Towards a Neohumanist Approach to Behaviour Management Part 1-Overview of Current Practise

From the NERI Desk –Neohumanist Education Research

From the Neri Desk provides information, updates and overviews on developments in Neohumanist Education as well as educational trends, practices and theories in the broader global context (from a Neohumanist perspective).

By Guru Charan, Ananda Palli, Suva Sector

A few years ago I started a NERI research project in behaviour management. It had long been an interest of mine and seemed to be an increasingly controversial topic in Australian schools. However, I had no idea of the complexity of the journey I was about to undertake. What began as a simple examination of current behaviour management practices became an exploration of what it means to be a Neohumanist and how to educate to become one. In part 1 of this article I present a summary of the research findings and conclusions that I came to on that journey.My research was initially prompted by my understanding that the behaviour of students was becoming an increasingly significant issue in both independent and public schools across Australia. As debate began to heat up in both the public domain and educational circles, I found myself questioning mainstream paradigms and asking: “What would the Neohumanist approach to these issues be? What are current behaviour management practices and which ones are suitable for Neohumanist schools? What practices and strategies do our schools need to develop to have a Neohumanist approach to behaviour management?”

Why has this issue become so important?

Behaviour management is an important part of pedagogy because of the profound capacity of individuals to influence those around them through their behaviour. This is true not only in schools, but in all areas of social and working life. In his discourse, Keeping Company with the Virtuous, Shrii P.R. Sarkar suggests that every individual has a sphere of influence, and that this can be either good or bad in its effect. The effect of an individual’s sphere of influence depends on the strength of their personality. If a person with a strong negative sphere of influence spends time with a person who is good, but weaker, then their resultant behaviour will be negative. However, if that same strongly negative person spends time with someone who has an even stronger good sphere of influence, then the resultant behaviour will be positive. In the same way, the resultant behaviour of a group of people will be the sum of all their negative and positive spheres of influence.

Putting this in educational terms, we can say that the ‘learning flow’ of a classroom is the resultant of the combined attitudes and learning behaviours of the individual students and their teacher. It is common knowledge among teachers that the absence of one or two disruptive students in their class will result in a more positive learning flow for the remaining students. On a more subtle level, the absence of an enthusiastic student in whom the ‘thirst for knowledge’ has been awakened will weaken the collective learning flow. Imagine that in one classroom on one day, a teacher is expending sixty percent of his or her time and energy on teaching curriculum and forty percent on managing classroom behaviour. Much of this latter forty percent may be spent on managing the behaviour of two or thee disruptive students out of twenty five. The next day when two of these students are away, the teacher finds that the energy she or he can give to teaching curriculum has jumped to eighty percent and the energy needed for management has dropped to twenty percent. In these terms, the on-going challenge for teachers is to manage their classroom behaviour in such a way so as to minimise the behaviour of disruptive students, while maximising the positive learning behaviours of other students.

Statistically, within a given classroom, eighty percent of students have a naturally, positive ‘learning flow’. These students require little if any behaviour management. Another fifteen percent of the students have a borderline learning flow. This means they need some management energy to maintain a positive learning flow and will generally respond well to routine behaviour management strategies. However, the remaining five percent of students are those with strong negative attitudes towards classroom learning. These students need on-going, significant amounts of management energy to maintain even a minimal positive learning flow. They usually require resource intensive, individual management plans to integrate successfully into the learning environment of the school. It is these latter five percent of students who provide the greatest challenges for teachers in their endeavours to create a strong positive learning flow in their classroom.

It is little wonder, then, that many books have been written espousing different approaches to behaviour management. Books have even been written summarising the ideas of these many different books. However, generally speaking, strategies and approaches can be categorised as follows:

  • Those based on rules and consequences.
  • Those that use language to manage behaviour.
  • Those that build teacher to pupil relationships
  • Those that promote self-management of behaviour and values.

It should be noted that these categories are not mutually exclusive. Teachers usually use a combination of strategies from a number of different categories according to their teaching style.

Strategies Based on Rules and Consequences

The expectation that students will behave according to an imposed set of rules has been a part of the schooling system since the commencement of formalised education. It has long been recognized that schools provide a microcosm in which students can learn the social and cultural norms of their time, and as such, will need a set of rules and consequences to operate successfully.

With some variation, rules usually include expectations of obedience, moral behaviour and respect. Historically, the consequence for breaking rules has been punishment.

Punishment, in its traditional form, has been based on the ideas of justice and deterrence and as such, is the oldest and most widely used form of classroom management. Advocates of it stress its corrective benefits and claim that it prepares children for life in the outside world.

