Rumsfeld, Consistency and Behaviour Management

“There are known knowns. These are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. The ones we don’t know we don’t know.” Donald Rumsfeld (2002)

When Donald Rumsfeld uttered these immortal, if somewhat complex words in 2002 he probably didn’t envisage them being paraphrased in an article on the value of consistency and inconsistency in the management of challenging behaviour by pupils. It is fair to say that this article, for Donald, is definitely an unknown unknown. However, if we take his phraseology and apply it to consistency and inconsistency, then there are some interesting points to consider.

Consistently consistent – consistently inconsistent – inconsistently inconsistent

Managing pupils’ challenging behaviour is an area where having a well developed understanding of the way in which both you as an individual and your school as an organisation respond, can make or break the effectiveness of your systems and the impact they have on the children. Perceptions of challenging behaviour are very personal and can be affected by numerous variables, meaning that at any one time staff may respond very differently to the same behavioural issue. It also means that the same staff can also respond differently to the same behavioural issue at different times, as a result of factors such as stress, tiredness, illness or their relationship with the person misbehaving.

Dr Chris Wheadon and I played around with elements of this idea a while ago and his blog on the subject can be found here –

Variability in adult response can be destabilising for children who find managing their own behaviour difficult and who may benefit from a greater degree of reliability in order to understand how they are expected to behave.

Imagine if after a night of disrupted sleep you decided to tell your class that two add two no longer equalled four, but equalled five instead. You might find that the children were somewhat confused, especially if they then went into the next lesson to find out that two add two equalled ten. Human behaviour is clearly not as reliable as addition, but reducing its variability can be advantageous in creating an environment that promotes positive behaviours. The ‘no excuses’ culture that we hear about in some schools is only likely to work if the staff also adhere to a ‘no inconsistency’ culture as well.

Having worked predominantly with children with learning disabilities and having encountered a very wide range of complex and challenging behaviours, I can testify to the value of being ‘consistently consistent’. Creating an environment where the child knows what the boundaries are and that those boundaries will be applied to them uniformly, provides for many a degree of security.

The repetition within a system structured in this way supports, over long periods of time, the adaptation of learned inappropriate behaviours and has on many occasions resulted in children with challenging behaviour learning to self-moderate without the need for a rigid formal system. A movement from the extrinsic towards the intrinsic.

However, with some students who rely on behaviour management systems for support, particularly those who are coming to the stage where they are about to leave the school, it may be important to begin to introduce an element of managed inconsistency. This is to draw the child’s attention to the fact that the wider world doesn’t always respond in a uniform way to the behaviour of others. As with many aspects of education, its real value is what you can do with it beyond school.

Being ‘consistently consistent’ may not always be in the best interests of the child, if it is leading to a context where the system is effectively controlling the behaviour rather than the child choosing to consciously do so themselves. You may need to consciously introduce responses that are ‘inconsistently consistent’ in order for the child to learn to cope with this variability.

In my experience, managing challenging behaviour is, in many ways, like teaching any subject and often follows a developmental progression in a similar way. We remove supportive resources, such as counters when teaching maths, in order to enable the child to apply their knowledge in more sophisticated ways and with greater independence, preparing them for the application of mathematical concepts in life.

So when you are reflecting on your approaches to managing challenging behaviour, consider how you will move the child from requiring a response that is ‘consistently consistent’, to coping within a world that is ‘inconsistently inconsistent’.

Ask yourself the question: to what extent are you and your school consistently consistent, inconsistently consistent or consistently inconsistent? Your answer is likely to indicate the extent to which you and your school are able to manage behaviour effectively. Your awareness of why you and your school conducts itself in that way is likely to indicate your capacity for change, should it be needed.

Simon Knight is Associate Director of the National Education Trust, and deputy head of Frank Wise School, Banbury.