Self control and character are frequently discussed as solutions to the complex process of helping a young person thrive at school. This individual responsibility to be compliant, co operative and school ready is talked about as if it is a simple expectation.
Some schools are hitting the headlines for their tough approach. They make it sound a reasonable proposition which only unreasonable families would challenge. Their formula is this: your child comes to school willing to learn and follow the rules and we keep order by being tough on any disruption which may take teachers away from the curriculum. Like any simple formula it may be too good to be true. However many of these schools are skilful self publicists and repeating the formula gives it a credibility it does not deserve.
Let’s look first at the expectation that character and self control are easily achievable. The self-control paradox suggests that being able to exert your will power depends on the flight or fight response not being switched on. For children in homes where neither poverty or illness is creating stress this may not be too difficult. Indeed the calm atmosphere at school may be a major selling point to families who know their child will thrive in this environment. Probably this child is confident, self reliant and has no special needs.
In families where life is tough, switching off the stress response is more difficult. If you the arrive in school concerned you may break a rule or struggle to keep up with a lesson then the stress rises. A stressed child is more likely to experience the flight or fight reaction once stress reaches a certain level. Once this happens the emotional brain takes over and the cool self talk needed to persuade yourself to make a good decision will elude you. This is tough enough for adults faced with any environment that feels hostile and threatening. For children there is the added complication of the specific biological process of attachment which sensitises children to react strongly to threat and seek sanctuary and support with trusted adults. Trust and strong nurturing relationships are essential to build a sense of safety and reduce threat. However a top down approach in a school where the system is inflexible seems more likely to create a sense of threat.
These “tough love, no second chances” schools are operating the Matthew Effect in education:
“For unto everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance; but from him that hath not shall be taken away” This cumulative effect of deprivation is well known and deliberately setting out to do this is inexcusable.
We are told clear rules and routines are transformational in turning previously unruly classes into safe havens for learning. We are not told about the families who leave or are encouraged to move on because they no longer feel welcome. The blame is shifted onto their shoulders and the school remains confident that they are in the right.
There is an assumption that environment change alone is sufficient to switch on children’s ability to choose to conform and to consciously control their behaviour. However this compliance seems most likely to come about when individuals feel wanted, accepted and made stronger by what the school offers. A sense of belonging, acceptance and confidence that achievement will result are essential. Alienation is the opposite, an experience of exclusion, failure and rejection where students feel powerless and manipulated.
It is not a simple formula to create a thriving school. Schools have a tough job in creating thriving groups. Schools exist to teach, but they are also responsible for the welfare and wellbeing of every child who is a member of the school. Every child needs to feel positive and hopeful about their learning.
What these system changes alone fail to achieve is the internal dynamic of a thriving group. Thriving groups recognise and explicitly show appreciation of each individual’s contribution. Those who feel unrecognised, excluded or rejected find the system oppressive. This can switch on the stress response of flight and fight creating emotional turmoil which is likely to lead to challenging behaviour. Calling on self-control or more recently “grit” misses a few steps in the process of developing resilience.
Schools who are unable or unwilling to offer a safe haven to those who loose control will continue the cycle of failure and meltdown. In contrast successful schools are willing to explore what it takes to help someone think positively both about themselves and being part of the school. When someone’s sense of self feels diminished by discussion following an incident then change is unlikely. Criticism is often heard as rejection by those who feel outsiders.
For young people who are emotionally vulnerable through adverse life circumstances this ability to switch on self control will be much more difficult. They will need support which makes them feel valued and aware that adults are there to help not condemn them. The self-control paradox is that without the sense of acceptance and belonging it is hard to regain the calm that allows us to access the rational thought process which manages self control.