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Primary and secondary behaviour

In this article you find out what primary and secondary behaviours are.

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 child:

  • Getting out of their seat to simply wander around
  • Fiddling with someone’s hair
  • 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 child 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 child tries to deflect the focus away from their behaviour. For example, a child:

  • Retorting that “Mrs XXX always lets us do that”
  • Saying the other person made them do it
  • Saying that someone else is always doing it, so why can’t they

It’s then difficult to not react and become fixated to this secondary behaviour. You could tell the child that you’re not Mrs xxx, or get into an argument that the other person didn’t make them do it because you’ve been watching them, or argue that just because someone else is doing it doesn’t mean they should. The issue can then quickly escalate to you telling the child to go to the headteacher’s office, or that they have a detention/that they’re not allowed to go out and play.

It’s essential to stay focused on the primary behaviour you want altering, rather than the secondary. Remind yourself of exactly what the child has done. For example, focus on encouraging the child to stay in their seat, remind them to not touch someone else’s hair, 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 child is doing wrong, for example, “you’re walking about”, “you’re touching someone else’s hair” or “you’re rocking in your seat”. If you get involved in the child’s secondary behaviour, you easily forget the original issue and become frustrated with the situation because the behaviour does not 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.

“Some children can respect support staff less when compared to the class teacher. In addition, some support staff can struggle to take on an authoritative role due to not wanting to step on the class teachers toes.” – Helen Brewis

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

© University of Reading
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Supporting Successful Learning in Primary School

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