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It’s time to move away from the term ‘Behaviour Management’



People's or animals' behaviour is the way that they behave. You can refer to typical and repeated way of behaving as a behaviour.

In science, the behaviour of something is the way that it behaves.

When you Google and research ‘(What is) Behaviour Management’, it brings an array of terms such as ‘positive choices’, ‘tools’, ‘consistency’ etc. All this with a string of websites offering their ‘top tips’.

This article isn’t about staff’s evidential struggle with the complexities of working with and responding to externalised negative behaviours, nor is it diminishing the issue of the ongoing, documented increase in ‘low-level disruption’ in the classroom. It is about moving away from a dated, inapplicable and misleading term and its practice.

It is a ‘concept’ that is perhaps the most daunting and discouraging for new teachers entering the profession due to the unknown challenges that it brings. I read one website that was advertising ‘Behaviour Management’ courses with a strap line “If you are new to teaching and find tackling low-level behaviour daunting, take a look at this brand-new course”.

“Tackling” a term used in making determined efforts to deal with (a problem or difficult task). Is low-level behaviour the problem? Is Behaviour Management the solution, or is Behaviour Management and the sell of solving or tackling an issue the bigger problem? Teachers are therefore already tuned to the negative connotations of 'behaviour' and the so-called management of behaviour.

The acknowledgment that the term ‘Behaviour Management’ becoming outdated is not new. However there continues to be a national recognition of the term, push for courses to solve the issue and obtain resources in order to support those who already feel are drowning by the difficulties.

Referring back to Collins Dictionary’s definition of behaviour, ‘People's behaviour is the way that they behave. You can refer to a typical and repeated way of behaving as a behaviour’. This definition in the context of classroom or school behaviour is of a secondary issue. We should be looking at and practicing an understanding of ‘why’ they behave and why they are repeatedly behaving this way.

Already this slight change in wording looks to unpick the issue in a more proactive approach rather than that of a reactive approach. It is all in the way things are worded and expressed, which will determine how policies are written and how decisions are made.

In the National Education Union’s Positive Behaviour Management document, it does look at the differentiation needed for more ‘vulnerable’ children “Children and young people with SEND need a differentiated approach to behaviour management. Their SEN or disability may make it more difficult for them to comply with school behaviour policies and education professionals need to be aware of this in managing classroom behaviour.” To be contrary, this should be the same approach to all children and young people navigating through their complex world. Young people without identified SEN difficulties or who are identified as ‘neuro-typical’ still have difficulties and still need a differentiated approach as they are in fact different.

Let’s use our knowledge of a vehicle as an example. Whilst many of us own and drive vehicles, there are few that know the mechanical aspects of how a car works. We trust the car manufacturers and know through general knowledge and when we were taught to drive that we have to do basic things to keep the car running effectively. We are in theory ‘managing’ a vehicle or is it Vehicle Management. However, with vague information and with a desire for the car just to do as it should so we can go about our daily routine, we only focus on when the car has an issue, when it is not running effectively, its making a terrible noise or its ceased working completely. We do not even consider how the car generally performs, just when it’s not working to our expectation. At this point we take it to a specialist aka a mechanic.

In order to prevent the car from breaking down or not performing to its full potential we don’t put constant added pressure on the engine or on its tyres, as we know this will only cause issues and added expense. Each car needs to be driven differently, each car needs its own level of care and products. We can put fuel in one car, that would ruin the engine of another. We can drive one car at over 140mph easily, whereas that would break another car. Whilst all cars all do the same thing, they come in all shapes, sizes and have different features and qualities. Some even say cars have different personalities. Whilst we don’t know the mechanics, we know how to generally look after a car. Would we know how to better run a car, if we built a little more knowledge about the mechanics and would it make us nurture the car more effectively, so it ran more efficiently and potentially had had fewer problems?

Let’s spend a little more time understanding how a car works, rather than just managing it and hoping it doesn’t break down on us.

Within the ‘Statutory policies for schools and academy trusts’ guidance by the Department for Education, under point 3, a school is required to have a Behaviour in Schools Policy.

