 2017).

So maybe we will begin to see a devaluation of the likes ‘currency’, as people start to re-assess the gamble they take with social media. Stepping away from the real into a virtual world of social intercourse can be fun and entertaining; but it also poses risks and the rewards are not always in line with our expectations.

Maybe that was reflected in another of the findings of the Diet Coke survey, commissioned to celebrate the brand’s Get The Gang Back Together campaign: “… despite the continued dominance of social media, what we all really yearn for is quality face to face time with our friends and when asked about their preferred means of communication with friends, 69% opted for catching up in person rather than via social media (11%), group chats (8%), text message (8%) or a phone call (3%)” (source: ‘The truth about social friendships: Brits count just 5% of their social media followers as ‘close’ friends‘, Coca-Cola, January 5th, 2017).



*Statistics are taken from a survey of 2,008 UK adults aged between 18-50, commissioned by Diet Coke and conducted by Morar in April 2017.

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