Psychology of behaviour management (part 3)

In the last posts, I briefly examined some of the key ideas and limitations of offering rewards and sanctions, and restorative approaches. Both of these tackle the issue of behaviour at an individual level; in this post I want to examine group-level strategies which utilise our propensity conform to social norms.

Social norms

Humans are social animals and benefit enormously from shared resources and protection, and the ability to engage in acts of reciprocal altruism with reduced risks of exploitation within social groups. Conversely, exclusion from a group tends to have a highly detrimental effect on an individual’s capacity to survive and reproduce. Therefore, humans have evolved a complex range of strategies for maintaining our membership and status within social groups.

One approach to behaviour in schools is encouraging adherence to social norms. Social norms are the (often unwritten) rules about how we behave in social context. One of the functions of social norms is to distinguish who is part of our group and who is an outsider. Behaving in accordance to the norms of our group, especially when there is a ‘cost’ attached, signals our membership of that group. Breaking social norms carries with it a risk of exclusion from the group.

It’s hard to see how society could function at all if we didn’t conform to some fairly predictable set of rules about how we behave. Some of these norms become enshrined as formal laws, like driving on the left in the UK. However, many involve unspoken arrangements, merely triggering disapproval from others if we break them, e.g. the rules of queuing, or saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. Like all cultural institutions, schools possess social norms regarding the behaviour of students. Some of these are explicitly communicated through ‘school rules’, but many are based on the unspoken expectations of the teachers and students who make up the school.

Normative influence

The ‘power’ of this desire to ‘fit in’ with a group was demonstrated by Solomon Asch in a famous series of experiments conducted in the 1950s. He asked groups of students to make a series of comparative judgement about the length of a line:

Asch lines

Source of image

However, only one member of the group was a genuine participant. What the participant didn’t know is that the other people in the group were actually ‘confederates’ of the experimenter, instructed to deliberately give wrong answers on certain critical trials. What Asch was investigating was the extent to which the participant would conform to the rest of the group by also giving the wrong answer. He found that 25% of participants would disregard the wrong answer given by the rest of the group and give the correct answer every time. However, 75% of the participants gave at least one wrong answer and 5% of the participants followed the group in giving the wrong answer on every occasion. For Asch, this demonstrated a strong human instinct to fit in, even with a group of strangers and when the task involved unambiguously wrong answers. There’s a short clip illustrating the procedure here.

Asch went on to use this experimental technique to examine the key variables which strengthen and weaken normative influence. He found that when participants could give their answers in private (by writing them down) they were less likely to conform to the group. He also found that the strength of normative influence was greatly diminished by a lack of unanimity; the presence of a ‘fellow dissenter’ making it much easier to act against the behaviour of the rest of the group.

Further insight into the factors which appear to underlie normative influence comes from the research of Robert Cialdini.  For example, Cialdini and Goldstein (2004) identify three major components to social influence; Accuracy, Affiliation and Maintaining a positive self-concept.

The Goal of Accuracy represents an individual’s motivation to be right thinking or possess the correct information when making a decision. They make the point that individuals often look to social norms to gain an accurate understanding of and effectively respond to social situations, especially during times of uncertainty. The example I use when teaching is when I went to a posh wedding in my youth and was confronted by more cutlery than I knew what to do with. I found myself immediately looking around at which knife, or fork, or spoon other people were using for each course.

The Goal of Affiliation represents an individual’s motivation to create and maintain good relationships with others. In essence we tend to adopt the behaviour of others so they will be more likely to like us. Quite superficial characteristics tend to trigger this kind of behaviour; for example physical attractiveness, perceived similarity (e.g. a shared birthday or the same name), ingratiation (e.g. remembering a person’s name or mild flattery – though it’s worth noting that whilst the target tends to develop more positive feelings towards the person, on-lookers tend not to), and reciprocation (the obligation to repay others for what we have received from them).