A Behaviour Policy outlines the schools process of responding to positive and negative behaviours. Within the guidance, “Independent schools must ensure: a written behaviour policy is drawn up that sets out the sanctions to be adopted in the event of pupil misbehaviour the policy is implemented effectively a record is kept of the sanctions imposed upon pupils for serious misbehaviour”. Such negative connotations of behaviour and how to respond to behaviour in two simple steps.

A guidance document released by The Department for Education in 2016 was titled ‘Behaviour and discipline in schools.

Without reading any further than the title, it is linking the term behaviour with discipline. Discipline being ‘the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behaviour, using punishment to correct disobedience.’. The contents page of this Policy has words and phrases such as ‘Punishing’, ‘sanctions’, ‘Confiscation’, ‘Power’ all words that resonate more recently around a world-wide challenge of one countries invasion of another and not how best to support children and young people within what is meant to be an inspiring, engaging and fulfilling experience.

A teacher going through their introduction at a school and requiring to sign off the school’s Behaviour Policy is already motivated by a sanction driven procedure. Many great teachers would much prefer to work with the young person before the externalised negative behaviours are presented. However, teaching is focused by content, such constraints are immediate triggers for cognition overload. A perfect storm for inattention, frustration, fear and anxiety manifest into overload. However, the policies and its procedures must be followed and the content must be covered, right?

Whilst I fully appreciate in order to have a society of ‘law-abiding citizens’, there must be laws, rules and instructions to follow and children must understand that there is an expectation of following these in order to become prosocial members of society. However, this is not my point. My point is the negative connotations of how behaviour should be ‘managed’ and in a disciplinary way. This ultimately causes the inexcusable ‘zero tolerance’ school culture, which aims to exacerbate children’s difficulties through a fear and suppressive approach, which to anyone who understands, practices and supports SEND and SEMH difficulties know and understand the significant consequences of this approach.

Some great, forwarding thinking, open minded schools are now looking to change this and the title of their Behaviour Policy to be more sensitive and understanding where it is developed on forming relationships and respect instead of sanction driven.

When I founded and created an Alternative Provision for young people with SEND and SEMH difficulties and developed it into an Independent School, our ‘Behaviour Policy’ (as required by the Independent School Standards) included ‘Behaviour Scaffold’. Our scaffolding process was developed and named as we believed it was a temporary structure used to aid in the construction, maintenance and repair of relationships within the school. With the cohort of young people we supported, sanctions were not part of our ethos, values and approach. Where externalised behaviours were becoming a concern and/or impacting on others and the school’s expectations, a Performance Contract was implemented as part of this scaffold. This was further based on the young person’s difficulties and their barriers, where further targeted intervention was implemented.

Just like Vygotsky’s scaffolding and the education concept "zone of proximal development" or ZPD. The ZPD is the set of skills or knowledge a student can't do on their own but can do with the help or guidance of someone else. It's the skill level just above where the student currently is. A child or young person needs to be supported to identify and understand emotions, co-regulate in order to learn to self-regulate, develop their emotional literacy, understand how to form and build relationships etc. All through the guidance of someone else just as Vygotsky’s scaffolding works in methods of teaching. When staff choose not to focus on this approach, negative behaviour becomes the workload.

We must therefore finally move away from the term Behaviour Management. It is a reactive, pessimistic and obstructive term and has little chance in fully understanding children and young people and the reasons why they are presenting these behaviours whether it be low-level disruption to more complex crisis. Once there is more focus on understanding and knowing the reasons for a young person’s irrational thinking or their desire to gain peer approval and the instant gratification which outweighs the understanding of the risk and potential consequences, we will ultimately see more positive relationships and connection.

With a shift towards understanding why students are behaving the way they are, our mindset works towards a more connective, dynamic and enquiry focused approach rather than a management approach.

As senior leaders in any industry and sector know, the term management must go hand in hand with the term leadership. Without leadership, influencing and setting examples, a management structure, which is more about control is likely to impact on morale and motivation causing feelings of suppression and suffocation. Monitoring the daily reports of a child’s negative and positive behaviour is basically micromanagement which will only cause heightened stress, reduced positivity and eventually rejection of the values and system.

