Saturday, 24 February 2007

Promoting good behaviour and children's moral development

Actually these are two quite different things - but they are often confused. At Kate Greenaway Nursery School and Children's Centre, just after I became headteacher we spent a lot of time looking at how we could work together to promote positive behaviour. In my first year we had an Ofsted inspection which found that children's behaviour was often very difficult, and that there was little sense of belonging in the nursery. We didn't work on this problem by setting up an elaborate scheme of rewards and punishments for good behaviour. Instead we did a lot of work on helping children feel that they belonged, that they were cared for, that they were special. As a staff team, we are very clear and firm when we need to be, to stop unkind or aggressive behaviour. We don't say no a lot. But when we do - we mean it.

Current research shows that children are not born "savages" who need to be tamed by the process of socialization. It's the other way round. They are born all ready to socialise, interact with others, co-operate in play and communication. Children also have lots of aggressive and angry feelings, too, of course. But rather than negate these, it's better to help children understand ways to express anger, despair and frustration that don't involve hurting other people. But...we all hurt others, especially those we are closest to, and children are no exception to this. At Kate Greenaway, in an atmosphere of trust, where children are respected and allowed to make choices, loved, cared for and cherished, there is little aggressive and difficult behaviour now.

Moral development is something quite different...behaviour is what you see and act on the surface, I'd say, whereas morality is about values and beliefs held in common with others, but in a way which is personal. So you might not hit someone because your moral code is that physical violence is unacceptable - and this is quite different to not hitting someone because you don't want to get in trouble. In an atmosphere where there is plenty of scope for children to make choices, to work and play with others, or alone, there is more scope for children's moral development. Which is why Kate Greenaway is organised like that. A recent article in Nursery World argued that to help children's moral development, there should be a system of rewards and punishments. Children who break rules should be excluded from the very kinds of things which they might find therapeutic - like modelling with clay or dancing.

Here’s my letter about it:

Jenny Mosley and Ross Grogan have a very strange idea about how adults can help the development of morals in young children (“Doing Good”, 22nd February) – rewards and punishments with a dash of public humiliation.

The smiley sun with rays of yellow clothes pegs decorated with photos of children may strike you as being cute, or amusing, or plain tacky. But for a young child, the act of taking their special photo off the smiley sun, and putting it onto the sad cloud, is a public act of rebuke. Some three year olds will not have the capacity to bear this.

Then I read that “Golden Time” is offered to those children who manage to remain as little rays on the golden sun. This seems to involve taking core nursery experiences like clay and dance out of the main curriculum, and turning them into trivial rewards. I doubt it’s even worth bothering to make a pot or develop a dance if you only have ten minutes. It’s a system, in other words, that would wreck a decent nursery curriculum.

But I am most alarmed by the idea that any of this is about moral development. A moral act is based on a system of values, and is carried out because a person believes it to be right. Nelson Mandela’s stand against apartheid, for example, had nothing to do with public praise. He took difficult decisions and accepted the consequences. Do we want English nurseries to bring up a generation of children who think that being moral is about getting a reward?