The problem with ‘unconditional positive regard’

If you’re a parent and your child misbehaves in public, what do you do? If you’re not a parent, and someone else’s child misbehaves in public, what would you like the parents to do? Adults are predisposed to like children, and it comes as something of a surprise when they’re unaccountably brattish and unpleasant. When children behave badly in public, people dislike them. We know it’s unreasonable, but it’s still irritating. If a child that’s behaved badly goes unpunished or ignored, we reserve our indignation for their parents; why don’t they do something? We finish our meal, or complete our shopping and go on our way. Once we’re out of range we calm down. Nothing happens. And that’s a problem.

Children begin to exert their independence as soon as they become conscious that there are rules and that they’re expected to follow them. Breaking the rules is fun, but it’s also an important learning experience – we are trying to work out how far we can go, what is and isn’t acceptable. If there are no consequences for our anti-social behaviour, what do we learn? Or, worse, if the only consequences is an adult saying ‘no’ but doing nothing to stop us, what do we learn then?

An absence of adult authority is not kind. Refusing to give children clear direction on how they should behave may be well-intentioned, but it’s an act of neglect, an irresponsible abrogation of responsibility. Children need to know why the rules are worth following and what the consequences are when they fail to follow them, if they are going to make the difficult transition to successful adulthood. Children who aren’t taught the rules by people who love them, will have the facts explained to them far more brutally by someone who doesn’t. Society is unforgiving and intolerant of anti-social behaviour and adults who are unable or unwilling to conform to society’s norms are marginalised, shunned, or incarcerated.

What then of ‘unconditional positive regard’? The idea comes from the ideas psychologist Carl Roger’s developed in the 1950s about how best to conduct therapy sessions with children. He suggested that children ought to be shown acceptance and support, no matter what they say or do because that is the best way to get them to adjust their behaviour. Marjorie Witty expresses Roger’s reasoning here:

The central hypothesis of this approach can be briefly stated. It is that the individual has within him or her self vast resources for self-understanding, for altering her or his self-concept, attitudes, and self-directed behavior–and that these resources can be tapped if only a definable climate of facilitative psychological attitudes can be provided.

Within us all, Roger’s believed, is an untapped well of understanding that, with enough love and care from a therapist, we can learn to heal ourselves and become whatever we desire. One of Roger’s protégés, David Myers puts it like this:

People also nurture our growth by being accepting—by offering us what Rogers called unconditional positive regard. This is an attitude of grace, an attitude that values us even knowing our failings. It is a profound relief to drop our pretences, confess our worst feelings, and discover that we are still accepted. In a good marriage, a close family, or an intimate friendship, we are free to be spontaneous without fearing the loss of others’ esteem.

There’s something to this. The reason children act out at home is because they know – hopefully – that their parents’ love for them is unconditional. We can safely lash out at those closest to us without the catastrophic results that such behaviour might result in with strangers. This is an important safety valve as few of us are capable of behaving well all the time. But, the crucial point to make is that the refuge offered by a loving family does not exist anywhere else. We must adjust our responses if we want to cooperate with others and navigate our lives in the public sphere with any degree of success. The world does not, and never will, offer us ‘unconditional positive regard’.

It’s worth knowing that before we decide to adopt Roger’s ideas in schools that they have never been empirically validated, and that within the clinical psychology community it’s a controversial topic. Even within client centred therapy, ‘unconditional positive regard’ is one of the most questioned and criticised aspects. The problem with so much of the theory in clinical psychology is that the psychologist only sees their patients within the confines of the therapy sessions. They don’t what happens when they get off the couch and go off in the world, and they certainly don’t collect data on how clients do after they’ve finished therapy? As Robyn Dawes spells out in his book, House of Cards, clinical psychologists have little or no idea whether any of their treatments make things better or worse, but they think they do. They become increasingly convinced, with no confirming data to validate their biases, that they’re helping people. In this way clinical psychology, like some aspects of teaching, is a wicked domain.

