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What is primary and secondary behaviour?

Children and young adults are much more likely to be told off or to have their behaviour commented on than an adult
© University of Reading

Ensuring a good working atmosphere in a 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 behaviour.

Primary behaviour

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

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

Secondary behaviour

Secondary behaviour is what a 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 pupil 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 pupil tries to deflect the focus away from their behaviour. For example, a pupil may:

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

How to respond

It’s difficult to not react and become fixated on this secondary behaviour. You could tell the pupil 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.

It’s essential to stay focused on the primary behaviour you want altering, rather than the secondary. Remind yourself of exactly what the pupil has done. For example, focus on getting the pupil to stop flicking paper at their classmate, encourage the pupil 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 pupil 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 pupil’s secondary behaviour, you easily forget the original issue and become frustrated with the situation because the behaviour doesn’t change.

Help at home

Another example you may have experienced is when a pupil 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 pupil being grounded for a week.

It might be that the pupil 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.

© University of Reading
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