“When students get to know that you care about them as individuals… then the teacher’s discipline is judged and accepted within the understanding that the teacher cares about them.”
– Bill Rogers (2000, p. 23)
I work with young people who are disaffected; sometimes they are still in school (mainstream, alternative and special) but often the ultimate behaviour consequence has been issued and they are permanently excluded from school. I regularly encounter behaviour that does not support the student’s learning but fortunately, because of 20 years of teaching and school leadership experience, I have a range of strategies to improve behaviour and to encourage the young person to take responsibility, build better relationships and realise at least some part of their potential. In this brief article, I will measure up one of my behaviour improvement strategies (the Cookie Jar) against the recommendations in the recently published Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) guidance report ‘Improving behaviour in schools’ (2019).
The EEF report presents research-informed and practical strategies to prevent misbehaviour and manage it when it arises. Also included are approaches to achieving the consistency required to make any school’s behaviour policy work. Having studied the report, I will attempt to show that something as simple as a cookie jar can serve as the means to implement several of the recommendations of the report and help to transform the behaviour of even the most disaffected young people.
A real-life cookie jar contains sweet treats; the young person’s Cookie Jar becomes full of examples of positive action, behaviour or learning, which can be referred to as a reminder of the progress that they are making and to encourage them to continue. The Cookie Jar represents many complex ideas that can act towards changing a young person’s behaviour, and matches in some key places the recommendations of the EEF report. Furthermore, the Cookie Jar enables me to talk about my belief, faith and hope; doing so builds rapport and a foundation from which to reconnect students with learning, develop a stronger understanding of themselves and, ultimately, reconnect with school.
One of the suggestions for improving behaviour in the EEF Report (pp. 28–31) is to ‘use targeted approaches’ because ‘universal systems are unlikely to meet the needs of all students’. The Cookie Jar therefore is an example of a tailored approach to supporting a young person’s behaviour; the practitioner is collecting, writing down and filling the jar with evidence of ‘improved behaviour’. With a disaffected young person, this often means being watchful for even the slightest positive sign of good behaviour or work (I call this ‘throwing a wide circle’ around the young person’s actions and working hard to ‘catch them being good’). For example, Student H, with an ADHD diagnosis, had little interest in or confidence with reading. Slowly, lesson by lesson, I collected occasions when he listened; then read two sentences; then a paragraph; and eventually him sharing the reading by alternating reading with me over two to three pages. Each notable event went into his Cookie Jar and could be referred back to as evidence of him improving and to offer encouragement to him to keep getting better.
The collection of these positive actions, whether it is in a physical ‘jar’ or simply in the back of a notebook, covers many recommendations in the report: it supports the practitioner building a relationship with the young person that allows the practitioner to have a positive impact on their behaviour; it needs an understanding of the context of the student’s life in particular, demonstrating that the practitioner is a trusted adult that can help them to make positive changes to their lives; it shows that the practitioner believes that the young person will improve; it builds intrinsic motivation; and, above all, the Cookie Jar builds a store of ‘esteemable acts’ so that when any challenge is too much for the young person, there is a physical reminder of good behaviour from before that provides the encouragement to keep trying (this matches the advice on ‘positive statements’ on page 25).
The benefits of the Cookie Jar are numerous and stretch beyond it simply being a receptacle of positive actions. For example, the jar communicates to the young person that the practitioner expects positive change, that the practitioner values them for their individual strengths, skills and character, and that things are getting better. They are demonstrating faith and professional vulnerability, and the Cookie Jar shows that the practitioner sees and believes in them, even if it has been a while since any other adult has.
In order to improve behaviour, the report also suggests that teachers should know and understand young people and their influences. This might simply be a young person’s interests outside school, but the report also suggests that more helpful knowledge, if you are looking to improve behaviour, is understanding the impact of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).