An interesting aside to this influence of bolstering affiliation through reciprocation is the ‘Franklin effect’. The Franklin effect exploits cognitive dissonance by getting someone who doesn’t like you to do a small favour for you. As a result, that person often develops more positive feelings towards us. A ‘top tip’ that exploits this might be to ask a challenging student to carry some books to another classroom for you, for instance.

The Goal of Maintaining a Positive Self-Concept represents our tendency to maintain our concept of self through behaving consistently with past “actions, statements, commitments, beliefs, and self-ascribed traits”. Where we have behaved in a particular way in the past, or expressed strong views about a situation, there is a motivation to behave in a way consistent to that in the future. Again, I suspect cognitive dissonance plays a strong role in what I sometimes describe when teaching as a ‘homeostasis of the self’. If we have done something a certain way for a long time, then we tend to believe that those behaviours were correct.

Applying normative influence

Psychologists have attempted to apply normative influence in order to promote pro-social behaviour. For example, Schultz et al (2008) used normative messages in order to encourage hotel guests to conserve energy. An example of one of these messages:

Schultz towels

Source of image

This study is interesting as it appears to show that merely trying to change attitudes (by providing information about the importance of energy conservation) appeared to have little effect on behaviour. The presence of a ‘normative message’ along with this information appeared to have a much stronger effect on the behaviour of guests.

Normative messages have also been used to try to reduce alcohol consumption amongst US students. For example, Borasi and Carey (2001) reviewed various social influence strategies used to encourage moderation in drinking and reported that in some cases normative messages about drinking led to reduced self-reported alcohol consumption. They suggest there are a range of cognitive factors related to perceived norms which can influence behaviour.

  • Descriptive and injunctive norms: “a student will match the drinking they perceive other students doing (descriptive norm) and approving of (injunctive norm)”
  • Pluralistic ignorance: ‘‘individuals assume that their own private attitudes are more conservative than are those of other students, even though their public behavior is identical’’
  • Attribution theory: “the student observes others drinking heavily, it is assumed that such excessive use is typical, resulting in elevated norms”

A combination of these processes leads to exaggerated norms for drinking, which then perpetuate themselves when new students observe others drinking heavily. This has led to researchers attempting to use messages based on descriptive and/or injunctive norms to try to correct this exaggerated view of acceptable drinking. In the review, Borasi and Carey point to a number of successful attempts to reduce self-reported alcohol consumption using descriptive and injunctive normative messages.

Applying normative influence in schools

To a great extent, schools have always tried to create social norms within their institutions to support a positive classroom climate. Either through explicit messages like ‘school rules’ or through implicit mechanisms like ‘ethos’ or ‘traditions’ – schools attempt to separate their institutions from the ‘mundane world’ outside their gates.

For example, Martin Robinson is one education writer who explicitly makes this observation. In Practise Teaching, Teaching Practice: Ritual for instance, Martin writes:

“Whether the atmosphere you create in your classroom is like that of a church where children worship at the altar of knowledge or nearer to that of a high powered office where children come to work efficiently on administrative tasks, the ritual of the classroom is something that is unique to your teaching and the children’s experience of studying with you.”

Long established schools, whether in the state or independent sector, are often remarkable for their extensive lineage of school traditions and small rites and practices which mark the ‘other worldliness’ of their institutions. Some private schools provide an almost ‘cloistered’ atmosphere (quite literally in some cases given their historical origins) which helps create the impression that you are entering a world that in some ways is very separate from everyday life. Schools use a wide variety of techniques to create a strong sense of social norms specific to their institution: School uniforms are perhaps the most common and most visible strategy.

In social learning theory, Albert Bandura  suggests that whilst we learn through vicarious reinforcement (e.g. observing others being rewarded and imitating that behaviour) we also form a set of ‘mental representations’ of acceptable behaviour specific to a social environment which regulates how we act. It seems likely that these traditions, small rituals and changes in dress all act as cues which facilitate behaving within a set of pro-social normative influences within the environment of the school.

