Primary and secondary behaviour

As mentioned in Step 3.11, ensuring a good working atmosphere in the learning situation is a complicated task, and can test even the most experienced staff. However, it can also be a lot of fun, as it involves understanding people and how they behave. An example of this is what is called primary and secondary behaviours.

Primary behaviour is something a person does which you wish they wouldn’t, as it’s distracting to all. For example, a student:

  • Flicking paper at someone
  • Talking when told to work quietly
  • Rocking on their chair

Secondary behaviour is what the person does in reaction to being told to stop doing whatever it is. Children and young adults are much more likely to be told off or to have their behaviour commented on than an adult (but that is not to say that it doesn’t happen to adults either). As many people know, it’s not very pleasant to be told off or to be picked up on your behaviour. Further to this, when a student is told to regulate their behaviour, they often feel guilty and embarrassed as they usually know that what they’re doing isn’t appropriate. These emotions then get transferred into secondary behaviour where the student tries to deflect the focus away from their behaviour. For example, a student:

  • Saying they didn’t do it
  • Saying it’s not fair and they are always being picked on
  • Might even go as far as swearing or storming out of the room

It’s then difficult to not react and become fixated to this secondary behaviour. You could tell the student not to swear, or get into an argument about the fact that they did do what you said they did because you saw it, or argue that life isn’t fair and they’re not being picked on. In this comedy sketch show by comedian Catherine Tate, is an example of how a teacher gets pulled into the student’s secondary behaviour:

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

It’s essential to stay focused on the primary behaviour you want altering, rather than the secondary. Remind yourself of exactly what the student has done. For example, focus on getting the student to stop flicking paper at their classmate, encourage the student to work quietly, or to not rock in their chair.

It’s also important to try and keep calm throughout, and to simply repeat what it is that the student is doing wrong, for example, “you’re flicking paper”, “you need to work quietly” or “you’re rocking in your seat”. If you get involved in the student’s secondary behaviour, you easily forget the original issue and become frustrated with the situation because the behaviour doesn’t change.

Another example you may have experienced is when a child comes home from school, throws their bag in the middle of the hallway and runs up the stairs. You ask them not to leave their bag there and their reaction is to slam their bedroom door shut. Your response is to charge up the stairs and tell them not to slam their door, which causes an argument and ends with the child being grounded for a week.

It might be that the child does do something which is rude, such as ignoring your request and slamming the door, but that wasn’t the time to discuss that issue. Stick with the behaviour you want to change – which was not to leave their bag in the hallway – and deal with the rudeness later as a separate issue.

Can you think of a situation when the secondary behaviour has taken precedence over the primary? What would you do differently?

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This article is from the free online course:

Supporting Successful Learning in Secondary School

University of Reading