The Cow Principle of Behaviour Management
Using cows to manage student behaviour
I can hear you asking, ‘What on earth do cows have to do with managing student behaviour?’ If you’re in the mood to find out more, don’t be a coward, read on. This article will show you how to moove your students towards positive behaviour, and how to encourage them to have respect for udders.
The cow principle is a fun metaphor I have developed to help teachers, students and parents understand the ethos and frameworks behind behaviour management systems in schools. It gets its name from the comparison it draws between a cow paddock and the school environment. It tells the story of two cows and their life in a paddock, and gives students and teachers key messages and pointers to reflect upon. The use of cows not only lightens up an otherwise dry topic, but also provides a useful picture when explaining the concept of behaviour management to students, staff and parents. It is especially useful for explaining concepts to students in the early years of schooling.
To use the cow principle with students, staff or parents, read them the cow principle story and then discuss the key messages and/or pointers at the end.
The cow principle story
The cow paddock
There is a nice, clean, green cow paddock set among rolling pasture with a big steep hill at one end. The sun shines brightly over this beautiful, green paddock. It’s a wonderful place full of juicy, nutritious grass. Towards the lower end of the paddock is a lovely pond with cool, fresh water. At the top of the steep hill is an orchard of trees laden with different types of fruit ready to be eaten. Any cow that might live in the paddock is provided with all the nourishment it needs. The paddock is bordered by a clearly visible, signposted electric fence.
- The clean, green paddock represents a positive school environment.
- The sun represents our responsibilities.
- The pond and the juicy, nutritious grass represent the information that students learn.
- The fence represents the boundaries of acceptable behaviour (rules), and is there to protect the rights of others.
- The signs on the fence specify the rules and outline what will happen if they are broken.
A farmer lets two cows named Daisy and Crazy into the paddock. They graze in the paddock under his supervision. He tends to their individual needs throughout the day. The sun is quite bright, so they both have hats to wear. They know that if they don’t wear their hat the sunshine will drain their energy. Both cows are aware of, and understand, the signs on the electric fence, and the consequences of pushing against it. If they push against the fence they get zapped and it drains their energy. The harder they push, the bigger the zap. They both know that there is ‘good stuff’ at the top of the paddock and that they need a lot of energy to get there.
- Wearing the hat represents facing up to our responsibilities.
- The cows’ energy levels represent their attitudes towards school.
- The fruit trees at the top of the paddock represent the ‘extra stuff’ that happens in schools; The things teachers do on top of the normal curriculum to make school fun, such as class games, fun time, socials, camps, reward days, incursions and excursions.
- The farmer represents the teacher.
Patterns of behaviour
Although the conditions are the same for both cows, they behave quite differently. Daisy wears her hat, does not push against the electric fence and cooperates with the farmer.
Crazy’s behaviour is quite different. He often bumps into the electric fence and gets zapped. Sometimes it is because he is trying to eat the neighbour’s grass on the other side of the fence. Other times he just doesn’t think about the consequences. He has been zapped so often that his energy levels are quite low. Crazy doesn’t like wearing his hat either, so his exposure to the bright sun has drained his energy levels even further. At times, Crazy is uncooperative with the farmer and refuses to do what the farmer asks.
The farmer realises that some cows like Crazy have trouble resisting what’s on the other side of the fence or keeping their hats on, so he has some cowboys around to help.
- The cowboys represent school support staff such as teachers aides, education assistants, school psychologists and chaplains.
Life in the paddock
Daisy, who does ‘the right thing’, has a great time in the paddock. She wanders all over the place looking at lots of different things, and because she has plenty of energy she gets up to the top of the steep hill to the fruit trees and ‘the good stuff’. She literally enjoys the fruits of her decisions.
However, Crazy isn’t having a very good time. He doesn’t wear his hat so his energy levels are low, and being zapped by the electric fence drains his energy levels even further. He is unable to get to the top of the steep hill to enjoy the ‘good stuff’ and doesn’t feel like doing much at all. He becomes increasingly uncooperative and finds life in the paddock frustrating. Occasionally, he even head butts Daisy and causes so much trouble that the farmer has to remove him from the paddock. The farmer really likes Crazy, but is concerned about his behaviour. Every now and then the farmer gets the cowboys to spend some time with Crazy.
The end (for students and parents)
At the end of the day, Crazy sits down. He is exhausted.
‘I hate that fence! I hate that sun! I hate those cowboys hanging around me? Why can’t I get to have some “good stuff?” I hate this paddock!’ he complains.
In the meantime, Daisy wanders down the hill after spending some time in the ‘good stuff’. She is happy and feeling good. ‘I love this paddock!’ she says to herself.
The end (for teachers)
At the end of the day, the farmer sits on a gate chewing a wheatstalk. He contemplates the day’s events. He thinks about Crazy.
‘Why does Crazy push into the fence? Maybe the boundaries need to be clearer or the consequences more effective?
‘Why doesn’t he wear his hat? Maybe I need to remind him of his responsibilities?
‘Why does he misbehave and how can I help him change his behaviour?’
A little bit later the cowboys lead Crazy back to the barn for the night, As they walk past, the farmer says ‘I like that cow, he’s got potential’.
Key messages for students from the cow principle of behaviour management:
- The great news is that you get to choose what life will be like in the cow paddock.
- If you make good choices, school will be a pleasant experience with plenty of time to enjoy the ‘good stuff’.
- If you make poor choices, expect to suffer consequences that will cause discomfort, lost opportunities and will mean you miss out on the ‘good stuff’.
Key pointers for teachers:
- Do you provide a nice, clean, grassy paddock? Do you have a positive learning environment?
- Do you provide juicy, nutritious grass and a deep pond full of clear, fresh water? Do you have relevant and engaging learning programs?
- Do you provide opportunities for the farmer and the cows to get used to each other? Do you do relationship-building activities?
- Are your fences strong and clear? Do you have clear guidelines of expected behaviour and consequences that are known by all?
- Do you know the steps to follow to remove the naughty cow from the paddock? Do you have clear routines for disciplining students?
- Do you have enough resources to run the farm, such as fencing materials, water supply, farmhands? Do you allocate adequate resources (staffing, money, PD) towards managing student behaviour?
- Do you have cowboys and cowgirls to assist recalcitrant cows? Do you have support systems to help students change their behaviour?
- Do you chew a piece of straw every now and then? Do you take time out to reflect on how you might improve behaviour management processes in your classroom and/or school?
These eight pointers represent eight dimensions of behaviour management as outlined in the Behaviour Management Toolkit. How does your classroom or school rate?
Well, there it is, the Cow Principle of Behaviour Management. I hope you enjoyed this different look at behaviour management and trust that you found some elements that will help you fine tune your own behaviour management skills. In fact, I hope you were able to milk this article for all that it’s worth!
About the author:
David Koutsoukis is an educator with over 20 years’ experience. He is the author of the Behaviour Management Toolkit and the R.I.C. Publications’ ‘Behaviour Management’ poster set. David is now a full-time presenter and consultant who works with schools, helping them to create happy and productive workplaces, build capable and motivated teams and manage student behaviour.