However, like many other strategies, it is how it is used that counts. Used negatively, punishment makes use of intimidation, anger, threats, humiliation and physical abuse to create an environment where dread of dire consequences controls students and makes them conform. There is no notion of student welfare involved and the relationship between the student and teacher is based solely on fear and power. Those that use punishment in this manner justify its use by claiming that it somehow strengthens children and prepares them for the harshness of life. They will readily quote such proverbs as: “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” However the evidence is strong that it is more likely to create a failure identity, especially in those children whose self-esteem is already weak. P.R. Sarkar notes:

“I have already pointed out that it is improper to extort anything from students through undue pressure and intimidation. Intimidation appears to work to some extent, but it does not yield lasting results. Whatever students learn from their parents and teachers out of fear fades into oblivion as soon as the agencies of fear disappear. The reason is that their learning and their fear were inseparably associated, so with the disappearance of fear, the knowledge that they had acquired in the course of their education also disappears from the more developed parts of their minds.”

However punishment can also be used in a positive manner. A loving parent may punish a child in order that she or he learn critical lessons that otherwise may not be learned. In Carya Carya part 2, P.R. Sarkar iterates:

“Before punishing a person, you should consider whether you love him/her or not. You do not have the moral right to punish one whom you do not love.” 

From an educational point of view, this form of punishment is more commonly viewed as ‘discipline’. Discipline is recognised by many societies to be both acceptable and reasonable. It is the expected outcome of breaking known rules and is consistently enforced. The recipient knows and accepts this. In a school setting it aims at helping the student avoid discipline situations in the future through learning better behaviour and making reparation.

Positive punishment or discipline makes use of natural consequences and emphasises the need for rectification. The breaking of a rule is seen as an infringement of the social contract the student has with the school as well as with the other individuals involved. The consequences that follow are therefore not seen as punishments but as processes whereby the social contract is re-established and as such are, as far as possible, service-oriented.

Those that support this kind of benevolent, corrective discipline believe that it has the capacity to teach students responsibility and help them manage their own behaviour. Some schools have developed ‘whole school approaches’ based upon it. For example, at one school I visited, children were placed on a neutral behaviour level (level 3) on enrolment. They then either ascended or descended levels according to their behaviour. While the majority of students stayed on the neutral level throughout their entire schooling, those who demonstrated strong aspects of service mindedness or exemplary leadership ascended to higher levels or ranks that carried with them privileges and benefits (levels 4 and 5). Those who descended ranks to levels 1 and 2, found themselves facing an escalating scale of sanctions and consequences until they were suspended or, at worst, expelled.

Schools that use this kind of approach often appear to run very smoothly. Students know the school’s expectations and rules and exactly where the lines are drawn. They learn the consequences of breaking the rules. They make choices to avoid the unpleasantness of these consequences.

Individual classes can also be run on this kind of approach with clear boundaries and positive and negative consequences for behaviour.

To critics of it, this ‘monitoring of individual behaviour.’ approach exemplifies an external control system at its most refined. Students are taught to conform without having to think very much for themselves. However, because everything runs smoothly, those schools which have implemented it, often become keen proponents of it.

From the perspective of moral development, this kind of approach typifies what P.R. Sarkar calls ‘simple morality’ – the adherence to an external set of principles in a static ‘right or wrong’ fashion. As they are not given the opportunity to explore the relativity of values or rules against universal moral principles, the possibility of students learning ‘spiritual morality’is minimised.

What this means in real terms is that students are prevented from developing self-discipline. Well behaved students, who have thrived in a school where their behaviour is regulated in this manner, will often have great difficulty coping with the more loosely based culture of higher education.

Another disturbing failing of this kind of approach is its inability to cater to students who misbehave as a result of social or background factors of which the school or teacher may be unaware. Rather than recognising and helping these students, the monitor-behaviour approach places conformist expectations upon them that are unrealistic given their circumstances. The result can be the development of a ‘class’ based social structure in the school or classroom. I knew of one teacher who decided to divide her classroom up (as if it were an aircraft) into first class and second class. Those students who behaved and performed (and conformed) well were put in first class. The others remained in second class. First class students had perks that included a ‘hot drink’ corner, ‘first to leave at break time’ privileges and ‘free time’ periods. Second class students missed out. Needless to say there were those students who remained in second class for the entire school year. Predictably these students not only intensely disliked the teacher but also formed their own rebellious, under-achieving subculture.