One of the difficulties for many schools is how to create this strong sense of pro-social norms within the institution so that anti-social behaviours (e.g. bullying) are not imitated. Indeed, it’s possible that low-level disruption in lessons are similarly occasions where that set of desirable norms have failed to inhibit unhelpful behaviour. There’s not much empirical evidence looking specifically at this question, but there is some support from a recent study of a successful anti-bullying programme:

Paluck, Shepherd and Aronow (2015) relate a study which attempted to test the idea that children attend to the behaviour of their peers to build a sense of what is socially normative and modify their own behaviour in response. They randomly allocated an anti-conflict intervention across 56 schools with 24,191 students – but what’s really interesting is that they measured every school’s social network, before randomly selected ‘seed groups’ of students and assigning them to an intervention that encouraged a public stance against conflict at school. They found that treatment schools reported fewer disciplinary problems compared to the control group. Furthermore the effect was stronger where these ‘seed groups’ contained more socially connected students.

They concluded that students pay particular attention to the behaviour of certain individuals in their community, as they infer which behaviours are socially normative and adjust their own behaviours accordingly. This offers some interesting ways forward with research examining how behavioural climates are produced and changed.

Classroom routines

Another example, I propose, of where normative influence has been exploited to improve behaviour comes from Doug Lemov’s observations of effective teachers. In ‘Teach like a Champion’, Lemov identifies a set of classroom routines which, he suggests, work together to create a positive classroom culture.

To me, the genius of this is that rather than try to promote a positive culture through psychological or social manipulation of attitudes or beliefs (c.f. Growth Mindset), Lemov focuses on creating a strong set of social norms based on simple, visible behaviour routines. Schools often try to sell education through trying to change attitudes, for example inspirational talks or aspirational values, but whilst these messages may be effective for some students, many will merely ‘talk the talk’ rather than ‘walk the walk’. By encouraging a uniform set of simple behavioural rituals, I suspect cognitive dissonance does the rest – ‘If I SLANT in a lesson, it’s because learning is really important to me’.

The success of Lemov’s system probably stems from its simplicity and uniformity. However, therein also lays the controversy. For some teachers, it denies practitioners the chance to discover effective systems for themselves which reflect their unique personality and approach to practice. For others, the concern is that the uniformity of behaviour threatens to suppress behaviours vital to normal mental and physical development. For example, from Sue Cowley:

“But it is what I can’t see that really worries me, because these are children. Where is the choice, the fun, the flitting, the wriggling, the laughter, the joy, the sensitivity, the nuance, the playful interactions, the movement, the gradually developing self-regulation?”

Personally, I find it difficult to believe that even very uniform behavioural expectations would have a negative impact on children – after all, school forms only part of a child’s life and there are many opportunities in everyday life to wriggle and muck about like children. Proponents of these systems might also reasonably argue that the purpose is not to suppress creative or imaginative teaching – but to allow teachers to focus that creativity on their actual teaching rather than battling for control of the classroom.

It seems quite likely that using uniform behavioural routines will promote a strong normative influence to support a positive classroom culture. However, I do think there are interesting questions arising from this debate – is it using a sledgehammer to crack a nut? Some empirical questions for me are:

  • Are some of these routines doing more ‘work’ than others?
  • Are all of these routines strictly necessary?
  • Is the degree of uniformity, whilst clearly effective, necessary?
  • Are there effective (perhaps even more effective) alternative routines to the ones Lemov suggests?

Teasing out what it is about these routines which make them effective is an important research task, in my opinion.

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12 Responses to Psychology of behaviour management (part 3)

  1. suecowley says:

    Thank you, that’s very interesting. Some additional thoughts for you.

