What natural horsemanship shows us about school discipline
Having just taken a course in natural horsemanship, I started looking at how the same principles apply to children. Could the way schools currently discipline children be contributing to the recent increase in low-level disruptive behaviour and exclusions? In other words, are schools accidentally teaching children to misbehave?
Natural horsemanship is based on a system of pressure and release. If you want your horse to walk forward, you start with the minimum pressure by just using your own energy. If that doesn’t work, you add a verbal clue by clicking your tongue or saying “walk on”. If the horse still doesn’t move, you put a small amount of pressure on the lead rope and gradually increase that pressure until he takes a step forward, As soon ast he moves, you instantly remove the pressure, and it’s that release that tells the horse he’s done what you want. Next time you try the same technique, you’ll need to use less pressure before he moves, and it won’t be long before he goes forward on a simple voice command with no rope at all.
But pressure and release doesn’t always teach a horse what you want him to learn. Suppose he steps away from you a few times when you go to bring him in from the field. If you react by leaving him out eating grass instead of making him work, you’ve given him a huge release of pressure so tomorrow you’ll find him even harder to catch. And no amount of pressure will work if your horse doesn’t understand what you want him to do. He’ll just become confused, and you’ll probably get angry.
Although children look very different from horses, they learn in a similar way. Let’s imagine a boy sitting in a maths lesson where the whole class have been asked to do ten questions. This is definitely pressure for our student because he finds maths really difficult. In fact, he finds it so difficult that he can’t answer the questions at all.
Of course, he could tell the teacher that he doesn’t understand, but there is very little street cred in admitting you are stupid and he knows that the bully in the back row will make fun of him at lunchtime if he does. So he sits and stares at the work he can’t do while the teacher increases the pressure by raising her voice louder and louder as she repeatedly tells him to hurry up.
Not surprisingly, our student becomes restless. He taps his fingers, rocks his chair, stares around the room and waves at his friends. Eventually he accidentally crosses an invisible line and his exasperated teacher sends him out of the room. That’s an instant release of pressure so it acts as a reward rather than a punishment. Now our student knows where the line is, he’ll take much less time to cross it next time he can’t do the work. Worse still, after this has happened a few times, he may well be given a fixed term exclusion. For a child who hates school, that is the ultimate release so it feels more like a reward than a punishement.
Of course, there are other children in the same class who can do the work. They’ll answer all the questions without protest, but what happens to them when they’ve finished? Will they get a release of pressure? Probably not. In many cases, they’ll just get more work.
Using the principles of natural horsemanship to make sure that school discipline is effective, we need to make sure that
- that the release of pressure goes only to those who do as they are told
- that pupils who can’t do the work are helped rather than punished.
- that the pressure increases for those who can do the work but choose not to.
That probably means reinstating older forms of discipline such as lines and extra work that have gone out of fashion but are still allowed. It also means allowing children who finish early to do something quiet that they enjoy as a reward. And it definitely means providing proper help for children with special needs who struggle to learn in large classes, especially in secondary school.