Strategies That Use Language to Manage Behaviour

In our everyday teaching, when managing behaviour, we use language to establish expectations, give instructions, acknowledge success, encourage, redirect, give choices and follow-through. In the broader learning environment, we also use it to lead, inspire, instruct and convey information. It is a tool which lies at the heart of our teaching.

Yet such a tool is open to both positive and negative use, and it is an unfortunate truth, that the negative use language to control students is still very common in modern classrooms. A negative verbal control strategy uses the willingness of a child to feel badly about himself to control him. Teachers who use these strategies try to gain the upper hand by using shaming, moralising, sarcasm, criticism, blaming and nagging to make their students feel guilty about their own shortcomings. .

Consider these phrases: 

‘Why can’t you be more like ……?’
‘Are you happy making the other children late …..?’
‘You’ve really let us down …… ‘
‘After all the effort everyone else has put in …….’
‘Would someone else have a go, ….’s daydreaming again?’

The main thing these utterances have in common is their capacity to make a child feel inadequate or ashamed.

Body language and facial expression are also used to considerable effect in this negative verbal control or ‘guilting’ approach. Sometimes, the only thing a skilled ‘guilter’ needs to use is a particular facial expression to have the desired effect.

The more important the adult is to the child, the more effective this approach is and the more devastating the consequences. Children in guilt-controlled classrooms often develop a failure identity, learn to feel badly about themselves, compare themselves to others and develop negative self-talk.

Students often intensely dislike teachers who ‘guilt’ – often without really knowing why. It is often very difficult for teachers to recognise and overcome this fault because it can be as subtle as a tone of voice. It is perhaps interesting that verbal control strategies often begin to emerge as a behaviour management approach when teachers no longer feel comfortable, or are not allowed to use, the bullying tactics of negative punishment.

Ironically, many teachers who use such verbal control strategies use them unconsciously as a habitual part of their teaching practice. They often view themselves as good teachers who care about their students.

P.R. Sarkar, however, is unsparing in his opinion of teachers who “even after studying numerous books on psychology … deliberately wound the sentiments of their students…..”(Discourses on Neohumanist Education P 15) and calls them ‘despicable’ (ibid.).

From the Neohumanist perspective, teachers will have to establish themselves in Satya which“implies action of mind and right use of words with the spirit of welfare” (P.R. Sarkar, A Guide to Human Conduct). Our use of language will then become a matter of consciousness rather than the following of hard and fast rules. If we truly have the welfare of our students in mind, we will naturally tend to use language that leads and inspires rather than that which bosses and bullies.

Strategies That Build Teacher-Pupil Relationships

The teacher pupil relationship lies at the heart of learning and, over time, teachers develop their own teaching personality unique to themselves. This teaching personality often predicates what sort of relationship the teacher will have with his or her students.

One teacher I knew had been a salesman before becoming a teacher. When he had his first class, he treated curriculum like a product that he needed to sell to the students. He would say to me, “Teaching is a selling game!”

Another teacher had been a football coach. He ran his class like a coaching clinic. His teaching was full of motivational speeches and appeals for students to do their best for the team. His relationship with his students was one of coach to team member.

Yet another teacher I have known tended to take on the role of additional parent especially for those students for whom school was the only place they felt safe and valued.

And there have been many more -some who liked to lecture, some who liked to play, some who liked to facilitate, some who liked to direct and many who just could not be labelled. Some had quiet, industrious classrooms. Some had busy, energised classrooms. Some had colourful, playful classrooms. Some seemed energised by chaotic creativity. Some moved steadily with well thought out methodology. Yet, in all their separate journeys to become effective teachers, these many colleagues had their individual successes and failures and all, over time, developed their own successful teaching personality.

With regard to teacher to pupil relationships P.R. Sarkar writes:

“Teachers must bear in mind that their students – whether adolescents, youths, old people or actual children – are to them all just children of different ages; and they themselves are children like their students. If teachers distance themselves from their students or continually try to maintain a forced gravity, they will not be able to establish sweet, cordial relations with their students. The free and frank exchange of ideas is simply not possible.”(Discourses on Neohumanist Education Pg 20)

Yet he also points out:

“Teachers must possess such qualities as personal integrity, strength of character, righteousness, a feeling for social service, unselfishness, an inspiring personality and leadership ability.” (Ibid. pg. 16)

Clearly P.R. Sarkar expects that teachers must cultivate “sweet and cordial relations with their students’ before learning can occur. However he also implies the need for a balance between the recognition by the teacher that he or she, like his or her students, is a child (a life-long learner) and leadership, which may involve discipline.

