Unconditional Positive Regard: the heart of teaching

The dictionary definition of the verb to “like” is essentially to display a favourable opinion or disposition. Yet, in conversations with teachers throughout my career, I’ve met with resistance to the notion of having to “like” in order to be able to teach. One of the most memorable quotes was when a teacher exclaimed: “I’m not paid to like kids – I’m paid to teach them.”

If you break teaching down into its most simplistic form, that is, the effective transmission of information from the teacher to pupil, then one can see how the disposition of the teacher is of no consequence. Yet, we know that the disposition of teachers towards learners has a major impact on their willingness to engage and learn. Even the “traditional” no- nonsense, subject-oriented, results-focused teachers can show through their actions that they care about every child in their class – and the learners respond accordingly.

The reality of human nature is that we tend to “like” people whom we find pleasant or value. In that sense, our tendency to “like” is conditional upon the appearance or behaviour of the person. In the classroom, this can take the form of a teacher changing his or her disposition towards a child in direct response to the child’s behaviour.

But what if the child does not respond to the teacher with equitable response? What if the child’s behaviour is inappropriate? Surely the teacher is entitled to change his or her disposition towards the child, as in “I don’t like that kid”.

The logic that underpins this assertion supposes that it’s human nature not to like everyone and that we are entitled to make judgments about those whom we will treat with positive regard. So if, in our classroom, there is a child who does not conform to our expectations or standards of behaviour, then we can legitimately express our disfavour through our choice of language, tone of voice, or actions.

The problem in such instances is that most children can cope with being told off or punished, as long as it’s fair. However, all too often the teacher will give an additional “punishment” through a noticeable shift in their disposition towards that child on a permanent basis. Such a shift is picked up by the child – and, just as importantly, by their peers.

Almost all parents treat their own children with positive regard. Regardless of what their child might do, they will continue to treat them with enduring warmth and not be deflected by the human frailties of their child. Such an approach can be referred to as unconditional positive regard. The true teacher adopts the perspective of the parent, and is able to step beyond the reflexive response to dislike the child for their actions and separate the behaviour from the person. Such a stance does not mean that the teacher ignores or condones poor behaviour, but that they make it clear they still value the child as a person.

I believe a person’s capacity to treat children with unconditional positive regard lies at the very heart of what it is to be a professional teacher. Although, at first glance, the term smacks of psycho-babble, it is actually possible to tease out its meaning in a way that translates very well to the Scottish classroom.

If I am to be allowed one dream, it would be that every teacher, leader and professional person connected with Scottish education set out firstly to treat every child with unconditional positive regard, and secondly, to treat their colleagues in a similar manner. What a place we would have created.

Attachment Theory

 I’ll not kid on here – I first heard about attachment theory just a few months ago and then followed this up with a concrete example of it being put into practice at Lothian Villa.  What follows is my layman’s understanding of what it means and how we might benefit from it in East Lothian.

Ask a teacher or a school which learning theory governs their practice and they will be hard put to give a coherent reply.  Yet reflect upon the observable practice and the dominant model will have behaviourist undertones, where we believe that we can influence a child’s behaviour through the consistent aplication of rewards and sanctions. Through this process we can make children reflect upon their behaviour with a view to them developing an understanding of what constitutes good behaviour. If we look at how most schools and classrooms are organised we can see such a model permeating our practice.

However, Attachment Theory suggests that such a model cannot influence a child who has not experienced secure parenting, nor formed a secure relationship in their early years. If we reflect upon what adults are doing with children under 3 we can characterise good parenting as being caring and empathetic. Recent brain research shows that the brain does not develop the same in an environment where the child has not experienced a secure parenting environment. So such things as neglect and abuse; overt family conflict; hostile and rejecting relationships; or death and loss can all disrupt the normal secure attachment that a child requires to properly develop.

By the time such children come to school they are not in a position to understand or control their behavour so the dominant behavioural models which most schools and classrooms depend upon are doomed to failure, as they assume that all children are the same and that they have had the same parenting and don’t make allowances for those that haven’t.

