July 11, 2023

four person holding each others waist at daytime
July 11, 2023

An interview about Behaviour in Schools.

Firstly, in your opinion what is the core principle that should drive a school’s overall approach to behaviour?

The first thing we should talk about is an idea called the social contract. It's a concept - a contract, really - that should bind everybody in a service or institution or school together when it comes to how they (”we”) are going to manage situations when they get difficult.

The social contract says, "When things get difficult, I'm going to treat you in a particular way. I'm going to rely on a few really core values and principles to work with you, and I am asking that you use the same principles to work with me."

In the context of TA's, classroom teachers and so on, you're going to be setting up the golden rules in your classroom. And what I want to prompt you with very early in this discussion is the golden rules for your classroom should extend to how “we” behave when we disagree. And these classroom rules should extend to the parents, too.

Why don't we make it easy for ourselves and not have a different set of rules for how the teachers and TAs behave and a different set of rules for how the kids should behave. And then a different set of rules again for how the parents should behave. Your golden rules for your school and your classroom speak to how we deal with each other - “how we do business” - when things get difficult.

How do we solve conflict? Well it is much easier if, when conflict pops up, when we share a common operating system for that, across everybody.

We actually teach this idea from our colleagues at Vistelar called Treat People Right.

"When differences divide us, treating each other with dignity by showing respect, establishes the common ground for managing conflict."

So we must treat each other with dignity by showing each other respect even when we disagree.

We have a client up in Scotland who works with neurodiverse adults with social, emotional and mental health difficulties (SEMH), and one of their service users actually wears one of our reminder cards in a lanyard. He wears it as he moves around in the service. If in a given moment when he doesn't have the self-control to live up to this “Treat People Right” value - and in this instance that means he is about to reach for a member of staff’s hair, for example- all the staff have to do is say, "Hey Jimmy, remember we have to treat people right." And they point to his reminder card, on his lanyard, and he actually picks it up and reads it and he realises, "Okay, I got it." And it reminds him that we have a social contract in place. It re-establishes the baseline rules for interaction, and it helps everyone to get along better.

I'm not suggesting you issue your parents with these or anything like that, but I can say we know from the studies on negotiation that whomever you're dealing with, if you can point to a third standard, not your opinion of how things should happen, not my opinion of how things should happen, but if we can point to a plaque on the wall (or in a business negotiation a contract) and say, "Wait, hold on, let’s slow things down. This is how we agreed to manage this situation," then we have a better platform for moving forward, because it takes the personalities and some of the emotion out of the interaction and sets it on a better path.

Having established this idea of an agreed set of values, there's another idea that I want to set as the ‘background-music’ of our conversation about the social contract.

What is a Gateway Behaviour in a school?

One point about having obvious, stated values in your service, is that if somebody starts to break the social contract and you don't reestablish it, then the gate is open. We talk about ‘gateway behaviours’, so if a parent is standing at your classroom door shouting at you or at a child and “we” don't do anything about that, well, then what's going to happen tomorrow, and what's more likely to happen the next day? And what's their behaviour going to be like at the end of term when everybody's stressed out and frazzled? Think about the social contract. Your Golden Rules are not just a bunch of ethereal blue-sky ideas written on a wall. It's something “we” must use and support every day to keep us all on track. It is a big concept, and a really important one. It speaks to the culture of your classroom, school, Trust and whether that culture is generative of good outcomes, or just a “them and us” crime and punishment environment!

We talk a lot about positive behaviour management. So what does positive mean? How do we keep things positive? What the children do is not who they are. So we have to catch them, not just catch them when they're not doing well, but catch them being good. I really like that as a mantra. We've got to catch them being good. The respected author on teacher development and learning, Doug Lemov, has written about “focusing on the bright spots”. Your pupils may not be good at everything, but when you can find something that they're good at and shine a light on them when they do that thing. I think that's going to generate some magic - it speaks to the child’s self-image.

With our most troubled children, the ones who present us with the most difficult behaviors in school, the likelihood is that there's a lot of context there for that behavior.

So we have children who've been through very traumatic situations or environments. They've had a traumatic beginning, they've had a difficult start in life, they continue to. They may even have had these adverse childhood experiences, the ACEs. Having an awareness of the children's self-image is super important because that's what's driving a lot of the behaviour you're seeing.

