Notes on the Behaviour Podcast and more

Behaviour is a general concern of many parents.

The Mythology is that democratic free school kids are out of control but they are not if set up correctly … out of control behaviour is against A.S. Neill’s basic concept of Freedom not Licence.

On the other hand, alternative schools are attractive to parents of children with special needs and with children who have had serious difficulties in mainstream schools. The difficulties are not necessarily the fault of the state schools; there could be many reasons for dysfunctional children. Different kinds of people have various types of behaviour issues ( they could be introvert issues) and can be caused by difficulties being in an environment that doesn’t fit the child; or problems that come from home or community life.

Leonard had experience in Special Ed before Prince of Wales.  He taught in such schools to support his family and the Special Ed classes had small numbers ( 14 students in the classroom).  Those classrooms don’t work well if there is complete segregation from other students and if the schools authorities throw behaviour problem students in with learning problem students. Leonard had about five years in that environment and then three years with excluded kids; so eight years of training with students who do not have ‘normal’ behaviours in traditional learning environments.

The Special Ed classes were not Clubhouses but Leonard created what he would call a ‘progressive, humane’ environment.

Change in behaviour of the Prince of Wales Students

POW was built in 1921. An old school with big rooms and high ceilings. When Leonard arrived there it was in complete disarray and the principal told Leonard that he hated the children and parents.  

Some examples of the school’s culture: Students threw enamel red paint through the Head’s window one night so that it was covered in blood red the next morning. Students left a huge dead carp on the front steps. When some students were waiting to see the Head for bad behaviour they just say and chanted, “George, George. George of the Jungle.” George  was a cartoon character. The Head’s name was … George. One student wrapped a bicycle chain around the neck of another, dragged him to the ground and down the hall. Students could reduce teachers to tears with uncontrollable bad behaviour.

Another Head ( Leonard was at the school for twenty-one years ), an English fellow who had taught in the toughest areas of inner city London  said Prince of Wales was the worst school he had ever worked in. 

Why Leonard thought of the Clubhouse Idea

Leonard said he was bored, and he wanted to mixed it up to make it fun and interesting. Use some ideas from his democratic school as well as Summerhill and create a better experience for the students. And himself.

Behaviour change

Children in Leonard’s room were not badly behaved with him but with the Clubhouse they took over the running of the classroom and created, with him, a better place to be. With Democratic meetings. 

Leonard did not need to be in the classroom at either the beginning or the end of the day.  The children made it their place; they made it into their own little city state.  

Other Teachers

Leonard’s class behaved differently when they went to other teachers depending on who they were. ( This was before the whole floor adopted Clubhouse Democracy). With some teachers were often riotous.  The head asked Leonard to look after one woman, a new teacher. One afternoon she came storming out of her classroom and slammed the door. She was standing in the corridor, beside herself. Leonard walked down to her.  Annie had turned her desk upside down and was sitting on it, on strike.  Leonard just went up and asked her to turn it back over and he did it.  

There were many bad teachers and they deserved what they got. Children play Theatre scripts when in inappropriate habitats. Many a substitute would refuse to teach at the school; often they would come and after a while just walk out. Sometimes telling no one.

Leonard or the Clubhouse?

Was this down to prior experience, seniority and personal characteristics as a human being etc. and not the Clubhouse?  No. Before the Clubhouse he couldn’t leave them alone and the students didn’t even consider taking initiatives or responsibility.  

Lately a number of those kids have been in touch and said how bad they were when they went to other places.  Destroyed teachers on purpose.

The students in the school were generally up front, emotions unguarded. Many didn’t have great home lives etc but they were great children and excelled at drama, making and putting on plays. Leonard did this with them. 

How did you deal with ADHD or other problems?

There was one student who sat there like a zombie because he was drugged up. Looked it up with Linda the principal. Got them to change that. So that type of thing was going on.

One of the reasons for discipline issues is that some kids are not able to control themselves in an artificial sit-still, no choice environment. Getting up and moving  around, having other things to do that were interesting- not just sitting at a desk all the time- was really important.  That made it less like prison.

Sam couldn`t sit still.  Proposal that he could stand up in the aisle.  The kids said that if he wanted to go on the carpet he could.  Sam would listen but he simply had to move.  He could not be in a classroom and sit still. They had known him since kindergarten and they all voted for it because it made sense.