Strategies That Are Based on the Student Self Managing His or Her Own Behaviour

The view that students are at their best when managing their own behaviour and, to some extent, their own learning, has become increasingly popular in recent times and has been especially promoted by William Glasser, the architect of Choice Theory.

Strategies based on this approach work on the principle that, if students know and have ownership of the values of their school community, they will develop an internal motivation and sense of quality that will enable them to take responsibility for their own actions. The goal for students is focussed on internal rather than external control – they become self-managing.

To work successfully, the self-managing approach relies on developing a culture of values and behaviour common to the whole school. It does not mean that there will be no rules, discipline or consequences. What it does mean is that these will have been developed by sharing the school’s vision and values with the entire school community in such a way that everyone – students included – will have an understanding and ownership of them. In this sense self-management strategies operate within a culture of ongoing values education that takes commitment, time and patience to implement and maintain.

To become self-managing, students need to develop a sense of ownership for their behaviour and to take responsibility for their actions and respond reflectively rather than reactively to situations in which they have been involved.

In schools with a Neohumanist ethos, students would be expected to develop both conscience and discrimination. They would be encouraged to care and show respect for others and the environment through developing a set of universal, internal ethical principles and values and learning strategies for implementing them. They would not only work to correct their mistakes, but also attempt to learn from them.

However, for the strategies that promote self-management to work, they need to be part of a whole school approach. It takes time for students to learn how to reflect, how to develop rational, rather than sentimental, thinking patterns, and how to value themselves as individuals able to make independent choices. Such learning happens over years rather than weeks or months. For this reason all members of the school community need to share the same values and be working towards the same vision.

These strategies also recognize individual differences. Students are at different levels of readiness for reflective thinking and are at different stages in their moral development. Then too, many students like to be managed and feel threatened by suggestions that they manage themselves. In other words: for students to become self-managing a definite on-going educative process needs to be occurring throughout each grade level of the entire school.

There is also a recognition that students who have not yet developed self-management skills will still need to have their behaviour and learning managed by rules and consequences.

The other important consideration when examining behaviour management strategies is whether the goal is to simply minimise the impact of the unacceptable behaviour on learning, or to actually change an individual student’s tendency to behave unacceptably. For example, a student with a tendency to steal can be managed in such a way as to minimise his or her stealing at school with no real effort to address or change his or her tendency to steal. Alternatively, however, the school can also make a proactive effort to help the student overcome the tendency for stealing.

With regard to this, Neohumanist schools recognize that teachers have an educational responsibility for the all round development of their students and will therefore naturally favour an approach that helps the student overcome the tendency to behave unacceptably. As P.R. Sarkar has written:

“If one has already become a thief or a criminal, in that case a university education for such a person is of no avail. One is to be moulded in one’s childhood. If one receives the fundamentals of education in the formative period of life, one will keep oneself aright in the teeth of the heaviest odds later on.” (Prout in a Nutshell, part 18, pg 37).

Towards A Neohumanist Approach

In the first part of this article, I have attempted to share with you some of the insights and knowledge I have gained in my examination of behaviour management practices. One of the key things that emerged for me in my examination is that for behaviour management to be truly effective, it needs to be considered part of the curriculum. Students need to learn how to behave as much as they need to learn how to read and write. By this, I don’t mean that they are simply learning how to cooperate with the teacher. Our behaviour is an expression of who we are….and we are Neohumanists. So, what we really want for our children is for them to become, and behave as, Neohumanists.

Yet what does this mean? What are the characteristics of Neohumanist behaviour?

In his writings on Neo-humanism, PR Sarkar has given us a number of indicators of the behaviour of those who would be Neohumanists.

A Neohumanist is one who:

  • Recognizes that devotion is the highest treasure of humanity.
  • Recognizes that this devotion needs to be protected from the onslaughts of materialism and acts on that realisation.
  • Bases his or her life on the principle of Sama Samaja Tattva, the principle of social equality.
  • Acts with ‘awakened conscience’ or what PR Sarkar calls rationalistic mentality.
  • Is guided by proto-psycho spirituality.
  • Realizes that “Just as one’s own life is dear to one’s own self, so the lives of other creatures are equally dear to them. Those who realize this truth are the real sa’dhus.” In this phase of sa’dhana’, such sa’dhakas feel that all living beings are their own. In sympathy with the joys and sorrows of all living beings, they help all creatures.
    (P.R. Sarkar: Perfect Spirituality and Neo-Humanism)

Yet the question then arises: “In practical terms, how do we teach for this? How do we teach children to become Neohumanists?”

This question will be answered in part two of this article which will appear in the next issue.