So, of course, teachers should be compassionate to their students. No one has ever argued for anything else and saying so is dishonest. The comments reported in this article are actively unhelpful: “Those systems of rigid consistency, with no flexibility, I think it is verging on bullying.” I can just as easily say, “Those systems of no consistency, and no boundaries, I think it’s verging on neglect.” Both these statements might be true, but they’re probably not. Best not to make them unless we’re deliberately trying to spread misinformation. It’s easy to attack a caricature, but this rarely reflects what’s really going on in a school.

My view is that what you permit you promote. What you accept becomes acceptable. If we fail to hold the line, then we make all sorts of horror possible. It is our moral and professional duty to provide clear, sensible, and wise rules and then to uphold them, and it ought to go without saying that we should do so fairly and with kindness. Punishment should not be harsh, it just needs to be inevitable.

Schools should act as a proxy for the real world. The punishments for making mistakes in school are infinitely less harsh than those children will experience when they’re adults. As such, these principles might help us in our efforts to prepare children for the rigours of adulthood as best we can:

  1. Have the minimum of rules and make them easy to follow
  2. Don’t let students get away with behaviour that makes them unlikable
  3. Be kind, firm and fair in your application of the rules
  4. Accept that teachers’ judgements are sometimes flawed – give children the benefit of the doubt where possible
  5. Of course rules should always have sufficient flexibility for exceptions to be made, but these should be exceptional.

If we balk at our duty to help socialise our students we will be setting them up for a life of misery. What’s positive about that?

17 Responses to The problem with ‘unconditional positive regard’

  1. Tom Burkard says:

    I’m with you on your first three recommendations, but numbers four and five merely open the door to confrontation and loss of teachers’ authority. The world ain’t always fair, either–nor are referees. The moment teachers start arguing with children, they’re toast–and the whole class knows it. Such is the balance of power between generations that it’s the teacher who needs the benefit of the doubt.

    • David Didau says:

      I’m pretty sure you’ve misunderstood something. I’m not suggesting children be allowed to argue with teachers, but that teachers acknowledge that sometimes they’re angry, resentful and unfair. If it’s not clear that a child has committed an infraction, give ’em the benefit of the doubt.

      And 5 – you don’t think exceptions should ever be made? Crikey.

      • Tom Burkard says:

        In three years of teaching remedial literacy skills to KS3 pupils I never once had to administer any sanction more severe than writing the pupil’s name on the board. This generally happened when a new pupil was testing the waters to see where the limits were, but it was seldom necessary.

        Granted, I had a huge advantage: I had 25 years working in the building trades, in youth and probation work and as a corporal in the TA. In these environments, discipline is more or less taken for granted, and everyone accepts that you’re in charge for a good reason. You just get used to having a positive relationship with those in your care; even in the TA, privates would just laugh at any corporal who presumed upon his authority. You earned your respect by what you did, and then your men just assumed you were on their side.

        This all transferred seamlessly into teaching SEN pupils–when I took on a new class, I always told them that my part of the bargain was that I wouldn’t blame them if my teaching confused them or they failed to learn what I taught them. Since their primary schools had so conspicuously failed to teach them adequate literacy skills, this really registered. And I was as good as my word.

        I grant you that it might seem a bit extreme not to make exceptions in exceptional cases, and I don’t have the slightest doubt that some of my pupils had some real problems. But I could see no reason for this to affect their work; after all, I relied almost exclusively on direct instruction, quizzes, competitions and tests. It was all ridiculously easy, as my Senco did all statement reviews and IEPs (as they were called then). Also, we had a good SLT who compensated for a useless head, and none of my pupils wanted to lose face by being sent to time out–even for a few minutes. But an essential part of the positive climate in my classes was the understanding that there were no excuses for misbehaviour. None. Once that was understood, we could all relax and get on with the job.

  2. Naomi says:

    I strongly agree that zero rules = neglect – but are schools REALLY going down the ‘unconditional positive regard’ route?? I’m more interested in your starting point about kid behaviour out of school – if it upsets me, but ‘rents don’t act – that confirms kid and parent in belief that the behaviour is acceptable… and so it goes on?

