There are all sorts of ways of evaluating, changing and developing behaviour approaches within schools. Sometimes you may need a complete overhaul and at other times it might be a few incremental changes, a series of tweaks. Like nearly everything in school improvement, context is everything.
What is important to recognise is that schools are complex, dynamic communities and as such, it is essential to keep your eye on the ball. Stagnancy is not an option. However settled everything might seem, there will be some members of your community who will be struggling with behaviour.
While we want to avoid over-monitoring our colleagues, being out and about is essential. I learnt very early on in my career that a walkabout was, in all likelihood, the most powerful tool in leadership. You see things, you hear things, you tweak and make decisions. This restlessness is essential.
Being open to looking at something in a new way, or through a different lens, is important. We can quite literally sit on the floor with the reception children to see what they see. We can look through books and check in on marking and feedback. We can ask governors to talk to parents to see how our communications are landing at home. We can stand at a first-floor window and watch the patterns or play out on the playground.
Look after the edges
If behaviour at your school is settled, or if it is not, being ‘edgy’ with your ongoing evaluation is always beneficial. There may be patterns that you are missing, and children might be slipping under the radar. Let me explain.
When I was eight years old my teacher would say, when modelling how to stick in worksheets, “Look after the edges as the middle will look after itself.” This is invaluable advice for so many things, not least when thinking about who your systems are benefiting.
I don’t want to be overly critical of schools with the ‘good to be green’ style name-and-shame boards on classroom walls. But do they work? I predict that the majority of children are ‘on green’ most of the time. But if most are generally sailing through, then you can’t really say it’s a success when this was not the group that needed the system in the first place. The children who are struggling should be the measure of good outcomes. The outliers who actually need the support - those at the edges - are gaining very little.
Flip your thinking. If there are four to five children who consistently get publicly reprimanded in this way, this should be your starting point. What systems and procedures will help them the most?
Analyse times of the day when incidents occur, seating patterns that are problematic, environments, interactions and relationships. What do you know about this handful of children and what will help them the most? I bet that an amber card is not really helping them at all.
Tone down the reprimands
There are lots of reasons why a few children do not comply, and the amber card itself may just make matters worse. Autistic brains are less likely to recognise authority for a start. And those who have experienced trauma may suffer terribly with any form of public humiliation, however discreetly you may feel it is delivered. The reprimand will have sharper talons for these children, so consider how else you can help.
Similarly, a child with an ADHD profile may well have rejection sensitive dysphoria as part of their condition. The practice of public reprimand does not help these outliers and yet they are generally the ones on the receiving end. Build a system around their needs, rather than the needs of the middle.
If you wonder what something different might look like then have a look at trauma informed approaches, relational-based systems, restorative justice practice and my favourite - the low arousal approach. This is a true, whole-school, systems approach and it seeks to build a learning atmosphere that looks after the outliers. And guess what - it is better for everyone too.
Another take on the edge approach is to look at the adults. It simply is not good leadership to have one teacher struggling while colleagues look on smugly, thinking “Well, they behave for me”. We have a responsibility to support each other. If one teacher is struggling, then you need to change your system to help them. If everyone else has a handle on their class, then they will be able to accommodate a few tweaks to help the outlier.
I am a big fan of the ‘Signal, Pause, Insist’ approach as outlined in WalkThrus 1. I hear headteachers say that they are happy for teachers to choose their own signals. I disagree as here, again, I’m not sure they are serving the outlier. If the whole school has a uniform signal, then the children are far more likely to respond to every teacher and teaching assistant. This is key.
You as a headteacher can walk into any classroom and use the universal signal (I like ‘5, 4, 3, 2, 1’ with silence attained by about 3) and this will help any newly qualified teacher or nervous LSA. If the children do it for one, they can do it for all.
What signal, pause, insist also does is allow for calm settling and silence. Not only does absolute uniformity help the teacher who is still learning to hold their own in a classroom, it is also a strategy that helps your outlier children too. Far better to have calm silence insisted upon, and for it to be consistent. It reduces stress and anxiety, again something that will help the children that need it the most.
Next time you walk through your classrooms and see lots of children settled and seemingly happy, have a closer look. What about the children on the edge of coping? Are your strategies and policies designed with them in mind? My primary school teacher was very wise, I think. Look after the edges and the rest will take care of itself.
The Low Arousal Approach
The Low Arousal Approach is based on how practitioners might change their own behaviour when supporting a person in crisis. It is underpinned by humanist principles - having unconditional positive regard for those in our care - and requires us to be self-reflective.
How can I change and adapt to provide the best environment for this person who is struggling?
It asks us to consider reducing the demands placed on an individual, reviewing the sensory load caused by the surroundings, and reducing anxiety by making learning environments calmer and more predictable.
One example might be our questioning techniques. Rather than saying, “Watch out, I am going to pick one of you at random to answer this question”, instead say, “We’re going to talk about this and help each other build the best answers to the questions”.
This approach considers whether we are creating more stress by talking at the child or whether it might be better to create space and silence to help a pupil calm down. Sitting alongside the child on a bench and waiting for things to settle is advised, rather than confrontational chastisement.
Rebecca Leek (@RebeccaLeek_) has been a secondary and primary classroom teacher, head of department, SENCo and headteacher; she is currently the CEO of SEAMAT – a trust of three schools in South Essex