A discussion about student behaviour

Written by: Sarah Long | Published:
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Poor behaviour does not happen in isolation – something is driving it, and a one-size-fits-all approach to behaviour management will not work. Sarah Long advises

When I started thinking about behaviour, I was transported back to my time as an NQT – a long time ago! I started remembering the diametrically opposed advice I got off other teachers about how to manage children’s behaviour:

  • Don’t smile ‘til Christmas.
  • Never say anything negative to any child you work with.
  • It is like a war and you are the officer in charge.
  • Display the behaviour that you want the children to mirror back to you.
  • Do not let the little monsters grind you down and make sure you are a bigger bitch than them.
  • If you treat a child with respect, they will remember you forever.
  • Children are like dogs – they sense fear.

All these little gems of wisdom were very interesting, but they did nothing to help me decide, as an NQT, how on earth I was going to control the behaviour of 30 children.

Reject one-size-fits-all

As it turned out, all through my time at mainstream secondary school my behaviour management techniques did not change that much and they also continued in a similar vein when I began work at a special school.

All children – but SEN children in particular – need to be treated as individuals. Behaviour management does not work when you try and promote a one-size-fits-all approach to changing children’s behaviour. Next, and equally important, is that every child you come into contact with needs to know that you like them – even if, sometimes, you do not like the behaviour they are displaying.

Lots of children, sadly, live in a reality where they think no-one likes them and feel that they are unlikeable. We sometimes forget that behaviour does not just happen in isolation, something has to be driving it: unmet special needs, a lack of boundaries and direction and sometimes, even more sadly, it is learned behaviour observed from the actions of people around them.

Just because you happen to let children know that you like them, that does not mean that you cannot still enforce firm boundaries and routines, in fact children of all ages feel safest when they know how they stand – even if they behave like “Kevin” and roll their eyes at you as you say it.

If there is one thing I have learned about behaviour, it is that once you have taken the time to get to know a child and let them know you like them, they will do their best to please you.

Some behaviour basics

I do not underestimate how difficult it is to manage behaviour with the ever-increasing complexity of the children in schools. However, sticking to some basics makes the job a lot easier:

  • Get to know your children before they walk in your classroom door – know their levels, their SEN, any home circumstances that might affect their behaviour (this comes back to treating children’s behaviour on an individual basis).
  • Have very clear expectations and routines from the very first lesson and stick to them.
  • Communicate frequently about behaviour (good and bad).
  • Keep parents in the loop. They may not be happy that their children are misbehaving but they cannot do anything about it if they do not know what is going on.
  • Stay calm and have a plan if things go wrong.
  • Celebrate good behaviour, including with parents (it is easy to forget to do this and simply focus on the negative stuff).

A holistic approach

When you are thinking about a whole school approach to meeting the needs of vulnerable children with complex additional needs, schools that encourage the holistic development of children and their families help them to thrive.

That holistic approach is vitally important when you are supporting children with a range of issues, particularly children who are in care of the local authority, have mental health difficulties, Attachment issues, or are subject to some level of social care support.

These children and their families are vulnerable and have a variety of complex needs that make them isolated, devoid of aspirations and prone to a lack of resilience to enable them to have good future life chances. We need to support them and give them the links to organisations that can improve their lives.

Access to the outdoors

In my work, I have also found that access to green spaces can have a profound effect on pupils’ mental health and wellbeing, promoting the ability to nurture, be determined, tackle new challenges, be safe and take care of ourselves, develop self-esteem, feel positive and be resilient.

As many of these positive attributes are difficult for vulnerable children to achieve it is sometimes up to schools and teachers to give children access to these learning opportunities. Introducing outdoor learning opportunities to your curriculum can have a tremendous impact on your children’s mental health and wellbeing.

Outdoor learning can take many forms and will, to an extent, be dictated by your immediate environment, but every school can do it – even if it is just having hanging baskets or a bird table, or taking students outside when possible.

Other examples include:

  • Woodcraft (making bird boxes, bird tables, etc).
  • Cooking over a fire pit (communication skills).
  • Camp kitchen (promotes life-skills).
  • Gardening skills (planting trees, growing vegetables, managing a pond).
  • A bird-feeding area (perhaps with a bird hide to observe the visiting birds).
  • Small animal petting area with rabbits and guinea pigs. Working with animals of any size has an enormous impact on developing empathy for others and improves social and communication skills.

Children benefit enormously from all kinds of outdoor learning and this type of learning opportunity allows them to develop the confidence to communicate with the wider school community.

  • Sarah Long is assistant headteacher and SENCO at Gilbrook School in Birkenhead, a maintained special school for pupils with social, emotional and mental health difficulties.


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