  3. Simon Knight says:

    I have to say David, this is the kind of balanced analysis that I really enjoy reading and sets the tone for a non judgemental debate about where on a continuum a school may be in terms of its approach. There is still much to do to reach an agreed definition regarding the areas being discussed in terms of school operational and strategic leadership, and as such, I suspect, we risk another progressive / traditional debate here. In fact this probably exists as a component of that debate already.

    In terms of the comments you have made, there is much I would agree with.

    However I think it is important to stress that having a high level of positive regard for the child is not incompatible with adult authority. I believe strongly in the importance of clear boundaries and rules, consistently applied and developmentally matched. The key is to deliver them with compassion and a degree of empathy. The balance of which is probably another broad continuum on which schools sit.

    One of the great dangers of this debate is that we dichotomise the argument and it becomes one of kindness and anarchy versus compassionless authoritarianism. Something you have avoided but others won’t.

    I also think it is important to consider the way we manage behaviour when family life doesn’t offer an environment of unconditional love where boundaries can be tested safely. If home is loveless and chaotic then compassionate consistency within school is likely to become more important. Otherwise the risk is that school compounds the challenges faced within, and indeed possible result from, a difficult home life. Something often a greater factor within the Specialist sector, although clearly not limited to. Again it comes down to getting the balance right, but exploring the causes of behaviour becomes highly significant and ‘why’ rather than the ‘what’ may be the key to unlocking self regulation and improvements in behaviour. I worry that at times this lacks attention and there is not enough time given for children to make the adjustments necessary. Something better partnership between the Specialist and Mainstream sectors may support.

    One further area that is probably worth exploring within the wider debate is what people consider to be the purpose of Behaviour Management. Again, probably a continuum, but is it purely a set of conditions to impose or is it more a subject to be taught, with a developmental progression of its own? I know from my own experience that approaching behaviour in a developmental manner has led to a number of really good long term outcomes for children I have taught, but appreciate I work in a sector that is afforded the luxury of time and a more holistic and personalised accountability framework.

    • David Didau says:

      Thanks Simon. To pick up on some of your pints:
      1. ” it is important to stress that having a high level of positive regard for the child is not incompatible with adult authority”: there’s a world of difference between “a high level of positive regard” and ‘unconditional positive regard’. One is to say that the default is to treat students with respect but to make clear that certain actions will not be accepted, the other is to say that nothing a children does will result in a teacher’s disapproval. For the reasons I discuss, this is likely to cause harm.

      2. “I also think it is important to consider the way we manage behaviour when family life doesn’t offer an environment of unconditional love where boundaries can be tested safely” – Well, we can have compassion whilst still expecting high standards of personal conduct. The why, to my mind, is irrelevant. The world judges us on our actions, not our intentions. If we say that there are some explanations for poor behaviour that make it more acceptable, where does that lead? I would argue that children who have not been given loving discipline by their parents are the most in need of clear boundaries and consequences.

      3. The purpose of behaviour management is to ensure the smooth running of schools and to make certain that the few are not allowed to sabotage the education of the many. We are social animals and are hardwired with an instinctive understanding of how to cooperate in a group. You see this in the way children form and police the social norms in their peer groups. To claim that children cannot follow rules is to deny them their basic human nature. Of course they can, they just learn that some rules can be safely ignored and others observed judiciously. Where children have learned, over time, that adult authority is negotiable at best and meaningless at worst, then we have a real struggle. The watch word here is, I think, certainty not severity of consequences.

      Obviously there are some examples of children who cannot follow rules: for instance, it would be unfair to sanction a Tourettes sufferer for swearing.

      • Simon Knight says:

        In point 2., the ‘Why’ for me is key as without that how do we explore the varying intrinsic or extrinsic motivations for misbehaviour? Without this we then risk approaching behaviour as purely a set of conditions to impose and I worry that doesn’t support, as successfully, a move towards self regulation and ultimately high standards of personal conduct. It also throws up some interesting patterns at times that can see small adjustments to routines and interactions result in significant changes in behaviour.