The positive nature of the Cookie Jar allows the practitioner to get to know and understand individual young people and their needs specifically. For example, two Key Stage 2 students embraced the concept by personalising their own jar with self-portrait avatars and inventing rules around how the actions should be collected (at least five per lesson!). If I accept that the young people who most need help are unlikely to ask for it appropriately (Ward, 2019), the Cookie Jar reminds the practitioner to persevere, to be a champion for a disaffected young person and to be THAT adult in their lives who can really make a difference. Still, for all the in-built positivity of the Cookie Jar, improving behaviour does not run in straight lines (Dix, 2010). Recently, something new has happened and a young person has refused to work with a Cookie Jar. At the moment, I am still saving the ‘esteemable acts’ for her (I am showing that ‘I care’… even if she says that she does not!).
The report outlines the importance of young people changing their ‘relationship with self’ as part of a three-way process to change their behaviour (relationship with others and the curriculum being the other two). The Cookie Jar builds a new reputation for them as a well-behaved student. I set out to genuinely see the young person and find their passion and purpose. This might include physically writing a positive label for the jar that contrasts with those labels that they have heard before: bad, naughty, disengaged, disaffected, Additional funding for publicly funded schools in England to..., FSM. These labels have often become internalised and serve to represent the person that they now believe they are. I make efforts to see past this adopted mask to discover who they really are and, more importantly, what they might become. The new label is staking out a small claim and planting a flag in their future. Their story is yet to be written and the Cookie Jar, by collecting positive action, has given them permission to write a new and better version of themselves.
Key to the success of any behaviour improvement plan is consistency of process, procedure, strategy and structure. If there is consistency then good behaviour is far more likely. The Cookie Jar is a physical reminder for the practitioner and the young person of expectations and the positive behaviour and learning that is taking place; they get a reminder of how they need to be to improve behaviour, and it works to remind students as a positive intervention (solutions-focused and de-escalating) if behaviour begins to slip. Many of the young people reach a point where a nod or a point from me towards the Cookie Jar is enough of a reminder to keep behaviour positive.
As asserted by Blum (1998, p. 32), ‘reward is an effective prevention’. The EEF report references the The theory, popularised by Carol Dweck, that students’ bel... work of Carol Dweck to discuss rewards and motivation. The Cookie Jar is the ultimate reward because it motivates by building intrinsic motivation and offering a long-term reference point of positive actions by the young person, rather than immediate extrinsic rewards given by another. Furthermore, using the Cookie Jar approach does not mean that negative behaviour is ignored. Consequences are issued according to agreed behaviour expectations, and the follow-up conversations around student responsibility, no matter how difficult the conversation, will still be had by the practitioner. The likelihood that this conversation will have a more positive outcome is increased because of the relationship built between the practitioner and the young person and because the Cookie Jar is full of evidence of good behaviour from the past and the encouragement that there will be more positive behaviour in the future.
The impact of the Cookie Jar has been significant; every permanently excluded student who has created a Cookie Jar has returned to mainstream education. This is in contrast to the permanently excluded young person more typically being placed in a Pupil Referral Unit. One older student, confounding the typical exam performance of a permanently excluded student, achieved GCSE grades and a college place.
Paul Dix suggests that to change student behaviour ‘you need to be patient, kind and determined not to give up on any of your students’ (2010, p. 122). The Cookie Jar is an intervention that, in the words of Bill Rogers, can result in improved behaviour while ‘protecting the dignity of the student and the teacher’ (2000, p. 55).
Blum P (1998) Surviving and Succeeding in Difficult Classrooms. London: Routledge.
Dix P (2010) Taking Care of Behaviour. Harlow: Pearson.
Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) (2019) Improving behaviour in schools. Guidance report. Available at: educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/public/files/Publications/Behaviour/EEF_Improving_behaviour_in_schools_Report.pdf (accessed 24 March 2020).
Rogers B (2000) Classroom Behaviour. London: Books Education.
Ward J (2019) On the Fringes. Carmarthen: Crown House.