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  • Writer's pictureKerry

Ableism & "whole body listening"

Citation: Murphy, K (2023). Ableism & "Whole Body Listening".

Please note: this brief literature review was submitted as part of one of my doctoral assessments.

In the modern-day classroom, children's behaviour is often managed through a set of expectations emphasising whole-class compliance. The Behaviour in Schools Guidance (DfE, 2022) states that all "pupils should be explicitly taught what good behaviour looks like" (Pg.5). In English schools, this has been adopted using the controversial principles of behaviourism. Behaviourism is a philosophy of science underpinned by the idea that human behaviour results from environmental factors and can therefore be externally conditioned and controlled (Watson, 1913). A common statement of behaviourism is that it deals with behaviour itself rather than being concerned with the mind (Moore, 2011). In a school context, rewards, sanctions, punishments, and compliance are used to promote an orderly classroom (Payne, 2015; Hester, Moran & Richards, 2015, Ball, 2013). For example, rewards such as "Golden Time" are given to those children who have behaved well throughout the week, earning them time to engage in a self-chosen activity, such as play (Mossley and Sonnet, 2005). Conversely, sanctions are given to those who do not behave, such as receiving deductions from their daily allocated playtime or being placed at the bottom of a public behaviour chart (Jung and Smith, 2018). Furthermore, compliance is often achieved through reinforcement, for example, using "whole-body listening".

“Whole-body listening" was introduced in 1990 by speech pathologist Susanne Poulette to highlight how we engage the different body parts for attention and listening (as highlighted in table 1). The expectations associated with "whole body listening" are frequently used within mainstream classrooms to control children's attention and bodies and originate in the educational legacy of conformity, where children are constantly monitored for signs of non-compliance (Kirby, 2020). While a degree of "whole body listening" can benefit learner engagement, it is not developmentally compatible or relatable to all children.

Table 1: adapted from Listening Larry. To note, a newer version of Listening Larry has been developed in response to criticism from the autistic community, 2022). This can be accessed here!

​Sit still and face the speaker

"quiet hands" meaning to keep hands still

Providing eye contact or eyes on the speaker

Feet placed firmly on the ground with no movement or sitting cross legged if on the floor

Using "listening ears" meaning you cannot be speaking or using your mouth at the same time as the adult

Thinking only about what the speaker is saying.

Classrooms are occupied by an increasing number of children identified as having Special Educational Needs or who have a disability (SEND) (2022, This includes children with lifelong differences whose thinking and behaviours are fundamentally different (Walker, 2021). For example, those who are autistic, ADHD or dyslexic. As stated by the Independent Provider of Special Educational Advice (2022), setting behavioural standards or norms that cannot be achieved by children identified as SEND is discriminatory and enforces ideas of normalcy, which is the state of being usual, typical or expected (Sankowski, 2021). The very nature of these children is that they present as a-typical and different in their development. Thus, our expectations of their behaviour also need to be different. Ideas of normalcy are problematic in behavioural expectations because they reinforce the idea that non-compliance is an act of defiance rather than a child resisting behaving in ways that are not comfortable to them. For example, the expectation of having "quiet hands" during group time is incompatible with autistic children, who often need to engage in self-stimulatory behaviours (stimming) in order to self-regulate (Charlton, Endicott, Belova and Nwaordu, 2021). This misinterpretation was also highlighted in a study on the views of children's behaviour by Special Educational Needs Co-Ordinators (SENCOs), who highlighted the three main problems of SEND children being 1) non-compliance, 2) avoidance, and 3) aggression (Nye, Gardner, Hansford, Edwards, Hayes and Ford, 2016). The study itself did not focus on why these behaviours might emerge, nor did it explore whether the strategies were incompatible with potential lifelong differences. Rather the study focused on the continued use of behaviourist strategies that promoted ideas of normalcy. "Whole-Body Listening" is one example of a blanket approach where the non-compliance of SEND children becomes visible. For this reason, it is critical to understand how blanket approaches towards behavioural compliance impact those children deemed "non-conforming". There is very little academic research on the concept of "whole-body listening", yet given its popularity as a behaviour management technique, it will be beneficial to understand how it is interpreted by those most impacted by it, the children themselves.

Theoretical Framework

In exploring this critical issue, the work of Michel Foucault (1977) was examined, particularly his focus on discipline in education. Foucault was interested in how educators exercise their power in the classroom and in understanding the beliefs held by those seeking to gain complete technical control to create an orderly classroom. Ball (2013) contextualised this idea further by outlining the core assumptions of a 'manage and discipline' model in which the educator becomes responsible for enforcing behavioural norms.

The first core assumption is that behaviour is a science and can be quantified and controlled. The use of whole-body listening supports this assumption in that attention and listening is believed to be achieved by children mastering and visibly demonstrating the whole-body listening skills. The second core assumption is that Children's behaviour can be reduced to variables which can be manipulated and managed. The variables in whole-body listening relate to the skills of 'extreme body discipline" (McClure et al., 2016), including the ability to sit still, have "quiet hands", place feet on the ground or crossed legs and keep mouths shut. The third core assumption is that given the right skills and training, the teacher can have complete technical control over the classroom behavioural environment. When children comply with whole-body listening rules, the measure of success for an educator is visible and can be externally observed. However, the focus on observable behaviour fails to recognise the internalised impact that this might be having on a child. In more recent years, autistic researchers and accomplices have found that those with developmental differences often engage in a behaviour known as masking (or social camouflaging) to fit in. Masking is defined as "the conscious or unconscious suppression of natural responses and adoption of alternatives across a range of domains" (Pearson and Rose, 2021, Pg.53). For example, behaving in ways that do not come authentically across social interaction, sensory experiences, cognition, movement, and behaviour, all which could be argued to be involved in “whole-body listening”. The continual adaption of masking can have negative effects, including an increased risk of stress, anxiety and depression (Price, 2022). While "whole-body listening" may appear externally successful, critical reflection must be given to those children whose forced compliance becomes detrimental to their development. The final core assumption is that those who do not respond to this exercise of power are unmanageable: a threat to the orderly classroom. It is important to emphasise that children identified as SEND are five times more likely to be excluded from school (Longfield, 2019), which suggests that the success of an orderly classroom depends on the exclusion of those children that do not conform. Foucault (1977) believed that we must disrupt these notions of power and discipline by recognising individuals as agents of resistance. It could, therefore, be argued that extending our region of tolerance for difference could help us to understand those differences and reframe them as valuable.


"Whole-body listening" is a controversial strategy that can be criticised for its potential to violate children's bodily autonomy and learning needs. The compliance required for “whole-body listening” can also be problematic, particularly for children identified with special educational needs (SEN) or who have a disability. While whole-body listening may be effective in some situations, its use should be carefully considered in light of the potential harms that can occur. It is only through gaining both children's and educators' perspectives can a greater understanding be developed of the ‘wise practices’ that can make a meaningful difference in inclusive practice.


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