The psychology of behaviour management (part 2)

A frequent observation in schools is that the same children tend to end up in detention over and over again. The belief that ‘punitive’ approaches to school discipline were proving ineffective or even counter-productive has led to an interest in ‘restorative’ practice approaches. These approaches appear strongly influenced by ‘positive psychology’ and frequently also import ideas from a variety of therapeutic disciplines like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

Part 2: Restorative practice approaches

The roots of this behaviour management strategy are ‘restorative justice’ programmes arising from criminology. Difficult to define and frequently implemented under a variety of different names, restorative justice is sometimes typified as a compromise position in the ‘rehabilitation vs retribution’ debate. A meta-analysis by Latimer, Dowden and Muise (2005) offered the following definition:

“Restorative justice is a process whereby all the parties with a stake in a particular offence come together to resolve collectively how to deal with the aftermath of the offence and its implications for the future”

The focus of these approaches is to repair the harm caused by the criminal act, so that the victim and the offender have an opportunity to discuss the event and decide appropriate reparations for the offence. In the meta-analysis, the authors find that victim and offender satisfaction tends to be higher using this approach than when using the traditional justice system, and offenders more likely to complete restitution agreements and less likely to reoffend.

The reported success of these programmes led to similar systems, often influenced by therapeutic models, being imported into schools. Once again, the principles behind ‘restorative practice’ are difficult to define and operate under a wide variety of names, but are often typified as a compromise position between authoritarian and laissez-faire disciplinary systems.

Social discipline window

Source of image: based on McCold and Wachtel (2003)

The International Institute for Restorative Practices offers the following as a ‘unifying hypothesis’ of restorative practices:

“human beings are happier, more cooperative and productive, and more likely to make positive changes in their behavior when those in positions of authority do things with them, rather than to them or for them.”

Positive psychology

Positive psychology arose out of the ‘Humanistic approach’ developed by psychologists like Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers who developed theories around human happiness and helping people to thrive or reach their potential. Positive psychology was a term probably coined by Maslow, but has become strongly associated with the work of Martin Seligman – its philosophy essentially the same, to understand the nature of human happiness and well-being.

Applied within education, this approach tends to focus upon how schools can promote positive emotions and relationships, engagement and a meaningful sense of purpose, and positive goals leading to accomplishment. Seligman suggests these form five distinct elements – summarised by the acronym PERMA:

  • P Positive Emotion
  • E Engagement
  • R Positive Relationships
  • M Meaning and Purpose
  • A Accomplishment

We see the influence of positive psychology in all sorts of areas of education: For example, the idea of ‘teaching for happiness’ or ‘teaching mindfulness’ and many of the ideas underpinning ‘character education’.  There appears to be a clear influence of positive psychology in opposition to more behaviourist ideas within restorative practices applied within schools. For example, Hendry, Hopkins and Steele summarise the differences in Restorative Approaches in Schools in the UK:

Restorative approach vs authoritarian approach

The goals are identified as developing positive relationships between the teacher and student; encouraging empathy and creating a sense of safety and trust where both parties can express their thoughts, feelings and needs; encouraging self-actualisation and optimistic beliefs about personal development; and supporting individual and shared responsibility. The main empirical claim appears to be:

“Schools that consciously focus the bulk of their effort on building and maintaining relationships will find that fewer things will go wrong and so there will be fewer occasions when relationships need to be repaired.”

However, within academic psychology the ‘positive psychology’ approach has faced significant criticism. For example, the abstract for Alistair Miller (2008) paper “A Critique of Positive Psychology— or ‘The New Science of Happiness’” summarises many of the problems:

“This paper argues that the new science of positive psychology is founded on a whole series of fallacious arguments; these involve circular reasoning, tautology, failure to clearly define or properly apply terms, the identification of causal relations where none exist, and unjustified generalisation. Instead of demonstrating that positive attitudes explain achievement, success, well-being and happiness, positive psychology merely associates mental health with a particular personality type: a cheerful, outgoing, goal-driven, status-seeking extravert.”

