Behaviour and bias: Where are your blind-spots?

Written by: Adele Bates | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

When it comes to behaviour, do you treat different pupils differently? Do you look for underlying needs? What biases do you have and how do they affect your responses to poor behaviour? Adele Bates discusses and advises


Who gets the most behaviour points? Who gets the most rewards? Go check.

Are pupils with SEND more likely to get detentions? Are pupils of colour more likely to go straight to the second rung of behaviour warnings? Are pupils in care more likely to be excluded? What are our schools’ systemic biases and how does that affect behaviour outcomes?

“Children with some types of SEN, boys, those who have been supported by social care or are disadvantaged are all consistently more likely to be excluded from school than those without these characteristics. Exclusion rates also vary by ethnicity.” (Timpson Review, 2019)

These are the current national trends of exclusion in the UK. If there are trends in who gets excluded from our schools, then those trends must start somewhere: in our classrooms.

The first practical suggestion here is to do an audit of your behaviour and reward points. Find the patterns in your own practice. Then look at the statistics school-wide.

It may be hard to do, it may feel uncomfortable. It is tricky to spot our own blind-spots, but we all have them. There is nothing wrong with having a blind-spot or negative bias – that makes you human – but, as educators, we must work to consciously balance that out.

What’s the alternative? White girls are more likely to get rewarded and black boys are more likely to be excluded? That’s the current reality in the UK. How will this affect them as adults? Black people are more than three times more likely to be arrested than white people (Home Office, 2020).

Struggling to find a pattern in your data? Work with a colleague to find each other’s. There is a reason we don’t work alone, working in teams and communities is a great way of ensuring that our individual biases are spotted.

You can see the obvious importance here of diverse teams – an all-male middle management group is less likely to think about the needs of staff going through menopause. A set of governors who all speak English as a first language in an English-speaking school are less likely to consider how schools successfully communicate with parents and carers of EAL pupils. Blind-spots and biases affect the education of our young people.


Back to behaviour

So you’ve found a pattern. Now what? Disruptive behaviour is a sign of an unmet need. It could be something small – there was a fight at lunch, the pupils are “fizzy” and need your help in re-regulating to get them back into a frame of mind to learn.

It could be something larger – a child in care has just been moved – again. Their entire secure base and foundation at home has been moved, out of their control. Guess what, it might be harder to concentrate on your chemistry equations – how do you differentiate for this student’s learning needs?

Often with behaviour, because it is confrontational, we deal with what we see. However, if we view the behaviour as a sign that the learning cannot be accessed, we get to something more useful – we begin the investigation into why (and yes, this may go alongside consequences in line with your school’s behaviour policy, but both need to happen in order to make lasting change).


An example

You are teaching Dracula. There is a boy in your class who has started playing up. Usually he is more or less on task, yet during the study of this text he gets worse – you issue him the usually warnings, over the weeks he racks up behaviour points, lines and detentions, and now you dread the lessons. What’s gone wrong?

This pupil is from the Gypsy, Roma, Traveller community (GRT). In the text of Dracula, there is explicit racism against the traveller community. All of the “baddies”, on Dracula’s side, are travellers from Eastern Europe. As the teacher, you do not pick up on this particularly, you have taught this text many times and it is not something you would think about.

Being GRT is not your lived experience, and so you have a blind-spot. As you are teaching it, you and other pupils discuss Dracula and his supporters in a negative light. While you never say “people from GRT communities are bad”, that is the implication.

This pupil, who has become disruptive, may not feel safe, or as if he belongs in your classroom anymore. Why would he? He may not be able to articulate this or even fully understand it for himself – he has learnt that school teaches him to get on in society and if the society says that travellers are bad – then he must be bad. If we don’t have space to discuss these topics or unpack these negative biases the negativity becomes internalised and so the behaviour comes out.

We’ve all gone PC mad, I hear you cry!

Does that mean we can’t teach any classic texts to our children?! No.

We have become more aware of difference and inclusion within Western cultures in recent years. For people in positions of privilege or majority, who have blind-spots to minorities’ experiences, it may feel as if “suddenly” we must be politically correct.

