Flouting the rules on Covid 19: Things the government could learn from schools about behaviour management

With ‘lockdown’ firmly in place, no-one can be in doubt about Government rules.  However, only recently the BBC News reported anti-social behaviour being on the increase. There will be those who always misbehave, however, daily I see groups of, I’m sure, ‘normally law-abiding citizens’ gathered together, playing, or simply enjoying the sunshine. This is particularly concerning given the volume of media reminders.

After 35 years in teaching, behaviour support and consultancy and then teacher training, not to mention five years as a Magistrate, I cannot help but reflect on what might be learned from behaviour approaches in schools and the experience of teachers and specialists.

All schools have behaviour strategies based on clear rules and routines, using rewards and sanctions, to encourage behavioural responsibility in children. Crucially they also recognise how individuals and groups are thinking and feeling about their experiences. The work of not-for-profit group Trauma Informed Schools, promotes the role of on the ‘emotionally available adult’, often a teacher, supporting children in making good choices: the footballer Ian Wright’s recent tearful reminiscences on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs programme about his teacher Mr Pigden were a poignant example of this.

So what can current leaders learn from ‘child behaviour experts’ to influence normally ‘law-abiding’ adults seen flouting the rules? We need rules and regulations to establish appropriate and acceptable ways for us to act and respond to each other. However, there is tremendous individual variation in social norm compliance. Some people would never push in a queue, or act unfairly, whereas others do not think twice in this period of stringent restrictions?

There are helpful theories which form the basis of most school approaches. The American psychologist Burrhus Frederic Skinner believed in reinforcement, with behaviour dependent on the consequences of previous actions. With negative consequences there is a higher chance the action will not be repeated. A current consequence of transgression is a fine, but perhaps not high enough to provide a sufficient deterrent?

Lev Vygotsky, on the other hand, believed our childhood environment influences us that we learn from ‘more knowledgeable members of the culture’. Perhaps the government should be targeting the better-behaved ‘knowledgeable others’ as potential thought leaders, including making greater use of messages making ‘not staying at home’ socially unacceptable. This might include using humour as Miranda Hart does in one of BBC’s current public information clips.

I see powerful arguments for a ‘blended’ approach’ with a rigorously-enforced sanctions and strategies to engage communities and to motivate them to make positive choices for the good of all.  There are signs of improvement and of greater cooperation, but not yet enough.

Those still in doubt about the need for culture change, in addition to sanctions, might heed the recent words of Shaun Sawyer, Chief Constable Devon & Cornwall:

“If a £60 ticket makes you do something and 684 people dying yesterday didn’t, then I think you’ve got to take a good look at yourself as to whether you’ve realised the seriousness and significance of where we are.”

 Mark Heaton is Principal Lecturer at the Sheffield Institute of Education, Sheffield Hallam University.


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