It is suggested that up to 40% of the adult population have a level of insecure attachment and the associuated diifculties which go with that.

So what can schools do? The bottom line is that we need to teach them the same way as a secure attachment environment, e.g. emotional regulation, impulse control and empathy – all the things that parents are naturally teaching their children aged 0 – 4. The most important thing for insecure children are relationships – therefore schools need to recreate a secure attachment relationship with at least one substitute person (not the teacher).

Yet what do we often do with such children? – we apply our sanctions with no reference to the kind of parenting they have had and apply our sanctions – fairly – often resulting in exclusion (exactly the opposite treatment that the child requires).

For me this is not “fair” it is discrimatory  – yet the logic of treating everyone the same and application of sanctions in schools is so dominant in our schools it is almost beyond critique. So what do we do? For me the answer lies in training and education of all in our schools.  Recent evidence from those schools who have undertaken such training is very exciting and the change apparent in children who were previously deemed to be out of control when using traditional behaviour modification techniques have been spellbinding.

The premise here is that it’s too late by the time we get to secondary school – we need to focus our attention on children in the early years and make up for any attachment deficit.  We need to CLAIM these children as ours and treat them with unconditonal positive regard.  Asssociated with this strategy we need to proactively and unashamedly teach and support parenting skills which will transform the lives of their children.

Leadership Dilemma: If a child swears at a teacher what should you do?


Leadership Dilemma: You are the head teacher of a school. A child swears at a teacher in front of other children.  What do you do?

Does such an occurence automatically mean that the child should be excluded from school?

It’s certainly one of the most common reasons for exclusion.

My own point of view has always been to treat every situation as a discrete incident – and make a judgment accordingly. Yet there exists an expectation that where a child swears “directly” at a teacher that classroom order and the digniity of the teacher can only be maintained if the child is punished by a period of exclusion.

What do you reckon?

“You never leave the Villa”


“You never leave the villa” – so said Andy Thorpe, manager of the Lothian Villa, a residential home for challenging and vulnerable teenagers in East Lothian. I was privileged to visit the “Villa” a couple of weeks ago and I’ve been meaning to write up my experiences since that time.

What Andy means by “You never leave the Villa” is that it becomes part of you and you become part of it.  This chimed for me with the ideas which I came across during my visit to the U.S last year when Norman Kunc talked about belonging . For fostering a sense of belonging in these children is at the very heart of what they do at the Villa – this is demonstrated by the fact that adults, who were in the school years ago, still return to their “home” to speak to staff and keep in touch.

A lot of the work being done in the Villa is based upon the work of Sally Wassell and attachment theory – I’m doing more reading in this area at the moment so won’t go into any detail save to say that I think it forms a rich resource for all of us involved in the care and education of children and young people.

The Villa – in Andy’s words – provides “emotional nutrition” for kids who have often been emotionally malnourished throughout their lives. “They deserve the best” and the Villa sets out to provide it.  I spoke to some of the kids and was blown away by how positive they were about the place and the way that they are treated. Yet don’t get the idea that this is a soft regime – quite the opposite in fact – “We care enough about you not to let you be out of control” is a characteristic which permeates the collective approach. They “love” the kids and “tough love” seems to be something to which the young people readily repond.

I had an interesting chat with Andy about how they deal with extreme behaviour – which can at times be violent.  He explained how they often have different consequences for the same behaviour – this intrigued me as schools so often get trapped by having to be “fair” when dealing with misbehaviour by always matching a certain consequence with a certain from of behaviour – i.e. if a pupil swears at a teacher they must be excluded. Andy explained that their consistency comes through judging the reasons behind the behaviour and that consequence will be consistent for the person. 

It was a humbling experience visiting the Villa and seeing a group of people who are so fully committed to an approach.  Andy is a remarkable leader and has developed a culture where everyone valued and seen as a part of the family – staff and children. So often “Children’s Homes” are associated to negative connotations but I found it an enriching environment which is changing lives for the better.

I recommend a visit!!

