Since the beginning of my career, I’ve been interested in how some pupils’ difficult home lives can affect their behaviour in school. I’ve always wanted to do whatever I can to help these children to behave well, and to thrive. This two-part blog is about what I’ve learned along the way - it’s not exhaustive, but I hope there’s some stuff in here that you’ll find useful. In part one, I’ll be looking at relationships, a behaviour curriculum, routines and scaffolds. Caveat:
I want to make clear that I do not believe all misbehaviour is a result of a difficult home life or an unmet need. I know that many children (myself once included) do daft things because it’s amusing, or to get attention. This blog was initially inspired by those children who face very difficult circumstances at home, and what I’ve realised works for them. However, the strategies I’ll discuss work for all learners, with many of my suggestions stemming from what I’ve learned about good inclusive practice. ‘Navigating chaos’
Jaz Ampaw-Farr’s terms ‘chaos navigators’ and ‘order navigators’ really got me thinking when we spoke to her back in 2020. She said that as a child, she navigated chaos on a daily basis at home, meaning that nothing was predictable, safe, or reassuring. She said that the school environment seemed to be designed more for order navigators, in that the expectations aligned more closely with their home lives – making it an easier place for them to manage in. In my experience, the ‘order’ of a school environment can elicit two different responses from a child who is used to navigating chaos: 1) School can feel like a safe-haven where the child knows, and feels, that they can succeed. Or: 2) The school environment can really jar – leaving the child feeling out of place, and like failure is inevitable. As a senior leader, I’ve wrestled with how I can make success more likely for every learner in my school (which includes many children who navigate chaos daily). This two-part blog is simply me sharing the practical things that I’ve noticed seem to work. 1. A grounding in ‘ACE’ relationships
When we spoke to Jaz Ampaw-Farr, she talked about the ‘everyday heroes’ who helped her so much when she was at school. She described the characteristics they all displayed which benefited her. Her acronym ‘ACE relationships’ stands for: • Authenticity • Consistency • (High) Expectations embedded. Jaz was drawn to adults who were genuine and authentic. She didn’t need them to unpick or analyse her trauma – but instead, to be steady figures in her life who had a strong grounding in their ‘why’. Consistency was also key for Jaz - she benefited from being around teachers who were steady and dependable. Her everyday heroes didn’t have rules and boundaries that shifted on a daily basis. Their warmth wasn’t there one day and gone the next. She knew what to expect from them, and that made her feel secure. These everyday heroes also had high expectations. There is a temptation, particularly when working with vulnerable pupils, to lower our expectations because we feel sympathy for them. Is this in our students’ interests? As Jaz said to us in the podcast: “They didn’t let me off.” I will return to this point about accountability near the end of the blog.
2. You need a behaviour curriculum
A behaviour curriculum should clearly and precisely define the behaviours a school wants to see from their pupils. It should have the same level of rigour and thought put into it as any other curriculum area. It should be communicated effectively with all stakeholders and returned to on a regular basis. If you are interested in this, speak to Andrew Percival (@primarypercival) who says that having a curriculum for behaviour has had a massive impact on his pupils at Stanley Road Primary in Oldham. The key thing about a behaviour curriculum is that it makes your expectations completely clear to everybody. For some children, school can be very distressing because the rules aren’t initially made clear enough, which can lead them to feel unjustly punished when their behaviour falls short of what we expect from them. As teachers, we often assume that children know how we want them to behave. For example, we might think that it’d be obvious to a young person how we would want them to move around the corridors, eat in the dining room or how to ask to borrow something. But this isn’t necessarily the case. A behaviour curriculum means that teachers will precisely and clearly teach their children how to do these ‘everyday’ things in the right way. Taking the example of moving in the corridors, if all children know that we need to move quietly, to keep our hands to ourselves, and to walk in a single-file, then everybody is on a level-pegging; there’s no mystery or guess-work involved! The wonderful thing about a behaviour curriculum is that every teacher will expect the same things, meaning that children get consistent messaging from every adult, every year, throughout their whole school journey. 3. Teach routines and habits to automaticity
We have learnt a lot about how cognitive science principles can benefit learners. We know that working memory is limited in capacity, so getting children to rehearse routines to automaticity will free them up to focus on other stuff. For example: • If there is a particularly calm way that pupils come into class after break, then they are going to start their next lesson in a more focused way. • If books are handed out in the same, calm way for every lesson, we avoid creating unnecessary noise or distraction which could overwhelm some children. • If we have been clear about the appropriate way to get an adults’ attention, or to ask to go to the toilet, then we embed good manners that will serve our pupils well in the future. These routines should all stem from the behaviour curriculum, and need to be practised to automaticity at the start of every academic year. They then need to be revisited using retrieval practice at the start of each half-term, or whenever necessary. 4. Provide scaffolds, or reasonable adjustments
Like all curriculum areas, we should have the same high expectations for all students. This is what Ofsted refers to as “an ambitious curriculum for all”. However, we need to recognise that reaching these high standards of behaviour will be harder for some children than it is for their peers. This doesn’t mean that we lower our expectations; it means that we scaffold up, and help them to succeed. A good scaffold could also be considered a ‘reasonable adjustment’ – it’s about putting something simple in place that allows your students to flourish. Some of these adjustments can be adapted, or slowly removed over time. Some of them are features of good, inclusive practice, and don’t ever need changing or removing. Examples of scaffolds for behaviour:
• Visual timetables: they benefit all learners, but particularly children who are prone to feeling anxious. A visual timetable can reduce arousal levels and give all learners a sense of predictability about the day ahead. • Preparing for changes: This goes hand in hand with the point above. Some children will be particularly thrown by last-minute changes. Sometimes we can’t avoid this, but where possible, we should give children the heads-up about things that will look different to normal. • Organisational prompts: Some children might need a little more support with how to prepare themselves for lessons. In the primary classroom, this might be a little visual checklist on their table that reminds them of what they need to do at the start of each lesson. • Over-communicating our expectations: We might need to repeat our rules and expectations more often than feels natural. By doing this positively, we ensure there is absolutely no confusion about what we expect from children. • Check for understanding: Like we’d do in our lessons, we need to check that what we’ve taught about behaviour has ‘landed’. We need to get children to articulate back to us what good behaviour looks like. We can do this at any time, e.g. lining up to walk to the hall for assembly: “Jack, remind me how I would expect everyone to walk in the corridors?” • Pre-teaching or pre-preparing: This works well before an event that is a bit different to usual. We had a student a few years ago who staff were terrified about taking on a trip because on the previous outing, his behaviour had been really challenging. This time, we showed him a load of pictures of where we were going. We talked about the general public and how we needed him to behave at certain points. We told him what he needed to do if he was feeling anxious, and so on. The day went brilliantly, and his behaviour was exceptional. • Exit cards (or similar): Some children need an agreed plan for what they can do when things go wrong. This plan should be manageable, safe and something everyone is happy with. I had one pupil, for example, who would hand me a red card when he felt ready to explode, and instead of ripping down a display, he would go and bounce a tennis ball for 2 minutes, then return. (This is an example of a bespoke reasonable adjustment for a child with specific needs.) • Time to talk: Some children have so much going on in their heads that they need to ‘release the valve’ a little before they’re able to focus. Having an agreed time in the week where someone will check-in for a chat can be all they need to feel calmer and more settled in school.
Join us later this week for part 2! To receive a notification of publication, why not subscribe to my blog? You can do so here: www.aidansevers.com/subscribe