    Young children will attend school for a significant proportion of the time that they are awake. Given that it is recommended that small children do around 3 hours physical activity each day, I think it is significant if we use a set of behaviour routines that structure the amount and type of physical movement that children are allowed to make in class. Increasingly, I come across schools that have shortened play time, lengthened the school day or cut PE to make time for academic pursuits. There comes a point where there isn’t actually enough time outside of the school day to incorporate a healthy amount of physical activity. Small children will *naturally* move pretty much all the time (I’m not sure if you’ve worked in EY or primary?) and it is very strange to see them not moving as they instinctively would.

    I’m troubled by the idea of tracking because it acts as a potential distraction for some children (for instance, those on the autistic spectrum can be distracted by being asked to make eye contact when answering a question). But what really troubles me are questions around control, power, conformity and ethics. I know for a fact that I wouldn’t want my own children to be taught within this kind of system – it is far too controlling – I don’t want to send them to school to be taught to conform with this kind of thing. What messages are we giving them about who has the power and the agency within the relationship? This recent blog post explains my concerns in more detail: There is a bit in that blog post about how we develop self regulation around behaviour within the early years setting that I help to run, using an alternative way of managing behaviour that works very well for us and our children.


    • suecowley says:

      Just to add one more thought to the above – another concern would be what happens at the point where a child refuses to comply with the required behaviours. If the answer is “a sanction” then we are back to behaviourism and the likelihood is that (as now) children with SEND in particular will find it hard to fit into the system. If a system’s success rests on the possibility of exclusion as a final punishment, I struggle to see how it can possibly be inclusive. This is the problem inherent within ‘zero tolerance’ approaches to behaviour.


      • “But what really troubles me are questions around control, power, conformity and ethics.”

        Yes, I’m aware that some teachers feel these approaches are overly authoritative – however, I suspect proponents would argue that the teacher should be in control and that encouraging conformity to pro-social norms is beneficial for children.

        “another concern would be what happens at the point where a child refuses to comply with the required behaviours. If the answer is “a sanction” then we are back to behaviourism”

        Actually, as I explained in my first post of this series, the arch-behaviourist BF Skinner would disagree with using sanctions as the first or only response to deviation from social norms – he argued for using reinforcements rather than punishments. In some ways, your question is similar to Debra’s (below) – which I’ve attempted to answer.


        • suecowley says:

          As I said in the power play blog, the teacher needs to be ‘in control’, of course they do, but this is for reasons of safety and learning, not for anything else. The important question is about the extent to which they need to exert control – is what we are asking of the children dignified, appropriate, respectful, etc? If not, we are teaching children to conform with adult commands rather than to do as we ask because we want to focus on the learning. Is it appropriate to go to the extent of controlling exactly how children sit, including their hand position, and exactly where they look? Do they get some agency in that or not? What has the way that a child holds his or her hands got to do with learning?

          Whether or not a sanction/exclusion is the end point of behaviourism, it is still the logical end point of a system where we ask for conformity within a zero tolerance system. Without a consequence/sanction the children can just say ‘no’ and there is nothing you can do about it. If you insist that they conform to a very specific set of commands, and then you punish them for not doing it, your system will really struggle to be inclusive.

          It’s interesting that we don’t look at behaviour as being about the teacher being ‘in control’ in the early years (as Chester seems to feel it must be below). The teacher controls the environment, and sets out clear boundaries, particularly to ensure the safety of the children. But we aim for self regulation and not for ‘control’ – it is perfectly possible for the children to have agency and to get good behaviour from them as well.

          Liked by 1 person

      • Chester Draws says:

        What messages are we giving them about who has the power and the agency within the relationship?

        Um, the teacher. Like it should be.

        You’re kidding yourself if you think serious learning is going to happen if the teacher is not in control of the classroom. In some “student-centred” programs the teacher has to wheedle their way into control, pretending that the students have equal say, but it’s a charade at the base. Every minute a teacher spends gaining control so that students listen is a minute’s teaching wasted.

        This doesn’t mean I suggest teachers should rule with a rod of iron. We can be responsive and gentle. But if we let ourselves not be in charge, then we don’t run the school or the learning.

