As I walked down the corridor to my new office, I stepped over three Year 5 boys sitting in the corridor.
Although their heads were down, every so often they would look up and catch their friend’s eye and let out a stifled giggle. A voice from the room at the end of the corridor barked “You’re there for a punishment not a reward!”
This was a pattern of behaviour at my school. The same children are always sitting in the corridors outside the headteacher’s office. The appendices of the behaviour policy decorated the doors and walls around school. A comprehensive list of “offences” and corresponding punishments neatly boxed and categorised. Children were able to recite the choice of punishments that were on offer depending on their behaviour.
It did not work. There was no impact. The same children missed breaks and lunches. The same children sat outside the headteacher’s office. The same children got text messages home to tell their parents that they had hurt another child. Something desperately needed to change.
As a Church of England school, it was important for us to reflect on our ethos and values. A behaviour approach had to truly represent what we believed in. Fortunately, both I and my new deputy passionately believed in inclusion and as qualified SENCos we could see that we needed to get the provision right first and foremost by ensuring that the children’s basic needs were being met.
We started to take an in-depth look at our behaviour approach and policy. We attended Essex Steps training which is focused on a Therapeutic Management of Behaviour model. This gave us a good foundation to start discussing and sharing with staff. From this, we used further approaches from Paul Dix’s ‘When the Adults Change’ book and website. Gradually we started to shape and mould a new way of approaching behaviour.
Now, instead of punishment, we talk to the children about consequence. Consequences are fluid and relate directly (where possible) to the original behaviour. For example, if a child damages property, rather than miss their lunch, they will either repair the damage, speak to the Bursar/Caretaker about the cost of replacement or repair and have a restorative conversation with a member of the leadership team.
It hasn’t all been plain sailing. Some staff were at a loss as to what consequences to issue. There were no longer posters with neat boxes available to categorise the behaviours that they were being presented with. Children could not always see the consequence their actions had on others, which led to concerns that children were “getting away with poor behaviour”. Some parents expressed their anxiety that we “don’t give punishments anymore”.
It has been challenging at times to explain that there are consequences for behaviour, but that the way we respond to the behaviour depends on so many factors that the consequence cannot be categorised and regimented. Every child is different, every reaction is different and therefore our response must be personalised, differentiated and have an impact.
We are 18 months into our new therapeutic approach to behaviour management and already we can see the remarkable changes. The school feels different. You can feel our ethos, you can see our core Christian values being lived. We still have a way to go – there will still be resistance, but we have the evidence to show that it is working.
We have had successes with the most challenging behaviour, children who were at risk of exclusion in other schools are now thriving in our care. We certainly do still have children who present with a range of behavioural needs, but our staff team know that these behaviours are a form of communication and that before we respond with disciplinary action, we need to take time to understand what is really being said.
Karen Jones is headteacher of Great Clacton Church of England Junior School in Essex.