13 Dec

Unfortunately, schools with challenging contexts often have to make a choice between tackling behaviour before teaching and learning. One can only juggle so many balls at once in the space of an hour-long lesson. Behaviour management can often become the most pressing factor, so fire-fighting this takes up much of our time and energy, leaving less time to focus on our practice. Dealing with our broken windows as a school community can help address this balance.George Keeling and James Wilson (1982) published their “Broken Windows” article in The Atlantic nearly 40 years ago. It looked at the “Safe and Clean Neighborhoods Program” in New Jersey during the mid-1970s, where the State Governor and other officials were extremely enthusiastic in using funding to get more foot-patrols out into neighbourhoods. The premise of this initiative was to cut crime by flooding problem neighbourhoods with uniformed Police Officers in order to act as a deterrent to those that would be involved in criminal activity.

Citizens living in foot-patrolled areas felt more secure, because there was a visible police presence, and they had a more favourable view of the police. In turn those officers walking these beats had a higher morale and greater job satisfaction, with a more favourable attitude of those in the neighbourhoods they served. However, in these “safer” neighbourhoods crime rates, in many cases, had actually increase.

Most people are primarily afraid of being the victims of crime, and this is completely justified. However, Keeling found that there was a tendency to overlook other sources of fears – the fear of disorderly people; the obstreperous and unpredictable people that the foot-patrol officers knew and kept in line. This was supported by Susan Estrich who looked at sources of public fear in Boston housing projects, where disorderliness and incivility, not crime, provided the greatest source of fear. When one considers that simple things such as graffiti, even when not obscene, confronts passengers with an inescapable realisation that the environment is uncontrolled and uncontrollable; therefore can do whatever damage and mischief they choose with impunity. This eventually leads to urban decay; the community gives up on the ability to control these issues, and resides itself to living with them. Areas become run down and pride falls.

Philip Zimbardo tested the broken-window theory in 1969. He placed an apparently abandoned car in two neighbourhoods to see what happened. When nothing happened to the car in one of the neighbourhoods, Zimbardo smashed part of it with a sledgehammer. Soon, passers-by were joining in, and within a few hours, the car had been turned upside down and utterly destroyed – untended property became fair game for people out for fun or plunder and even for people who ordinarily would not dream of doing such things and who probably consider themselves law-abiding. Because of the nature of community life in one area, with past experience of “no one caring“, vandalism began more quickly than it did in the second area, where people believed that belongings were cared for. However, Zimbardo found that vandalism could occur anywhere that established communal barriers have been lowered by actions that seem to signal that “no one cares.”

How does this link to whole-school behaviour, and how we turn around behaviour in schools where this is a challenge?

Much like other communities, teachers and students are troubled by “violent crime” – in our case this is the extreme, most challenging, behaviour exhibited by the small number of students that have the greatest need of pastoral support and interventions. We could put foot-patrols consisting of every member of SLT on the corridors, and employ a dedicated pastoral team. However, what we would find is that while this would make us feel “safer“, the instances of the most challenging behaviour is unlikely to decrease by this alone. Sure, we lift the ‘obstreperous-types‘ from the classrooms, and pop them into isolation, but they will be back in tomorrow/the same week, and we start the process all over again. Interventions take time, and our SLT/pastoral teams are kept busy firefighting behavioural issues, becoming over-worked and stressed – taking them away from other areas where their talents are required.

However, we often ignore the secondary causes of issues – the “broken windows” in our neighbourhood. These are the small things; the things that even our best behaved kids do that eats away at our school values, culture and expectations.

Every time a teacher turns a blind-eye to an expectation they don’t agree with, they show the students “no one cares“. When one fails to challenge simple things like having the right equipment, their planner, or uniform, the message is “no one cares“. We smash that car window, and find that even those who do not display any behavioural challenges begin to believe that message.

Managing the behaviour of a large number of people always relies on community buy-in. Staff have to have faith in the consistency of all to challenge and address the small-stuff, the things that become our broken windows and graffiti. By doing so, we are communicating to the rest of the school community that this is not how things are done here. The normalisation of our expectations proves that someone cares; protecting our communities from the most prevalent sources of issues, simply by challenging the small-stuff we make them “safer” for all.

As with anything in education, it is a consistent and unified approach that proves successful. We Classroom Teachers are the Police Officers of the school community; if we fail to uphold the law that our leadership has put in place as part of our ethos, then we fail our communities. However, simply by taking this on as a collective, we can free up our stretched SLTs and Pastoral teams to tackle the primary sources of community-troubles.

At a time where we are all feeling the stretch of our first term back in the building, we need to look after one another by preventing the broken windows. So, challenge uniform issues, lack of equipment, and ensure you uphold the highest of behaviour expectations of your students – because if you sweat the small-stuff, the big-stuff occurs less often, and you’ve the resources on-hand to support you.

I am a firm believer in providing the support that challenging students need to meet expectations. This is the important work that our pastoral teams should be focusing on, rather than dealing with the broken windows in a school. These are a community-issue, that needs to be addressed by all, freeing them up to use their expertise to minimise exclusions and work with some of our most vulnerable students. 

Originally posted in the "pintsizedpedagogy" wordpress blog - October 2020 

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