Avoiding the pack mentality


I had a very enjoyable vist this week to Preston Lodge High School to observe five S1 pupils being taught a science lesson.  Amy, Sean Michael, Steven, Dale and Jade showed tremendous understanding and application, and were fortunate to be taught by a great teacher in Gillian Binnie, supported by Mandy Reid.  The class overcame a variety of significant personal learning challenges in such a positive manner that it was genuinely uplifting to watch the lesson.

In the course of the visit I also spoke to to some staff about how their combined Guidance and Support for Learning Department is impacting upon the school – particularly in relation to behaviour support. In the past the school had operated a support base where pupils were supposed to be referred for short period with the assumption that the time out of class would “cure them”.  The reality was that the longer the children were out of class the greater the likelihood that they no longer saw themselves to be part of the school. The consequence that a “pack mentality” was created with it almost becoming a badge of honour to say “we’re all out of English”. I’ve always fought shy of creating such a mentality so it was great to hear that the new system of staff working with children in class as opposed to extraction is having such a positive impact. 

I know that many teachers facing such challenging behaviour just want these types of kids out of their class but the long term effect upon the culture of the school and size of the disenfranchised group which just gets larger and larger  – as does their negative impact upon the school.

Of course there are still some children who learn to manipulate the system to get their own way – i.e. to get out of class.  What I found fascinating was that almost without exception such children have significant reading difficulties. Such evidenmce makes me all the more convinced that ensuring that all children can read by the age of 9 is an absolute imperative.

Creating a positive dynamic


I visited Sanderson’s Wynd Primary School in Tranent this morning.

In the course of a very enjoyable visit where I observed a number of classes and talked with Headteacher Fiona Waddell and some of her staff about how they create a purposeful learning environment.  The school is not without its challenging pupils but what struck me was the collective impact the staff make and the cumulative effect it has upon children.

All too often in schools classroom behaviour is seen to be the responsibility of the individual teacher, and there is no doubt that individual teachers do set the tone and do have significant impact upon their own class’s behaviour. However, when we talk about the standard of behaviour in an entire school it’s a much more complex affair.

The reality is that an individual teacher can have little effect upon behaviour across a school, nor can a headteacher impose discipline if they have to do it all themselves.  However, where all the staff come together and realise the collective impact that they have upon children then the results can be quite exceptional.  It’s in circumstances such as these that the critical mass takes on a life of its own (see – tipping point)

In my recent posts about being user (customer) facing it might have been possible for people to think that I was suggesting that we roll over when confronted by kids who want their own way on all matters – especially where their behaviour is concerned. I actually think we do a great disservice when this happens as in my experience they need clear parameters and boundaries against which they can rub up against – but which provide clear and unabiguous guidance. Our commitment to treating learners with unconditional positive regard demands that we set such standards.

The problem occurs in schools when these expectations and behaviours are not consistently upheld by all teachers or the management of the school.  What I saw today was a very impressive collective effort which will create a very positive dynamic over the next few years (I should have said that the school has just been created through amalgamation with two other schools).

Last point – in times of challenge -such as these – it’s vital that we retain our sense of “fun”. The staff – despite the challenges they face are prepared and encouraged to relax and have fun with pupils and the wider school community at regular intervals. It’s this careful balance between high expectations and clear boundaries, and relaxation and fun which go towards making a positive, effective and rewarding  learning environment – for both children and adults.

Behaviour Policies – a consistent approach

I had a very enjoyable morning at Loretto RC Primary School this morning to help them update their Behaviour Policy.

We looked at their own policy and compared it with another school’s. It proved to be a very useful exercise as we were able to identify strengths in both. 

The key to the success of any policy is the willingness of those who have to implement it to adopt it wholeheartedly and consistently.

On this morning’s evidence the school is going to come up with something which will make a real difference.  That’s not to suggest that behaviour in the school is bad – in fact far from it – however, young people need to be “trained” in how to behave in a positive manner – it doesn’t just come naturally – and this requires consistent expectations, reward systems and sanctions – consistently upheld and consistently implemented.

The school will be involving pupils and parents in the development of the policy.