        And are we doing kids any favours by pretending that they will always have control in later life? Because I do what my boss tells me, and I’m 50.


      • hooperj says:

        I am sure that creating a strong sense of belonging via social norms works for those that opt in. The military have always used this to create a cohesive group. It can be exhilarating to belong to something of high status.

        What this doesn’t tell us is what happens in a school context. Families can choose both to join or leave a school and the extent to which that happens in these zero tolerance schools may be polarizing in the wider community ie creating misfits ( not an inappropriate term ) who are forced to look elsewhere.

        Now that many schools see themselves as stand alone organisations, not part of the broader LA community there may be little concern when a trouble maker leaves. It would be useful to have evidence of it’s impact in a challenging setting like a PRU or a special school. 30 plus years as an LA psychologist showed me that there are always some heads who are adept at easing out the families who don’t fit the school’s vision. Other more inclusive schools are left struggling to manage an imbalance. This system is just using psychology to justify a self serving approach that may not be solving disciplinary issues at all just sending them elsewhere.

        If these schools are successful academically this may not be because they effectively teach all comers but more that they have a hidden selection system. .

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yeah – I accept that the current high-stakes accountability applied to student outcomes may, in principle, distort practice in mainstream schools – so it’s possible that some schools are deliberately easing out kids who would bring down their results. Though, I must say I’ve never worked in a school which did this – in my experience, mainstream schools work exceptionally hard to help ‘misfit’ children get on and stay in school.

          To counter-argue your point, I’m cautious of the tendency to ‘pathologise’ behaviour – which might conversely be argued as ‘using psychology’ to justify maintaining significant and frequent disruption in lessons which undermines the teacher and threatens the progress of other children.

          That’s not the same as arguing for ‘zero tolerance’ approaches. Let me be more explicit: Children feel safe and secure when they know that the teacher is ‘in control’ of the class. I think this requires some combination of incentives and sanctions, restorative discussions and strong, benevolent norms for children to follow.


  2. julietgreen says:

    This one made me laugh: “A ‘top tip’ that exploits this might be to ask a challenging student to carry some books to another classroom for you, for instance”. I would imagine the vast majority of teachers have done this one, not necessarily realising its relevance to social group behaviour.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. debrakidd says:

    Most organisations function by creating social norms, and so for those children who cannot work within those norms, life becomes even more difficult. What would you suggest for children with ADHD for example, or for those living under persistent stress for whom the presence of cortisol impacts on empathy, memory and impulse control?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Debra. It’s true that impulsive violation of social norms is one of the difficulties for kids with attention deficit disorders. There’s also evidence that following social norms requires self-control (e.g. – and some might argue that school systems can encourage the development of that self-control. However, I’m not aware of any specific studies evaluating the common behavioural approaches I’ve recently discussed for that specific disorder.

      Typical advice for teachers often involves being very specific about classroom expectations. For example:
      “Children with ADD/ADHD are capable of appropriate classroom behavior, but they need structure and clear expectations in order to keep their symptoms in check.”
      “Program child for transitions. Give advance warning of when a transition is going to take place (now we are completing the worksheet, next we will …) and the expectation for the transition (and you will need…)”

      I’ve also heard of token economies being used to positively reinforce appropriate behaviours in the classroom. I discuss a little bit about these here:
      Though I’ve not found a review of their effectiveness for children with ADHD.

      Lastly, social norms may also factor into the stigma (and social isolation) which undoubtedly exacerbates difficulties for children with ADHD. There was a randomised trial last year looking at ways to foster an environment which socially included children with ADHD which utilised both reinforcement and social influence.

      As for children suffering chronic stress, I suspect many of the same things apply: clear and simple, explicitly expressed expectations, etc. One thing I know many schools do is encourage children with difficult lives outside of school, is to see school as an ‘oasis’ – a place to get away from such sources of stress. However, again, I’ve not seen specific research evaluating these strategies.


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