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Promoting positive behaviour in schools

Published:Wednesday | April 4, 2012 | 12:00 AM

Maurice D. Smith, Contributor

MANAGING CHANGE can be a nightmare if not carefully thought through, as often there is resistance brought on by a preference of the known. Educational institutions are not exempt from this and are sites at which much effort is expended on regulating performance, building consensus and allocating limited resources.

One of my professors, in his politics of education class, would repeatedly make the point that successful educational administrators know how to be 'political' without being politicians. After much reflection, I ended up agreeing with him ... . There is a difference between the two! Being political suggests our being shrewd and sagacious in our interactions with stakeholders, chief of which are our students. School leaders can strategically influence student behaviour using principles drawn from March and Olsen's organisational choice under ambiguity theory.


The first principle: Students behave inappropriately when rules and regulations are inadequately defined and or articulated and inconsistently enforced in their institutions. Ambiguity of intention sets in when alternatives to acceptable demeanour are presented. If students do not know what is expected of them at all times, they will more than likely yield to less desirable options. School administrators should, therefore, ensure that there are guidelines stipulating a code of conduct when in classrooms, lunchrooms, on corridors, streets and buses before, during and after school, irrespective of the nature of the curricular or co-curricular activity. I do not subscribe to the notion that our influence begins and ends at the gate.

The second principle: Students behave inappropriately when there is an ambiguity of understanding. This manifests itself when they are unable to make the connection between their misbehaviour and the absence of apposite consequences. Positive actions are likely to be discontinued when not favourably rewarded and negative ones are more often than not reinforced when ignored; every teachers' college graduate has had this communicated to him/her. Administrators are to be relentless in their efforts to curb indiscipline in any shape or form in which it rears its ugly head.

Third principle: Students behave inappropriately when they have difficulty interpreting past events. Ambiguity of history creeps up on a pupil who is unable to reconcile in his mind the former actions of administrators and teachers. When students opt to not conduct themselves in accordance with the parameters outlined by their institutions, they ought to be able to recall what transpired in previous instances. I remember when as a lad in primary school you would not dare to be late much more to be unkempt and ill-prepared for school. I also recall my days in high school when my schoolmates and I were instructed to not desecrate the gold and black with the indescribable act of eating and walking on the streets of Brown's Town. Except for the fact that on many a day I simply could not afford to snack, I, like my classmates, would have been subject to the fervent intervention of teachers and a principal who meant what they said and wasted no time in showing that they did.

Behaviour-management policy

Behaviour is a choice and school administrators need to be astute enough to be sufficiently able to influence their students to choose to display positive conduct. In that regard, therefore, allow me to suggest that every educational institution is to have a coherent behaviour-management policy that articulates certain choices, rewards for good behaviour and sanctions for misdemeanours. It should be a document that is constantly and actively referred to by all members of the school community. Principals cannot afford to be passive and teachers simply cannot refer all disciplinary matters to their dean of discipline as doing so communicates an inability on their part to resolve issues as they arise — this empowers the student.

Deans of discipline are the officers responsible for the implementation of the policy, but all members of staff ought to be fully conversant with its tenets and enforce them accordingly. Acceptable modes of behaviour are not just for students but all key players within the school community, including bus drivers, retailers and visitors to the campus. The politically literate principal knows how to design and implement those strategies that promote positive behaviour as where there is no discipline there can be no teaching; and where there is no teaching there will be no learning.

Maurice D. Smith is a doctoral student at Howard University. Send comments to or