Cognitive-behavioural therapy

An alternative psychological foundation for restorative practice has been cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) often combined with elements of other therapeutic programmes (e.g. Solution-Focused Therapy).

The focus in CBT is to identify and change patterns of thinking or beliefs which underlie behaviours which are unhelpful to the individual. It’s often typified as a problem-solving therapeutic approach – finding ways to better cope with ‘here-and-now’ practical problems (rather than say childhood experiences).

Albert Ellis developed some of the core principles involved in CBT back in the 1950’s and 60’s. Rational Emotive Behavioural Therapy (REBT) emphasises the role of ‘faulty thinking’ (an individual’s interpretation or view of an event or situation) which gives rise to emotional distress and subsequent unhelpful behaviours (e.g. avoidance coping). This makes some intuitive sense to many teachers. For example, a student faced with an impending exam may believe that they will fail regardless of what they do, so they find ways to distract themselves from this anxiety (e.g. procrastination) and fail to revise for the exam.

In restorative practice, these elements of CBT tend to involve encouraging the student to relate their offending behaviours to the thoughts and feelings which caused them. By exploring alternatives to the way the student interpreted an event and emotionally reacted to it, the idea is that the student finds better ways to respond to these events in future. For example, Writing Wrongs is a restorative approach for use in schools which explicitly draws upon ideas based on CBT to encourage students to reflect upon the causes and consequences of their behaviour.

Whilst optimistic claims were initially made for the efficacy of CBT as a treatment for mental illness, much of the empirical evidence supporting these has come into question – not least because, along with other forms of psychotherapy, there’s no easy way to create a ‘double-blind’ arrangement within randomly controlled trials and this means that results may be influenced by bias. A recent meta-analysis suggests that effect sizes for CBT outcomes has been steadily declining since the 1970s, implying that sources of bias may have given a distorted view of its efficacy.

Do restorative approaches work?

It is almost impossible to give an empirical answer to this question. Case studies appear to provide very positive evaluations for programmes. For example, Littlechild and Sender (2010) found evidence from interviews that students and staff at four residential homes for young people with developmental and physical disabilities gave very positive evaluations of restorative justice.  However, data from police call-outs was more mixed. They note that one unit had an increase in call-outs and caution that the decrease in call-outs at the three other units was not necessarily due to the introduction of restorative justice.

One area where more systematic evidence is available is the success of anti-bullying programmes, many of which use restorative justice principles. For example, restorative approaches are commonly used in conjunction with sanctions within secondary schools to tackle bullying. A report for the DFE “The Use and Effectiveness of Anti-Bullying Strategies in Schools” (Thompson and Smith, 2011) examined the range of practices used in schools and attempted some evaluation of their effectiveness. They broadly defined restorative approaches as:

“Restorative approaches work to resolve conflict and repair harm. They encourage those who have caused harm to acknowledge the impact of what they have done and give them an opportunity to make reparation. They offer those who have suffered harm the opportunity to have their harm or loss acknowledged and amends made.”

They found that over two-thirds of schools used some form of restorative practice in tackling bullying and that these approaches were recommended by the majority of local authorities above the use of sanctions. The survey reported that 97% of both primary and secondary schools rated restorative approaches as effective in reducing bullying, with high proportions of both school types rating them as cost effective and easy to implement. Small group discussions (circles) were the most common approach in primary schools (96%) whereas some form of restorative discussion was the most common in secondary schools (90%).