        I don’t disagree that those with chaotic lives need clear boundaries and consequences, in fact I think that is what I said, its certainly what I meant – ” If home is loveless and chaotic then compassionate consistency within school is likely to become more important.” It is the application which may need adjustment and consideration of what else is put in place additionally to that. Otherwise we risk reacting to the symptoms of socially challenging behaviour rather than looking at why the person feels the need to behave this way which can be highly significant.

        Its also important to acknowledge that some children can’t follow rules YET. That they are still developing the causal understanding that allows them to link the behaviour with the consequence. This is, I suspect, very much a predominantly Special School issue and does not mean we should not teach the skills necessary, but it again requires an approach that is different from the blind application of consequence and sanction, instead supporting with instruction and explanation. Careful analysis of the ‘why’ is key here in order to ensure that we have the highest expectations and don’t fall into the trap of presuming inability, just like when teaching reading or maths.

        Its all interesting stuff though and I suspect that you and I are not a million miles apart here.

        • Vicky G says:

          The arguments in the thread so far seem to relate to motivation. The other idea in current behaviour debates seems to be the collaborative problem solving approach. I can’t see how this would play out in a mainstream school setting but in terms of understanding behaviour and focussing on ‘lagging skills’ rather than motivation, I wonder how other people regard this approach. It comes from a psychiatric base and is used by clinical psychologists. I think it is supported by a small but growing evidence base in different clinical or semi clinical settings. I mention this as the post suggests that clinical psychologists never have any idea what happens after their treatment. This is a link to a summary of research compiled by the Think:Kids team at Massachusetts General Hospital. Ablon worked initially with Rob Greene before Greene became the Popular face of CPS.

          http://www.thinkkids.org/learn/research/

      • Jane S. says:

        The world very often does judge us by our intent. To take an extreme example, if a person comes up to me from behind and starts choking me, that’s assault — unless we’re in jiu jitsu class, in which case it’s just another day on the mats. If you’re rushing a woman in labor to the hospital, a police officer probably won’t ticket you for speeding. Even in criminal law, intent can be the difference between a serious crime (premeditated homicide), a less serious one (manslaughter) or no crime at all (killing someone in self-defense). There must be some situations in which intent really makes no difference, but all the ones I can think of involve the physical rather than the social environment.

        • David Didau says:

          Seriously? There are not good examples. If someone starts choking you from behind – whatever the context – that’s assault. If you’re in a jiu jitsu class there are very formal rules and the choking will not have come as a surprise. The way way you are judged is not dependent on your intent – it’s dependent on a whole range of other factors.

          If you’re rushing someone to hospital the law, as it currently stands, does not allow police officers the discretion not to ticket you for speeding. You can take your case to court and argue mitigation, and then it’s up to a judge to decide. Breaking the law is always wrong. There are, quite literally, no excuses. Even if you’re convicted of manslaughter rather than murder, this will be based on evidence and *not* your claim that you didn’t really mean it.

          • Michael Pye says:

            I thought Jane’s examples were not very relevant but they did prove a principle. We would expect a police officer to let us off in that scenario and the act of choking (especially from behind) is not normally assault on a Jujitsu mat.

            Might be better to say that breaking the law does not always have to be wrong (which is philosophical) but we should always expect a consequence as our interpretation is not normally the most influential in most scenarios.

            Being forced to follow rules we disagree with does prepare us for life and forces us to carefully consider our expectations of others. Better that we learn this in a relatively safe environment like school. Finally exceptions to the rule can only really be exceptions if they are genuinely rare. In practice if rules are regularly flouted they need to be reinforced or restated to be more acceptable. The social contract only works effectively if compliance is high.

  4. ad says:

    I was struck by this line from that article:

    “One 11-year-old girl, Whitaker recalls, responded with a curt “Fuck off!” every single morning for a year.

    That particular response would be met with instant isolation, detention or expulsion in many schools – but not at Springwell. ”

    I wonder how they responded when she treated other students like that. I find it hard to believe a school does more to protect student from each other than it does to protect teachers from students.

