A fresh look at behaviour management in schools

Article: Written with Dr. Geoff James and published in the Guardian – Thursday 6 September 2012

Recent comment and news – see the Secret Teacher and the Guardian story on levels of school exclusions – has made me realise how stuck the debate on developing children’s good behaviour in schools has become.

Teachers are judged by how strict they are. Everyone who has been to school thinks they are an expert and many policies are based on half-baked ideas about emotional intelligence and reptile brains.

Meanwhile, thousands of children are not going to school, teachers are under increasing pressure to command their students to behave, and parents are blamed for not being good role models.

I am reminded of my first job as a teacher working in a school in an area of severe economic deprivation. After four or five years I’d learned a wide range of behaviour management strategies based on rewarding good behaviour and punishing bad. I used stickers, golden time, time out, three strikes, red and yellow cards. This worked quite well with most of the children, however there were some who continued to disrupt my class and challenge my teaching. In particular one boy (I’ll call him Kyle) was really difficult to reach. I tried everything I knew but things got worse, including his violence to teaching staff and children. The situation became so bad it looked as if he would have to be excluded.

This is a familiar situation in many schools, where excluding children becomes almost obligatory to protect the staff and other students and is reflected in the consistent levels of temporary and permanent exclusionsin English primary schools.

Once I’d run out of ideas with Kyle all I could do was repeat my repertoire. This was even less successful second time round and he had to be removed from class more often, giving us respite in the short term but doing little to change things for the better. I realised the strategies I was using put Kyle and others like him in a position where they required continuous direction from adults. As a result, children saw themselves as helpless, as the victims of their own behaviour. I could hear them saying things like, “I can’t help it, I’m just naughty”.

In the end I was stuck. Not willing to give up on Kyle and with the unfailing support of my headteacher (who had never excluded a child) I decided to try a completely different approach.

A couple of years before, I’d met Geoff James, a local authority specialist support teacher who was looking into behaviour support for his PhD. We invited him into school to work with me and Kyle.

Geoff was working with children at high risk of permanent exclusion, using an inquiry-based approach focused towards solutions rather than problems. Originally developed by Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg for family support, the approach had a clear structure and Geoff advised me to start by talking to Kyle about something he was already doing successfully. Here’s an example of one of our conversations:

“Tell me about something that’s going well for you Kyle?”
“How come it’s going well?”
“Because I practice every day.”

We continued this problem-free talk for a while, with me giving Kyle feedback on his strengths and qualities, “it seems like you keep practicing even when you’re tired. Is that right?”

I then used this platform of success-talk to widen the conversation to include school.

“What’s your best hope for school Kyle?”
“To be friends with the others in class so I can play football with them.”
“On a scale, where 10 is you playing football with the others and 1 is you not playing with them at all, where are you right now?”
“Where would you like to be?”
“Suppose you were at 10, what would people notice about you that was different?”
“Me and the other children would be smiling and enjoying ourselves.”
“And how might that happen?”
“I’d notice if I was getting angry and stop myself blowing up by walking away.”
“What would you do if you were in class – where would you go?”
“Under the table.”
“Mmm, that might distract other children, do you think?”
“Yeah. What about if the table was just outside the classroom?”
I said it would be alright if I knew he was safe there. “When would you come back into class?”
“When I stop being angry.”
“How long would that take?”
“About five minutes.”

Kyle was as good as his word. Over the next few weeks whenever he started to get angry he would leave the classroom and sit under the table. I let everyone know this was agreed and they left him alone. In often less than five minutes, he would come back into class to work. We continued to meet fairly regularly and when things went wrong – which they did occasionally – I’d ask him what he might do to make them better.

Working in this way with Kyle transformed our relationship. We learned to work together and to trust each other. Kyle began to relax in class and became more focused on his learning. The other children relaxed too and Kyle’s violent outbursts disappeared. He started going out to play and eat his lunch and play football with the other children. A big change. In two months he didn’t stand out from his classmates at all.

Was this remarkable change permanent? Kyle is 17 now, I am still in touch with him and I know he is doing fantastically well at A level.

Since that time with Kyle, 10 years ago, I’ve been using this solution focused approach in my classroom and it works time and time again, with all kinds of children, with all kinds of background, in all kinds of situations. Similarly, Geoff has continued to use the approach in educational support services with amazing success.

Kyle’s case is evidence of an approach to children’s behaviour that recognises the child as a reflective and resourceful agent of change. In my experience this approach can be more effective than problem focused methods. It’s more effective at keeping children in school, at reducing stress in children and adults, and in developing successful learners. It can also be a lot cheaper.

Maybe now is the time to rethink our attitudes towards ‘good’ and ‘bad’ children and to utilise approaches like this based on evidence of improved outcomes. We shouldn’t give up on thousands of children who don’t respond well to what we’ve done in the past. We can work in new ways that support them and help them be the best they can become.

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