There is a gravity towards the role. What that means is that you might have a classroom joker, you might have a classroom stunt-person. You might have somebody who's a bit slower at answering questions. If that role becomes fixed, then they will gravitate towards it. They’ll fix on the thought that “I'm just the person who's slower at this” or “I'm expected to do something funny” now. They'll gravitate towards those roles.

And what positive behaviour management means is that we've got to change the focus or change the “gravity” behaviour for that person to something else. And then the behaviour moves toward, they converge their behaviour towards that expectation that we have for them.

Another catchphrase from the swathes of written texts on classroom behaviour is that the child needs to have hope if they're going to change their behaviour.

What’s the first thing staff can do to be more effective in managing behaviour?

Let's talk about you for a moment. If you're going to be effective in your classroom and effective in front of these children who get very distracted and who present with behaviours that are giving you cause for concern, then you need to feel safe and you need to feel ready.

Feeling safe is important, so that you can be effective - one of the exercises we'll do when we get in the classroom with your people is, I'll say, "Right, over there somewhere in the corner is Jimmy and Jimmy's not enjoying school today and he's just thrown a book against the wall."

We'll establish teams and I'll say, "You two," let's say it's a TA and a classroom teacher. I'll say, "Can you please go over there and address that behavior with Jimmy, see how he's doing?" And we'll see people walk over to within 18 inches of the child and the staff will put their hands on their knees and they'll bend all the way forward and stick their chin out 12 inches from the child's face and say, "Jimmy, are you okay?"

So, if you could picture that in your mind, there’s an adult with their hands stuck to their legs and they're leaning all the way forward. Keep that picture in your mind for a moment!

Two weeks later I could get a call from the school, "Gerard, we've had a staff member injured." "Oh, how?" "Well, she was punched in the face and it hurt her neck and now she's going to the doctor for nerve injury in her neck."

Everybody would be thinking about the child: "Oh my golly, that child's really violent."

But if we wind it back far enough, we see that there are some issues here with the habits of safety. And one of the habits of safety that we teach is called proxemics. Fundamentally, it refers to three things. It means, at what distance are you going to deal with that child? You've got the standard size of a classroom, and I know how cluttered the classrooms are, but you've got to choose, am I going to go right over there to them? Am I going to stay far away? And when is the right time to get close? So that's judging distances.

The second part of proxemics is called positioning and it is a subtle art. Particularly if I'm working as part of a team with my teammate, we have to decide, well, where in the space are each of us going to place ourselves in order to get the best effect with this child?

We see a lot of people who divide out roles and say, "Well, you're his one-to-one, so you go talk to him while I manage the rest of the class." And I want to challenge that very gently with you by asking: if we've got a child who's really in distress, one of the things you might want to do is to trust the rest of the children not to go (if you’ll excuse the loose language) completely “Lord of the Flies” in the 10 to 20 seconds you need to safely address the one who is in the early stages of losing their cool.

Wherever possible, it takes a team to safely address a child who's really distressed. One of the biggest issues we see legally in these types of incident is that a staff member is left on their own, or there were other staff there, but they didn't help in the encounter. Teamwork is key for safety, for safeguarding and for effective incident management.

Intervening on your own with a really distressed child, from the legal cases that I know of since I started 16 years ago in this sector, seems to be a really bad idea.

Working as a team through smart positioning can be really important.

The third part of proxemics is awareness of our own body language. One of the things we will teach your teams when we meet them is: when dealing with a frustrated child who is proven to be unpredictable - maybe they have a history of lashing out at staff - always have your hands above your waist and between you and the child.

So even when I'm dealing with a primary child in key stage one who's shorter than me, if I choose to take a knee to speak to them on their level, my hands will still be floating in front of my body as barriers and as a preparation for something my body-mind system might need to do to protect myself or to instinctively push-away from something that's coming at me really quickly. That's what we call safe use of your body language and hand gestures.

Those are the three things involved in proxemics. To feel safe, I would want you to have an awareness and to be more mindful of your distance, your positioning and your hand gestures in relation to how they might protect you.