In a Harvard Business Review titled ‘Three Differences Between Managers and Leaders’, it looks at Counting value vs Creating value, Circles of influence vs Circles of power and Leading people vs Managing work. All of these subheadings within the article can resonate and resemble how the management of behaviour is flawed. Working with children and young peoples’ behaviour (both positive and negative) can and should focus on the concept of a leadership mentality. A school approach focusing on ‘creating values’, rather than ‘counting values’ sets a mutual respect culture rather than a tally of consequences. Where young people are surrounded by influences and influential figures, this can be a very powerful whole school approach. In order to become better people, we must surround ourselves with positive influences. If young people are surrounded by positive influences and role models to inspire them and make them feel better people, they are more likely to understand, appreciate and be more respectful of staff’s decisions. What we thrive for as an employee should be no different to how we treat children and young people. And finally, Leading people vs Managing work. “Management consists of controlling a group or a set of entities to accomplish a goal. Leadership refers to an individual’s ability to influence, motivate, and enable others to contribute toward organisational success. Influence and inspiration separate leaders from managers, not power and control.” Vineet Nayar, Founder of the Sampark Foundation based in Delhi, and the former CEO of HCL Technologies.

Accompanying the 2016, Department for Education guidance is a document entitled ‘Getting the simple things right: Charlie Taylor’s behaviour checklists written in 2011. The document opens with ‘Why is it that some schools continue to struggle with managing and improving behaviour?’

Whilst it identifies the importance of consistency as a simple, yet effective approach, it suggests that without these consistencies, students will push boundaries. Whilst this may be true, it is the prerogative of a child going through significant changes and understanding the complexity of the world to push boundaries. It then goes on to suggest that with consistencies “If he gets away with it, the threat of detention will be no deterrent in the future”. Why is ensuring a student attends a detention the benefits and basis of consistency? Should these ‘Getting the simple things right’ documents be looking at consistency of meeting the child’s needs as a more proactive approach than ensuring they are attending a detention. Many of which could be attending due to being misunderstood or their initial needs not being met or a trigger not being prevented or identified, resulting in agitated and accelerated externalised behaviours that meant a detention being given as per the school's Behaviour Policy. Then, when the student wishes to challenge this decision, voice their own perception of events and exercise critical thinking, its not uncommon for further sanctions to be imposed in order to manage the behaviour of this noncompliant and belligerent individual.

Taylor, suggests in his checklist under Policy, “Display school rules clearly in classes and around the building. Staff and pupils should know what they are” Is this ‘counting value’ rather than ‘creating value’. Taylor’s forth point “Display the tariff of sanctions and rewards in each class.” This appears more (micro) managing work than ‘leading people’. If the culture and leadership is right, no reminders of the ‘school rules’ through displays around the school should be necessary.

The idea of the simplicity of the checklist makes sense and the importance of identifying and rewarding positive behaviours is important. Teachers and school staff have a complex, timebound job and therefore short, concise advisories can be helpful. But unfortunately supporting children and their externalised negative behaviours is not a simple process, if the necessary information is not available from the outset, this in turn, makes things more difficult. Should we therefore be developing a more effective programme during the initial stages of the profession to allow for better understanding of what's under the bonnet, rather than stood at the side of the road scratching our heads when the 'car' has blown a gasket (pun intended).

We see the senior leaders, teachers and support staff who are fantastic at working with the more ‘challenging’ students. This is not because they are following a checklist, it is not because they may have undertaken all the professional development courses on offer. It is because

they care. They care about building a relationship. They care about understanding the child and their lifestyle. They look holistically. They care about how the child is feeling. They demonstrate this care through time and patience, which in turn builds effective relationships and mutual respect.

Whilst walking down a corridor, you bump into a student who should be in their lesson. Is your immediate response to ensure procedures are being following and immediately ask them ‘why aren’t you in lesson’ and procedurally walk them back to where they should be whilst ensuring your colleagues are aware by announcing it through the walkie talkies. Or is a ‘Hi, you doing ok?” approach more likely to allow for a better dialogue and route to understanding the child’s circumstances and explore the real reasons why they're not in their lesson. This is not Behaviour Management. This is connection, this is appreciation, this is human.

Written by Richard Bell, Director, NeuroEducation

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