So, these kinds of anti-bullying programmes are popular and perceived to be effective. Beyond case studies, however, is there much evidence to support their adoption in schools? The fact that restorative programmes tend to be mixed in with sanctions makes it difficult to pick apart whether these programmes are effective as practised in schools. Historically, the evidence supporting the general effectiveness of anti-bullying programmes is mixed. For example, a meta-analysis by Ferguson et al (2007) examined the effectiveness of school-based anti-bullying programmes. One issue they report with the available research was publication bias (sometimes called the ‘file draw effect’) where studies which obtain some statistical significance are more likely to be published than studies which are non-significant.  Thus, while the meta-analysis yielded an overall ‘significant effect’, the very small overall effect sizes led them to conclude that “school-based anti-bullying programs are not practically effective in reducing bullying or violent behaviors in the schools”.

More positive outcomes were reported in a meta-analysis by Ttofi and Farrington (2011). They suggested that significant reductions in bullying tended to be associated with more intensive programs, programs including parent meetings, firm disciplinary methods, and improved playground supervision. However, work with peers (including things like peer mediation, peer mentoring, and encouraging bystander intervention) was associated with an increase in victimization. They recommend that work with peers (arguably a central feature of restorative practice models) should not be used.

Despite mixed and sometimes disappointing evidence of effectiveness with regard to bullying, the popular perception of restorative practice has led some schools to implement these sorts of programmes as whole-school behaviour management systems. It’s hard to define this approach, but typically they involve facilitated discussion between the teacher and student about low-level disruption in lessons in place of – though sometimes in addition to – a direct sanction. Again, there are many case studies reporting positive effects for these programmes, but systematic quantitative evidence is thin on the ground. For example:

“”We’ve shown in case study after case study that schools that adopt this approach report significant changes in their cultures,” said Dr. Paul McCold, researcher and founding faculty member of the International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP) graduate school. “What’s needed now is solid quantitative research.””

There are evidently many problems when trying to implement restorative practice programmes in schools. David Didau identifies this problem in his list of psychological principles for teachers:

The biggest problem with restorative justice is that it often becomes a blunt and clumsy stick. The culprit’s needs are often placed over those of the victim. A victim may not want a relationship to be restored and this should never be imposed.”

This becomes even more of an issue when such programmes are used for issues of low-level disruption. In my experience, it can sometimes be successful (e.g. where the student genuinely accepts they were in the wrong and is keen to make amends). However, I suspect the same students who ended up in detention all the time simply end up in endless ‘conflict resolution discussions’ instead. I’ve experienced many occasions where the student isn’t prepared to accept any responsibility or – more difficult still – tries to manipulate the discussion to appear the ‘victim’. If a student merely goes through the motions and isn’t really interested in taking responsibility for their actions, there’s the risk that such systems may inadvertently undermine good behaviour.

Lastly, there are some psychologists who are deeply concerned about the therapeutic frameworks being imported from positive psychology and CBT into schools. In ‘The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education’, Katherine Eccelstone warns that these approaches risk developing students into anxious and self-preoccupied individuals, undermine parental and teacher authority, and represent a diminished view of human potential.

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16 Responses to The psychology of behaviour management (part 2)

  1. lenabellina says:

    This is a really useful summary and analysis of the issues around punitive versus restorative practices. Many thanks indeed. I have had an initial read and will definitely return to it and follow up on the links and references.
    I think that there is a danger in expecting teachers to engage in CBT style approaches without adequate training. This is not to say that restorative approaches are not to be recommended but my belief is that staff have to have the time to master techniques and understand the processes fully.


    • Yes – often failures of these kinds of approaches are attributed to ‘weakness in training and implementation’. For me, this risks making the claims of restorative practices unfalsifiable: If there’s apparent success, then this is attributed to the programme. If the programme fails, then it was the teachers not doing it properly! What represents ‘adequate training’ in these techniques is extremely problematic.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. paulmartin42 says:

    I am minded of the Simpson´s episode Boys will be boys. Too much navel gazing exacerbates introspection and debilitates staff by consuming large amounts of energy. The fact that this article is so long leads to the (debate-able) conclusion that its a lot for a little.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The fact that the principles of restorative practice are poorly defined and draw upon a diverse range of popular psychological approaches makes it very difficult to ‘pin down’. Until there is empirical evidence of its effectiveness, I think schools should treat it with more caution than enthusiasm.


