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Behaviour management - how to develop self-regulation

December 5, 2022, 11:45 GMT+1
Read in 7 minutes
  • Behaviour expert Sue Cowley shares three scenarios that benefit from positivity when tackling poor discipline
Behaviour management - how to develop self-regulation

Situation 1

One of your ECTs is complaining about the behaviour of their Year 1 class, telling you that the children ‘won’t do what they’re told’ and ‘can’t sit still for more than a few minutes’. The teacher wants you to come in and ‘tell them off’. How can you best support the teacher and the children?

Since the pandemic began, the youngest children have gone through a period where the ‘norms’ of early childhood were disrupted. Prior to school, they missed out on many activities which promote self-regulation, such as soft play and toddler groups. Inevitably, this is starting to show up in their behaviours.

Sitting still takes up a considerable amount of executive function for children of this age – they are primed to move around, in order to develop. Support the teacher to find ways to make the learning less formal and more active, for instance using sand timers to remind them to limit the periods for which children are static. Consider different positions for activities such as writing – it can work well for children to stand at desks, lay down on their fronts, or write on a clipboard or flipchart.

Look at the daily timetable, together with the teacher. Talk about a realistic amount of time to expect children to sit still. Look together at how some of the carpet or desk work could be made more active, for instance by getting children to join in with actions or take a short physical break. Remember that some of the children might only have turned five years old recently – they are still very young.

Think about how the transition into KS1 was managed – perhaps the approach has been formalised too quickly, and children are struggling to handle what they perceive as a big change from their reception class? Active play is still vital for learning and development in this age group.

Give the teacher additional support by going in to talk to the children, but not to tell them off – reset the class with a more positive message instead. You could say to the children that you have asked their teacher to share examples of when they are learning and behaving brilliantly. This will help encourage the teacher to focus on and praise the positive.

Situation 2

The manner in which the children move through the school on their way to assembly each afternoon has become increasingly chaotic and noisy. Class teachers are saying that the poor behaviour of older children is triggering poor behaviour in younger ones too.

Moving quietly and sensibly around, outside of the classroom context, can be a big ask for children in terms of their self-regulation skills. Remind class teachers to talk to their children each morning about the timings of the day and what happens in what order. This supports children to understand the daily routines and helps them prepare for the transition required when moving from classroom to assembly.

Encourage teachers to find creative ways to get their children moving quietly and carefully. For instance, asking them to imagine that there is a giant sleeping under the floor, so they need to tiptoe quietly to assembly in order not to wake him. Challenge each class to see who can come to assembly ‘as quiet as a mouse’, giving an award to the class which does best each week. Challenge the older children to be great role models for their younger school mates, by showing them ‘what a good one looks like’ (WAGOLL). Children generally respond much better to positive targets and goals, and to supporting their peers, than to negativity or sanctions.

Sometimes the best solutions to behaviour issues occur when you think laterally, so consider some alternatives. Can you change the timing of assemblies so that they don’t take place when children are likely to be tired and fractious? Do you need to hold daily whole school assemblies or would in class ‘acts of worship’ and year group assemblies work better, with a single whole school gathering once a week?

Situation 3

The behaviour of some of the older and most disadvantaged children in your primary is becoming increasingly difficult to handle. You have been applying sanctions but are concerned that their behaviour will escalate to the point where you might need to suspend them. You want to act to avoid this becoming a necessity.

Instead of looking at this issue from a ‘behaviour’ angle, have a think instead about what these children are missing, in terms of the skills that they need to cope at school. Often, this is to do with self-esteem – children get so used to a negative feedback loop, that they start to behave poorly because they feel like it is ‘expected’ of them.

Rather than continuing with an approach that majors on the use of sanctions, consider the question from a ‘needs-based’ angle. What do these children need from their time in school, to support them to change their behaviours? You could look at setting up a nurture group in which they learn some key social skills. You might give them something or someone to care for, to support the development of empathy. Some primary schools are finding that having a school dog can really help to turn around a downwards spiral of negative behaviours.

Start planning now for when these children transition to secondary school, as this is often a point at which problems with behaviour can escalate, as children must interact with a much higher number of different teachers. Liaise with secondaries to ensure that key information about children with high levels of need is passed on.

Thinking self-regulation

  • Rather than seeing behaviour as something best controlled by extrinsic motivators like sanctions and rewards, remember that the aim is make positive behaviours intrinsic for each child.
  • Encourage teachers to look for the positive – praise children who are doing the right thing to offer positive role models for peers.
  • When thinking about curriculum, consider how you develop key attributes that support behaviour, such as empathy, self-control and cooperation.
  • Find ways to get the children to be ‘active agents’: making choices and taking responsibility are great for self-regulation.
  • Incorporate activities that ask children to ‘hold’ their impulses, so they understand what it feels like. Playing sleeping lions or games like Grandmother’s Footsteps support impulse control.
  • Focus on building children’s imagination to support empathy – utilise role plays and talk about what characters in stories are feeling.

Sue Cowley is a bestselling author and teacher educator, who helps to run an early years setting. Her latest book is Learning Behaviours: A Practical Guide to Self-Regulation (John Catt).