Knowing the Truth

Leonard explained to the class where they were.  They did not know where they were … difficult, boring, no movement. “ I mirrored back to them what I felt that school experience was like.” 

The children knew that they had to go to a place that was not meeting their needs.  A truthful mirror is essential.  As soon as you are not truthful about the situation there is no reason for them to believe anything you say. You become a scam artist.

“We created a more reasonable environment in which the students were allowed to have their reasonable needs met in a reasonable manner.”


“ I made it quite clear that I could not run the classroom on my own. Even faking it at times.  It was important for them to feel that they were in charge with me.  They would soon reasonably ask each other for permission to do things instead of me. Solve more of their own problems by themselves or with others. I was the last resort.” Leonard put his desk at the side/back of the room behind a partition so the students could forget about him.


What if a kid could not conform to basic Clubhouse norms?

“Larry would just lose it. For instance, they were bussed to another school to do woodwork and they would make laws against him because he messed up their morning.”

“They asked if they could have him leave the classroom if he didn’t follow the laws. It wasn’t that they didn’t care for him. But just practical.”

Leonard let the class vote to have Larry go out in the hallway for a bit if he was very disruptive. Leonard added, “ Do I also have yourpermission to ask Larry to leave the room if I think he is bothering us?” 

“That told the boy that at times the class was set up to ask him to leave through me so I am acting on behalf of everyone in the group.  This dilutes the authority issue.  Made it easier for me to discuss the situation with him when he was sitting in a chair outside the class. So the group had a safety valve and we gave it to Larry as well.  He could choose to go out in the hall on his own if he needed to.”

Another thing: they could vote someone under Leonard.  Totally fed up with Jane, they could vote her out of the Clubhouse and she was under the teacher for a week or two days or whatever. ‘Under the Czar.’

Different at Summerhill

With the outdoor and many other spaces and the student right to come and go freely to optional lessons/spaces.  Not the same as going into the corridor in a compulsory school environment.  At Summerhill teachers can tell students to leave if they are disruptive since they don’t have to be there.  At Summerhill there is a lot of ownership of spaces ( sometimes changing with day of the week or time of day). There are many areas with different people in control/ with authority. You can ask people to leave ‘your’ space and children can do the same.  

Do we need to have outdoor spaces in the Design a School project?

 Yes trees, woods and shrubberies. Nature doesn’t yell freedom not licence. It doesn’t judge. Nature just accepts children in whatever mood they are in. 

There have to be a lot more general rules for indoor spaces.

Problem on the horizon

Democratic Free Schools can be a magnet for kids who are having trouble in the mainstream?  Nothing wrong with the idea of equality but if there is a complete open-door policy it can be ridiculous.  Even teaching small special-ed classes Leonard’s school had to reject students because it would throw the programme out of balance. 

Summerhill has the luxury of space and optional attendance but there is a limit.  11 years of age is usually the oldest age for acceptance.  A group of troubled 11/12 year old boys with that amount of freedom can be a disastrous situation.  

Severely dysfunctional children ( Leonard has worked with such children in a classroom connected to family therapy work) need structure because freedom brings out the emotions, trauma, and they can get frightened.  Such children need to feel safe and too much freedom can actually scare them. 

At Summerhill children have to be able to be safe for themselves and for others since there is so much free choice and freedom of movement. Schools must keep a balance.  If most of the school is comprised of healthy, relatively normal kids then they will mix with the newcomers.  A mix works if the majority is healthy cause it’s a good role model for children with issues and the larger healthy group can absorb the dysfunction and the community can deal with it. But an imbalance the other way can cause trouble.


Sometimes parents lie or omit info because they are desperate or because they don’t know what their own kids are like.  In a starting-off school of little children social services came hopefully trying to put in two orphan kids with severe backgrounds. Leonard said, “No. Not yet. The school is opening the children know nothing, even the teachers are inexperienced at the basics of freedom and free and open movement and choices. Don’t take the risk. Wait a year. Then teachers will know and the children in the school can assist the new ones.”  

Will the Clubhouse work for all teachers or do they need special training?

  2. The children have to be in a home for at least half a day
  3. The room has to be big enough and you have to rearrange furniture and resources
  4. Need to have someone mentor you (in that school we had 150 kids and teachers from all different backgrounds)
  5. Ideally, if a person can view the Clubhouse actually up and running and see and talk to the kids, a new person will learn a lot faster.

“The Clubhouse transformed that school. I’d say it was the most valuable work I have ever done.”

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