How should you approach challenging behaviour in schools

Sometimes, you read or hear something that completely illuminates an area of understanding for you. It may simply be that the voices you’ve experienced on the subject before don’t hit the mark quite, and then something comes along which provides clarity and does make total sense to you, and in fact goes further and has you nodding vehemently in concordance.

This just happened to me, on the subject of inclusion. An absolute champion of inclusion is Mary Meredith, who, at the time of the interview I listened to, was Head of Inclusion for Lincolnshire County Council. This smart lady makes a lot of sense. In the podcast (link below), Mary talks about approaches to behaviour management in our schools and pinpoints where things go/have gone wrong. She also refers to authors and influencers on approaches to behaviour who have it right. And, I can tell you, my Amazon shopping trolley now runneth over with titles by Mary and other wise souls! Are rewards enough? Amongst other things, Mary talks about ‘restorative practice’, which refers to an approach used often in schools which encourages individuals to take responsibility for their actions, and repair harm they have caused. Her concern is that it has the potential to shame children and this can be damaging. She also refers to the behaviourist approach, which is rules-based and relies greatly on rewards and sanctions to operate. Mary suggests this approach actually contributes to the failure of some children in schools and she’s right. It doesn’t work for some socially and emotionally challenged children and some children with special educational needs, and here’s why:

This approach assumes that children have the skills they need to learn from their mistakes. Behaviourism theory focuses on observable behaviour but doesn’t pay due attention to the neuroscience. So let’s turn to the neuroscience. For those kids whose behaviour is rooted in adverse childhood experience, simply hurling high expectations at them and expecting this to affect behaviour positively is just not going to cut it. Doggedly imposing sanctions to meet with school behaviour policy can work to damage connections teachers work so hard to make with this group of students in particular. Mary refers to Kim Golding’s work.

I’d come across the phrase ‘Connection before correction’ – one of Kim’s devising, before, but not pulled it apart. Of course. We are humans first and teachers second. The connection between teacher and pupil is critical and needs to be protected. It’s okay, and may be right, to apply sanctions but the suggestion made is that it is done in a way that supports the connection you have, by first showing some empathy and helping a child to self-regulate – a skill they may not have developed well. Only then should you try to understand the reasons behind the behaviour.

The correction part of the process can then follow. In fact, consequence may be important but not in a one-size-fits-all way. There is no suggestion that sanctions have no place in behaviour management in schools during the interview, although reference is made to a work of author, Alfie Kohn, writer of ‘Punished by Rewards’ who posits that authoritarian parenting (and by proxy, ‘strict’ teaching) actually makes for naughtier kids.

Mary makes a great point about rewards. To echo her sentiments, I’m also left puzzling over why it is that a consistency in the application of sanctions is deemed essential for policies to work, yet there is not the same rigour or talk of the need for a consistent approach in the way we dispense rewards! Why not? Good question. From personal experience in a number of schools, I can say teachers’ behaviours in this regard can be wildly disparate, ranging from stingy to superfluous. I’m not suggesting that all teachers use the same app or approach even, but staff cohorts certainly ought to address and discuss this. What happens when children are ostracised?

Another text I’ll be leafing through soon is Kip William’s research on the effect of exclusion on children. Neuroscience, again. The act of ‘excluding’, ‘managed-moving’ or even just ‘isolating’ kids from school/classroom is a hugely painful, traumatic event for them in itself. Instead of ostracising children, Mary insists that we don’t wash our hands of them but hold them close. When a seedling is failing, we work out what is wrong and do something differently to help it to grow. Above all, we are kind. Trauma-informed practice allows for healing to happen. And so, the learning.

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