15-Dec-22 | News

Stepping back from Zero Tolerance

Kevin Hewitson has over 40 years of experience in teaching and has held pastoral and subject lead roles as well as having been an assistant principal responsible for teaching and learning strategies. He now works independently as an educational consultant and keynote speaker, sharing his vision with educational organisations, schools and teachers.#

Power – Belonging – Choice – Fun

Stepping back from Zero Tolerance


When we talk about pupil behaviour it’s normally about rules and consequences. We then go on to talk about policies, of enforcing rules, ensuring consistency and ultimately zero tolerance.

Does any of this promote learner engagement?

You would be forgiven for thinking that there is nothing else but rules to guide and ensure good behaviour in our schools but what is often achieved is either compliance or conflict, rarely engagement. What sits behind pupil engagement is often a relationship with the teacher, a relationship that is built on meeting four key needs, those of power, belonging, choice and fun.

I am often asked about my approach to teaching and learning based on developing effective learning relationships.  Questions such as ‘Am I not pandering to pupils and giving them excuses for their behaviour’ and ‘How can you balance the various aspects of teaching and move towards a relationship-based behaviour management stance in schools?’

I recognise the need to answer such questions and that is why I wrote, ‘If you can’t reach them you can’t teach them. Building effective learning relationships.’ published by Critical Publishing.

A zero-tolerance approach sounds great and is seductive especially if a school is experiencing chaos and disruption to lessons and ultimately learning but a zero-tolerance approach at best achieves compliance and at worst prevents us seeing true pupil potential.  Admittedly schools need order and pupils need boundaries and once this has been achieved it is tempting to maintain that which has given us order. It is an approach that has achieved its purpose. It is an approach that is ultimately limiting and I suggest it is now time to move on to stage two, of building of learning relationships, an approach that will allow us to step back from zero tolerance.  After compliance can come engagement and engagement relieves the need to enforce compliance. Ultimately it can offer a win/win situation and allow us to focus on what makes the biggest difference in schools – learning relationships.

Power Belonging Choice and Fun (PBCF)

I have taken great care to consider the demands schools face with the aim being that it should requiring little more than a change of mind to move a school culture towards a more relationship-based approach. It is the change of mind where the real challenge lies, for nothing changes until there is a change of mind!

Step one

The first step of building a relationship-based approach is less an action and more an awakening, one that makes you aware of how important relationships are and the need to focus on them. A pre-existing zero-tolerance mindset can make this first step difficult, especially if we have experienced chaos or challenge and disruption. Accepting that behaviour can be driven by a need does not mean there is no responsibility attached to behaviour, quite the opposite in fact, for without understanding the consequences of our behaviours we are unlikely to develop effective learning relationships. It is important to associate behaviour with the developed agency that is being demonstrated. Not all needs present as the same behaviour and not all behaviours indicate the same need.

In teaching, relationships are central to learning because relationships and behaviour are linked. We learn best when in the presence of those we like and those we engage with.  An understanding of what promotes engagement is therefore essential.

Our engagement needs

Here is my list of engagement needs, those that sit above survival, shelter and food, our learning zone if you like:

Power – Belonging – Choice – Fun

It is important that you plan to meet these four needs. You will only be successful in building effective learning behaviours and relationships if you acknowledge and plan to meet these needs.

What is the view like from where you are?

This is the change of mind part. Ask yourself:

  • Do the outcomes from your present approach accurately reflect the potential you believe is possible?
  • Are the four engagement needs being met by your present approach or could there be improvements made?

Have you what it takes?

A change requires additional energy, we must stop doing one thing to do another. The aim is to support and promote the teacher pupil relationship and not add to the workload. Critical to this is a supportive mission statement against which all actions are decided.

Share the benefits

In order to positively engage in any activity we need to recognise the benefits and they must be real. My experience is as we begin to balance the various aspects in favour of learning relationships we rapidly see improvements in areas including:-

  • pupil engagement
  • staff well-being,
  • flourishing creativity,
  • standards of achievement
  • learning behaviours

Start with belonging

Start by building a sense of belonging for it is the most powerful driver of behaviour and critical in building relationships at all levels of an organisation.  The benefits of having a sense of belonging are evident when people form teams, a team with a purpose is possibly the most powerful combination of human will.

A sense of belonging will release the creative potential of the organisation by promoting voice (power) and choice.

With power comes responsibility and it is essential that power is distributed in a managed way. In any organisation there must be ways of doing things but these need to be informed ways, consistently applied and co-created. Having a voice and understanding why something is done is more likely to result in agreement. Power is also very much about creativity, of finding solutions or alternatives.

Providing choice is also critical. I do not suggest free choice or choice without. Examine the choices you are providing staff and pupils and consider the consequences; are they fair, do they support the building of relationships, do the choices that are made provide you with an insight into unmet needs?

Fun, yes have fun. The challenge is to associate fun with achievement and celebrating it in a manner that underpins the learning. Experiencing fun gives us a key sensory moment on which we can build relationships and the reward for achievement.

A way to remember the PBCF approach –  Please Be Child Friendly!


Kevin Hewitson NPQH B. Phil. Cert Ed

October 2022