  5. Diarmuid says:

    It’s worth remembering that studies coming from the world of hard science seem to be telling us that adolescents have very little control over their behaviour. They are much more at the mercy of the environment in which they find themselves than we are. With this in mind, an attitude of UPR seems entirely appropriate whenever it can be managed (not always easy). However, we would be wrong to assume that UPR means acceptance of any behaviour whatsoever. UPR -at least, as I understand it, means loving the sinner, hating the sin; it means compassion and understanding, alongside firmness and fairness (as David says); it means not judging the person, while making it clear that certain behaviours are unacceptable; it means ensuring that the consequences are understood and that the adolescent is supported while having to deal with those consequences.

    • David Didau says:

      It’s not true that “studies coming from the world of hard science seem to be telling us that adolescents have very little control over their behaviour”. What *is* true is that teenagers find it harder to control impulses and consider consequences because their pre-frontal cortex has not finished myelinating. This is not at all the same as finding these things “very difficult”, and – to the extent that these things *are* like to pose greater challenges, an environment with very clear boundaries and consequences is more likely than other to help youngsters develop pro-social behaviours.

  6. Diarmuid says:

    Thank you for the response, David. While you seem to be correcting my hedged response with a definitive statement of what is and isn’t true, I’m not actually sure that we are saying anything radically different here. Where we do seem to differ is in our understanding of what contemporary neuroscience is saying.

    You hold what has been described as a “traditional view” that adolescent behaviour is explained by the fact that the pre-frontal cortex is still maturing. You may be interested to know that more contemporary neuroscience is now questioning the idea that certain areas of the brain are solely responsible for any particular type of behaviour and that looking at how the brain responds to different cues and environments is often more illuminating than seeking to explain it all away with intuitively-convincing explanations about myelin etc. Here’s one paper (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3099425/) that problematises your assertion that it’s all down to myelin. As the authors write, “”If cognitive control and an immature prefrontal cortex were the basis for suboptimal choice behavior alone, then children should look remarkably similar or presumably worse than adolescents, given their less developed prefrontal cortex and cognitive abilities.” You may also be interested in the work of Laurence Steinberg and, closer to home, Sarah Jane Blakemore.

    Modern neuroscience claims that adolescence is a time of a lot of development within the brain, but that it is a mistake to look upon the brain in isolation when trying to understand teenagers and their behaviour. Instead, we need to consider the brain as one incredibly complex factor in an equally incredibly complex environment. Teenagers really are at the heart of all of this and I would repeat my assertion that hard science seems to be indicating that they are not really in control of what is happening or over how they behave; instead, it is the incredibly complex environment that provides more explanation. Knowing this, it is incumbent upon those of us who have greater control over the environment (because we are socioculturally better placed to exercise power over it) to help our developing humans in the best way that we can.

    I agree entirely that we can do this by creating “an environment with very clear boundaries and consequences”. But, to try and reframe my original assertion, this environment needs to be one in which there are no boundaries to the positive regard in which we hold our adolescents. We make it clear to them, as I said earlier, that it is the behaviour, not the person, which is unacceptable, and that the person is always -and unconditionally- held in positive regard by us.

  7. Virgil says:

    I do not agree with how you have defined Roger’s unconditional positive regard. There is a lot in the article about making sure to set limits and not allow behavior that will cause others to dislike you. All of that is consistent and discussed by Rogers. The regard is not for the behaviors, actions, or thoughts of the person. The unconditional regard is for their flurishment as a human, with a self-actualizing tendency. There is nothing within this article that implies you should not correct or even punish certain behaviors. The devil is in the details of how your correct or punish these behaviors.

    The key I see you missing is by stating “The world does not, and never will, offer us ‘unconditional positive regard’.” is that therapy and schools for that matter need not be like the rest of the world. Of course not everyone will care about you, but it is vital that you have a few relationships in which do contain unconditional positive regard. Roger’s point is that it is these few relationships that produce the most growth.

    If we are discussing schools as a place to let our youth grow, then why would we limit that growth process, because it is not similar to other places? I know one person that cares about me, can change my life, even if everyone else couldn’t care less.

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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