      • nictaewa says:

        A valid comment but I also think anything with empirical evidence should also be treated with caution. There isalso no way to validly analyse the complexity of these practices within their contexts. The empirical evidence you call for would be extremely flawed (but potentially useful) in terms of research design for any useful generalisable outcomes.


  3. Fascinating stuff. It could be that this is where what we used to call qualitative and quantitative approaches to the use of evidence collide in a revealing way.

    If we are not careful “evidence” with the support of probability statistics takes precedence over what we might call fieldwork or ethnographic evidence (or even anecdotal evidence). Questions like is it really “restorative”? or what do you mean by “controlling”? seem to require that there is (beyond our mere words) an uninterpretable and solid reality – a social world (or school) which exists independently of any one person or group’s interpretation of what is happening or their power to change it.

    As illustration, I was in a small way party to an implementation of a well planned “positive discipline” system (not itself a “restorative” programme) which included a period of exclusion from the classroom as an automatic sanction after a number of infractions. One pupil approached a situation where his minor (but increasingly irritating) infractions accumulated a sanction of several days worth of continuous exclusion from all lessons, more days than he had left at the school. His account of the situation was that he quite enjoyed the chance to sit quietly and read books all day on his own. Like everyone else in the context he had his own understanding of what was happening, and his own patterns of behaviour that allowed him some sense of control over events. Add such individual variation to the various micro-cultures of different groups of pupils and then to the different world-views of groups of teachers and adminstrators and we have an impossibly fluid situation where behavioural “science” starts to look a bit flat footed.

    Perhaps the way round all this is long and uncertain – any one teacher needs to accumulate ways of thinking about and acting on pupil behaviour (theories and practices if you like) that are informed by experience, by other teachers wisdom, through academic access sufficient to check or discover formal research, and a lot more besides. In other words, through a more serious process of teacher professionalisation that is less easily undermined by ambitious Secretaries of State or ambitious Deputy Heads. There is no magic other than the exciting discovery that “you never really know”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Personally, I think what’s operating here is a teacher’s ‘theory of mind’ and the introduction of positive psychology and therapeutic methods may not be adding much (if anything).

      Qualitative approaches certainly have a role – in identifying promising hypotheses for example.However, where programmes make empirical claims (which many do) there is a need to put them under scrutiny using quantitative methods.


      • By “a teacher’s ‘theory of mind'”, do you mean their generally taken-for-granted assumptions about human behaviour (what we might call “practical wisdom”) or their more formal preference for one strand of psychology over another? Having decided on that and perhaps developed a typology that might inform a quantitative assessment of some intervention or other – we would still need to recognise that all the other players – pupils, parents, administrators and ancillary staff will have their own working assumptions about the things that might help or hinder successful education in schools. And all that complexity – continuously present in any educational context is almost bound to disrupt any kind of hard science that tries to count how many times a works rather than b. The bigger question will always be “in what circumstances might a work better than b?”

        I am remembering a series of interviews I did long ago with experienced teachers. My supervisor was interested in the transition to school-based teacher education (following the 1992 Education Act) and in what kinds of expectations (and so, perhaps “theories of mind”) the school-based mentors had about their role as teachers of teachers. That was very much qualitative research, but we were able to use statistical analyses to generate plausible clusters of belief (maybe “theories of teacher mentoring”) in a way that could have informed a more robust framework to offer future mentor trainers who could then have some landmarks for their our development of practical expertise.

        I resist accepting the deciding role that quantitative theory might claim for tests of “effectiveness”. The final counting, recording and analysis are clear enough, and yield comparable scores but I worry about the long series of pragmatic choices and limits that have to be made to get as far as the number crunching. The Cochrane approach to education seems as though it has not had the same successes as it did in medicine – partly, perhaps, because being uneducated is not a medical condition or a physical state.