Let’s look at it from the other angle in this case. While the majority, non-GRT, community is able to regularly not even think about that community – do you think your pupil is ever allowed to forget it? How is he greeted daily in the street? What does the media say about him and his family? How many role models does he have in school who look like him? How does school nurture his aspirations? What barriers does he face towards learning that his non-GRT peers will not?

Can we still teach the text? Absolutely, yes. It is tough to find a book that is completely unbiased – they too are written by humans – but that is not the issue, as educators it is our job to unpack the texts or topics.

In this scenario, in preparation, we notice that Bram Stoker (the author) has a negative bias. We can explicitly discuss this in our analysis: where might that have come from? Is it the view of the author or his depiction of the story? In what way does social and historical context play a part in this? Where are the equivalent novels by GRT writers from that time? Why might there be fewer than from people like Stoker (white men)? If we were to modernise the story, who might be the “baddies” now? Has anything changed? And so on.

Importantly, the teacher does not need to mention the GRT pupil, unless he chooses to volunteer his personal experiences himself. However, in dealing with the issue explicitly we send a different message to the pupil: this text has racist connotations. In our classroom we notice this, we question it, we do not agree with it by default. The underlining message being – you still belong in this classroom, you are not a baddy.


Where are your blind-spots?

You may not teach Dracula, English or GRT pupils (at the moment). Think of the scenarios where a bias may be playing out in your setting. Some ideas:

  • You taught a pupil two years ago who was always in trouble and suspended twice. This year you are set to teach their younger sibling – what might your bias be? How might that affect their behaviour?
  • You taught a pupil two years ago who won many awards for sport. This year you are set to teach their younger sibling, when they fail to catch a ball several times – what might your bias be? How might that affect their confidence and behaviour?
  • Every year your school gives out a “best handwriting award” across the year. It has always been a girl. When you look for this year’s winner, what might your bias be?
  • A new child arrives in your class. They have been excluded from the other school in your town, how might that affect your bias?
  • There is a group of black boys who are loud and often get into fights in your school. You have two new black boys in your class – what might your bias be? How might that affect your behaviour and theirs?
  • You have heard that one of the pupils’ in your class has a parent who has just been sent to prison. What might your bias be? How might that affect your behaviour and theirs?
  • You have a new pupil in your class who is physically disabled, they always work with a teaching assistant. How does that affect your academic expectations for them? What might your bias be?

Spotting our own biases is not a one-time task. If we are aware, we will always find more – and that is not a bad thing on its own. As we find them, we can examine how that affects our expectations and own behaviour towards certain pupils – and in turn how it affects their behaviour, and what we can do about it.

Personally, I love to champion the underdog, so when I am marking, I have to be aware of this otherwise I am more likely to reward them for something I would not in other pupils. Without balance this can have a negative long-term impact on the underdog’s education – if I reward quicker, my expectations are lower, and thus I am doing them a disservice. Aware of this, when it comes to marking mock exams, for example, I ensure that my underdogs are always in the pile to be cross-marked by a colleague.


Final thoughts

What we haven’t touched on here is how bias affects the running of a school – who do we hire, in what positions? For example, what percentage of Eastern European pupils do you have? What percentage of Eastern European staff do you have? What positions do they hold? Senior leadership? Teachers? Cleaning staff? How might this affect the aspirations of your Eastern European pupils? I feel another article coming on…

Sometimes we will get it wrong. This is where the community and colleagues come back in. Be willing to learn from others who are not like us – not to question their lived experiences or ask them for validation, but so that we may become more educated in difference experiences of life, and thus become better teachers for all of our pupils.

  • Adele Bates supports school leaders and teachers to work with pupils with behavioural needs and SEMH. She’s an international speaker, including TEDx 2020, the author of Miss, I Don't Give A Sh*t: Engaging with challenging behaviour in schools, forthcoming from Sage & Corwin and a fully funded international researcher on behaviour and inclusion. For her tips and resources, visit www.adelebateseducation.co.uk or follow her on Twitter @adelebatesZ. Read her previous articles for SecEd via http://bit.ly/3jQ5Gv2


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