Behaviour conversations: Your unconscious bias...

Written by: Fiona Aubrey-Smith & Marva Rollins | Published:
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When holding crucial behaviour conversations with pupils, we need to be aware of our unconscious bias and the negative impact it may have on our responses – and the young people we teach. Fiona Aubrey-Smith and Marva Rollins explain how, why, and what you can do about it...


Think of a student in your class or school who has recently displayed challenging behaviour and imagine a conversation with that student asking them why that specific behaviour happened.

Perhaps they re-tell a sequence of events that built up into a frustrating climax. Perhaps they shrug and say they don’t know why they did what they did. Perhaps they feel threatened by your enquiry and become more aggressive. Perhaps they are inconsolable and unable to talk at all.

Yet this conversation is usually central to what happens next. Furthermore, what happens next is likely to be an escalation of either the behaviour itself, or (hopefully) some kind of restorative justice, or (sadly) consequences of the behaviour (sanctions, parental contact, withdrawal, even exclusion). Perhaps a mix of all three. So this conversation is pivotal for that child, and pivotal for you.

Yet we know that what children say, what they intend to do, what they actually do or did, and what they really believe or understand may all be different (Tannen et al, 2015). Furthermore we know that there are many influences which come together to shape why each of us do things – the culture we were born into, the environment that we were raised in, the accumulation of experiences that we have had through our lives so far, the things we have heard or witnessed, the context we are in right now, the amount of choice and control we might have in a situation, the people we are with and our perception of the relationship we have with them. In short, we are each a huge accumulation of all the experiences we have lived through and absorbed (Aubrey-Smith, 2020).

As we are seeing both nationally and internationally, this issue is particularly pertinent for how black boys are perceived by those in authority (including by us as their teachers and leaders). Poignantly, it is also a huge issue for how black boys perceive themselves.

These unconscious influences need to become conscious in order that we address them. For both us and for our students.

In that pivotal moment – amid that challenging behaviour – we become completely dependent on a conversation as the vehicle to move us forwards. Yet most of us are not discourse or language specialists, so how do we tackle this? Let’s unpack some simple ideas that help us understand what the child is actually telling us.


Do we mean the literal words used?

To what extent do we understand the words and phrases that the child is using? This might be the literal language (e.g. English v Italian expressions), or may be words or phrases which in the child’s culture, race, religion, country of origin mean something very specific.

Would they, or we, use the same word to convey the same meaning? Do we share or understand the same culture as that child so that we can access and understand their vocabulary?

What about utterances? We all use features such as “um” and “you know” to subconsciously buy thinking time. How do those utterances (e.g. “like”, “innit”) shape our perception of what is being said? What assumptions do we make about the child, their behaviours and their perception of what is happening?

Top tip: Take time every day to really listen to, observe and learn the expressions and phrases used by your children – get to know how they are used and what meaning they are conveying. What are the cultural references at play and how are they used to portray a particular identity or to shape relationships or peer dynamics?


Do we mean just the words that were spoken?

What about the role of silence; short gaps, reflective pauses? What assumptions do we make about longer pauses – is the child buying thinking time, managing anger, frozen in panic, or stuck for an answer? How does that affect how we respond – e.g. do we wait patiently, do we move the conversation on, do we challenge being ignored, do we empathise – how is our response to the silence shaping the next sequence of behaviours?

Top tip: Choose a child for whom behaviour can be challenging and spend a lesson (or ideally a day) observing their use of silence – what does it mean for them, when they are not interacting, or not speaking? What do their shorter silences mean when they are leading the dialogue? What do you notice? How might this help you to empathise further with that child during a difficult conversation?


Do we mean just verbal transactions?

What about the arm gestures, winks, smiles, pointed fingers, folded arms? Do those non-verbal cues align with or contradict the words that are being spoken? Some children and their families use large gestures as part of their culture and others remain very controlled and still. Sometimes young people use gestures with each other that they may not (or should not) with adults (e.g. kissing teeth). If the child in front of you has a very different cultural use of gesture this may impact how you perceive them as well as influencing your own reactive behaviour – either positively or negatively – in any given situation. Be aware of this – it is more powerful than we think.

Top tip: Watch a child and their family interact with each other (perhaps at the school gate). What role do gestures and body language play? Which gestures are commonly used and how do those gestures affect group dynamics and relationships? Which gestures appear to create a positive or negative response within the family? Then watch how the child uses these in school with their peers and staff – are they received and used in the same way? Do gestures that intimidate or enthuse in one environment necessarily create the same response in another? Would the child be aware of that?


Other considerations

We can take into account the day of the week (e.g. last day of term), time (e.g. end of a long, hot afternoon), location (e.g. playground), audience (e.g. in front of peer group) and context (e.g. long running tensions between class mates). But to what extent should we also be bound by mood (e.g. what happened to that child before school this morning?), current affairs (e.g. what is in the news that might specifically be upsetting or antagonising them?), religious events (e.g. fasting, late nights, high-stimulus or provocative events) and the myriad of other influencing factors that we know affect human behaviours and thus what is said?

Using these simple tools we can develop our empathy in ways that are meaningful and which make a difference – challenging ourselves to ask which version of “what they said” we are using as the basis for understanding that child’s behaviours and therefore beginning the journey to addressing them?


Are we listening to the child or just their spoken words?

Most importantly, the child in front of you comes to this moment with a life full of influences, experiences, and subconscious messages from the world around them about who they are and their worth or value. The answer to their behaviour comes from that information, not just the words spoken in the conversation.

  • Dr Fiona Aubrey-Smith is director of One Life Learning, supporting schools and trusts with professional learning, education research and strategic planning. She is also an associate lecturer at The Open University, a founding fellow of the Chartered College of Teaching, and sits on the board of a number of multi-academy and charitable trusts. Read her previous articles for SecEd via http://bit.ly/seced-aubrey-smith and email fionaaubreysmith@googlemail.com

  • Marva Rollins retired from the role of headteacher in 2019 after almost 25 years of leading primary schools in two inner city boroughs in London. She has been the recipient of many awards including the Barbados Golden Jubilee Award, the Windrush Education Champions, and has an OBE for her contribution to education. She is now a consultant supporting schools and trusts through coaching and mentoring leaders, leadership development programmes and supporting the embedding of inclusion and diversity. Email marva@rollinseducation.com


Further information & resources

  • Aubrey-Smith: Introducing “The Funnels of Influence”, (an article extract from An exploration of the relationship between teachers’ pedagogical stance and the use of ICT in their classroom practice, EdD Thesis, Aubrey-Smith, The Open University, 2020), February 2021: https://bit.ly/2Qmqz6Z
  • SecEd: See also: Behaviour and bias: Where are your blind-spots? Bates, April 2021: https://bit.ly/3s95R7n
  • Tannen et al: The Handbook of Discourse Analysis 2, John Wiley & Sons, April 2015: https://bit.ly/3nhYDwO
  • Thiederman: 3 Keys to Defeating Unconscious Bias (a short and practical book to support your thinking about unconscious bias), Cross-Cultural Communications, June 2015.


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