Those are the details - here is the key strategy though: The practices I described above establish a foundation for safe practice. So if you're feeling safer (”I know what to do, I'm aware of how quickly this child might be unpredictable with me, I’m alert to the danger and I have a plan for what to do” then cognitively, you can go to the next stage, which is something we call the showtime mindset.

What is emotional equilibrium when supporting positive behaviour in school?

We call it the showtime mindset, because it's got to do with a performance!

In a performance you walk on stage, there is an audience, you have to perform, there might even be a script, there'll be interaction with the audience maybe, and then there may be a curtain behind you and then there'll be an area you are aware of called backstage. The showtime mindset means "Okay, I'm ready to go on the stage and perform." You can do various things to put yourself in the right state. You might need to be mindful of your breathing. You might need to be mindful of your facial expression. You might need to be offering yourself some good positive self-talk as you approach a difficult, high-stakes interaction.

Especially if you are going to interact with what we might describe as (using somewhat loose language) one of your ‘frequent flyers’ ( a child who consistently needs the interventions of staff to keep their conduct on-track) an example of negative self-talk would be to say, "Oh no, not Jimmy again, I can't help him anymore than I have already. He's really winding me up." And that kind of language of course isn't going to help you to be at your most professional when things get tricky.

So, professional self-talk in that moment would be, "Okay, I've got this, I'm going to use my training, he's going to be like putty in my hands today." Whatever positive self-coaching you might use, if it changes your polarity in that way, it will be really important.

So I think it is really important that we've got those two things that we can affect in place and established before we go to talk to the person who is unpredictable, upset and unprepared for the interaction.

How do we start a conversation about behaviour with a child or young person?

Let’s talk then about initial contact. How we begin a conversation is really, really important. We have a specific way we recommend that people start interactions like these.

If you've ever been in a situation where you thought, “gosh, that ended badly”, you may have reflected on it and thought, “well, I could have started it better or they could have started it better. If I had the chance to do it again, I would've started it a bit more slowly or I would've asked a question” - we call this moment the initial contact and to get us through it successfully, we recommend the universal greeting.

If I'm in the corner of a classroom and I see Jimmy stand up and he throws a book against the wall - a very clear sign that he's not really enjoying himself at school today - then I would open the encounter carefully as follows:

  • I look and I say to him, "Oh, good morning, Jimmy. It's me and I'm looking after everybody today and teaching this class."

[I am also managing proxemics]

As I walk towards him, I might look around and say, "I can see that Mary is sitting quietly. And, oh well done, David, I can see you've got your book open"

Then as I get closer to him, I say, "Hey, listen, the reason I've come to speak to you is I that I have a guess you're feeling a bit wobbly…. Is there something I can help you with?" And those four elements flow in that way.

Get their attention. That's the purpose of the greeting. "Good morning. Hi, Jimmy."

Identify yourself and your role. Now, if you're with them all year, you don't necessarily say, "It's Mr. O'Dea," but you can say, "Hey, it's me," and make that connection. Connect and then correct.

You state very clearly the reason for your contact with him. We have frequent flyers, don't we? We have children for whom corrections of their conduct gravitate towards them all day long - sometimes all week long. Corrections and challenges become background noise for them. "Oh, I've done something wrong again, I wonder (but don’t care) what it is this time!"

When we clearly explain that there is one reason for our contact, "Jimmy, the reason I've come to speak to you is I noticed [this specific thing]. Is everything okay?"

I’m attempting to not escalate the situation from that point because by saying there's one thing I want to talk about, I can allow him relax about all the other things that could be going wrong that day.

And then I can make a request, "Will you come here with me? Do you want to help me with something? Is there something I can help you with?" and so on.

That's what we call a universal greeting. Maybe even more important for anybody who is not so familiar to the child. If you've got a member of SLT coming into the room to deal with a certain situation, then this is going to be really nice way to start that conversation. A clear, very measured way to initiate contact. Otherwise, if you don't have a procedure for that that you've practiced, then each time you initiate contact with somebody, it's going to be more variable - and you might get a different result.

In a way, when we're attempting a behaviour intervention, it's a little bit like a laboratory experiment. We want to have a control, we want to have something that's consistent each time we walk into a room so that we know when the situation goes left or right, we know it's not because of our approach. We know our approach is consistent. We've got a control on one end (only one end!) of the interaction.

End of Part 1 of this Interview

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