        • “By “a teacher’s ‘theory of mind’”, do you mean their generally taken-for-granted assumptions about human behaviour (what we might call “practical wisdom”) or their more formal preference for one strand of psychology over another? ”

          Neither. I mean ‘theory of mind’ as discussed here:

          “I resist accepting the deciding role that quantitative theory might claim for tests of “effectiveness”.

          I disagree with your pessimistic stance on the value of well-controlled, quantitative research. Whilst case studies and qualitative analysis provides tons of detail from real-life settings, they are also very sensitive to the bias and expectancy effects of the people involved in the research. Being uneducated is certainly not an illness – which is why I’ve often argued against psychotherapy creeping into schools. However, that’s not the basis of quantitative research. The aim of quantitative research is hypothesis testing – and it’s is a valuable way to ‘weed out’ time-consuming, ineffective practices in education in my opinion.


          • Thanks for the link. I had read that and forgotten. But the question I asked could be answered (not accurately, but well enough) by saying that Theory of Mind is more about “generally taken-for-granted assumptions about human behaviour” than any formal knowledge. Empathy – a vital part of a teacher’s capability – would come in there too I think? Perhaps that’s the innate talent (higher in some than others) that needs nurturing? Can it be developed?

            On the pessimism front I would say that I am anxious about any claim for confidence or certainty except for the claim that teachers don’t need to know anything about research or theory (a claim which I know you are not making). My interest in the shakiness of research has been a constant, but it has never stopped me doing some of my own, or reading quite a lot, as a teacher and in other roles.

            I wrote this blog a few years ago – it goes into a bit more detail on what I have in mind.


            Liked by 1 person

            • teachwell says:

              While I agree that quantitative analysis is not a god in itself, where we are talking about impacting on the lives of hundreds of thousands of children, we need more than case studies to justify introducing an initiative. It is what makes me unhappy about nurture group interventions too – all of which fall prey to the same faults in terms of research as restorative justice approaches. In essence, trying to find a humane way to deal with behaviour management is an admirable goal, however, there is also the issue of boundaries to be navigated here. Restorative justice has at its heart the wish to avoid exclusion. Yet we can not enter any situation with some of the options off the table. Especially when the life chances of other children depend on the environment in the class. Also, coming from a background where there was domestic abuse, the importance of boundaries is undermined by some of these approaches. It is ok for some behaviour not to be forgiven. It is at this point that the person being abused leaves that unhappy situation. I do not care for the idea that this instinct should be ‘taught’ to be wrong in some way, when in fact it is necessary and needed in order to avoid continuing to be part of abusive and/or toxic relationships. It’s ok to have a cut off point where you don’t wish to repair the relationship and I would argue that is true for teacher/child as much as it is in any other relationship.

              Liked by 2 people

        • nictaewa says:

          Far too many assumptions made to reach a point of quantitative analysis.


  4. Pingback: Psychology of behaviour management (part 3) | Evidence into Practice

  5. Just a brief note: on the danger of producing anxiety and self-preoccupation in students by use of therapeutic conversations. I use the solution-focused approach (which cannot be mixed with CBT as they have different principles – solution-foused CBT is a logical impossibility) – which focuses on strengths and resources and not on deficits ( e.g. CBT starts from the point of assuming distorted thinking, restorative approach from the doing of harm by a child characterised as an offender). As a teacher the solution-focused approach is within my professional remit as inquiry pedagogy, so does not have the same problem as therapeutic approaches imported into a non-clinical field. Unfortunately the foundations of different approaches are little discussed and not well understood by practitioners which leads to inappropriate application of methods viz. use of punishment in schools as the predominant means of bringing about new learning, which of course it doesn’t do. In my work the teaching application of s-f approach has clear boundaries, is short term and is reviewed after minimum period of work (commonly 4 lessons/sessions). Thanks for your article.


  6. Pingback: Blogs of the Week – 22 January, 2015 | Rhyddings Learning Power

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