Vulnerable students: A school without sanctions

Written by: Steven Baker | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Non-confrontational behaviour management can be very effective with vulnerable pupils, especially those who have mental health difficulties. Why is this and what does this look like?

My colleague Mick Simpson and I are school leaders on a mission. We pioneered a system of behaviour modification based on compassion, wellbeing and reward, eschewing the use of sanctions.

Similar to a public health approach to tackling anti-social behaviour, a non-confrontational approach to modifying behaviour focuses on developing positive relationships and shifts the narrative to be preventative. It focuses our attention on tackling “upstream” risk factors that are driving challenging behaviour and helps us to prevent the “downstream consequences” of more challenging behaviours.

An element of this approach is based on the hierarchy of needs created by the renowned psychologist Abraham Maslow (1943). Maslow hypothesised that we could explore what motivates people and put these things into a pyramid-shaped hierarchy.

At the top was self-actualisation (fulfilling your potential) but before people could move through the hierarchy, they needed to have their needs met on the previous, lower layers. In other words, all learners need to have their basic needs met before they can start to realise their potential in school. This is particularly important for our most vulnerable learners, who may not be having their basic “safety” and “physiological” needs met.

If we do not strive to understand what we can do to support our most vulnerable learners – particularly those with social, emotional and mental health (SEMH) needs – we cannot effectively support them to move through Maslow’s hierarchy.

In addition, traditional, punitive approaches to managing behaviour might further exacerbate any challenging behaviour as sanctions are typically exclusionary in nature. Indeed, exclusions are often associated with poorer student outcomes, poorer academic attainment and a lessened sense of school belonging (DfE, 2019).

SECED SUPPLEMENT: This article is one of a number of best practice pieces in SecEd's recent 16-page supplement The many faces of our vulnerable learners. Download this for free here.

More than half of UK prisoners have previously been excluded from school, as have 88 per cent of young people in custody (Taylor, 2016), and there are links between exclusion from school and an increase in the risk of suicidal tendencies later in life (Samaritans, 2019).

As headteacher and deputy at a secondary special school in Birkenhead, we felt that our school was the perfect place to start. The primary need identified for all our students is SEMH and the difficulties they face regulating their emotions can lead to very challenging behaviours.
Many are affected by a range of co-morbid conditions including autism, ADHD, ODD, OCD, attachment disorder and psychosis. A high proportion are victims of deprivation that spans generations.

They are young people that mainstream schools find almost impossible to cater for; they and their families can feel like society has turned away from them. Some people would find these children difficult to love, yet daily we watched, awestruck, as our wonderful staff team responded to extreme behaviours with compassion and kindness, implementing the school’s non-confrontational policies to secure behavioural standards described by Ofsted as “exemplary”. We wanted to share our approach with anyone who would listen.

We developed a free training package, based on simple neuroscience and psychology. At its core is an understanding of the human threat response and its detrimental effects on learning and behaviour. Our brains perceive potential existential threat in many situations and schools can be worrisome environments for us all.

Adopting non-confrontational approaches in order to dampen everybody’s threat response is central to all we do, and it helps us to build the fabulous relationships that we are so proud of. It reduces all our anxiety levels and promotes wellbeing in students and staff alike.

We were, however, wrestling with an intractable problem: how to move away from a punitive system of behaviour management that we knew was, at best, ineffective and at worst profoundly damaging. We knew what we did not want, we just didn’t know what to replace it with.
Fortune smiled kindly when a chance encounter brought us into contact with Dr Alice Jones-Bartoli. A leading behaviour expert, Dr Jones-Bartoli is director of the Unit for School and Family Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London, and editor in chief for the British Journal of Educational Psychology.

She helped us to understand why punishment just does not work for large sections of the population, adding scientific validity to what we instinctively knew.

Together, we identified three main groups of students for whom punishment would be less effective. One was a group who had a combination of ADHD and “behaviour problems”. These young people have an inhibited fear response and are less likely to respond to aversive conditioning, the basis for all punishment.

Another group displayed strong “callous unemotional” traits and their need for social dominance and control of others often means that punishment is not only ineffective but is likely to lead to undesirable secondary behaviours.

The third group comprised those with additional social communication needs. These students often do not process social clues as we might expect and may miss “punishment cues”, leading to upset and confusion when sanctions are applied. One hundred per cent of our school population fell into one or more of these groups.

Crucially for us, Dr Jones-Bartoli explained that everybody responds to reward or the possibility of reward in all its forms. The structures in our brains that respond to reward are ancient and the effects of stimulating them are very powerful indeed. A multi-layered system of reward became the basis of the behaviour modification approach that she and our whole staff team helped us to develop.

When our first project development day dawned, it is fair to say that there were a lot of concerned staff and governors present. This was the occasion where the future removal of sanctions became a serious reality for the first time.

The depth of these concerns became apparent when we invited people to post them on a “worry wall”. We, too, felt nervous as we read a litany of apprehension including “how will I control my class?” and “the kids will run riot”.

It was the start of months of work with the entire team to develop systems, anticipate problems and write the new scripts we would need to ensure that the pupils heard a consistent message from everybody. We all knew we were stepping into uncharted territory and, in fact, launched the project a few weeks before the summer break so that we could rip it up and go back to “normal” if it all went horribly wrong.

Six years and two “outstanding” Ofsted grades later, the school is still standing, the staff and the students make it work together and are helping each other through the tough times we are living right now. It is heartening, among the gloom, to read so much about the importance of compassion, kindness and of people pulling out all the stops to look after each other, especially the most vulnerable. This is music to our ears, and there is so much more of it to explore.

Our favourite, easy tips

Nothing that we do or advocate is new. All we have done is to pull some tools and strategies into an overarching plan, explaining how they work and could be of benefit. Here are a few easy wins:

Catch them being good: The oldest trick in the book and our most useful tool. Try not to miss an opportunity to praise your students, or colleagues, when they make the sort of choice that you want to see more of. Praise activates powerful reward centres in the brain, releasing hormones that make us feel pleasure. The result: repeated positive choices and a boost to wellbeing. What’s not to like?

Maybe, and: Challenging remarks are often an invitation to a fight and very effectively substituting diversionary conflict for your learning agenda. We have been using “maybe, and” for years to swerve such invitations. “Mr Smith lets us sit where we want.” “Maybe he does, and I’d like you to focus on the text now, thanks.”

Thinking time: Do not react instantly, rather give yourself thinking time to respond. Try slowly breathing in for five seconds, holding for five and then out for five. You will dampen your threat response, feel calmer, speak more slowly and your heart rate will drop. It gives you 15 seconds to plan your next move.

Consequential choices: It is okay to say what you need to and then walk away – you do not need to get the last word in, just achieve the result you need. Try a consequential choice – leaving the apparent control in their hands. “If you choose to continue chatting, you’ll be choosing to sit separately for five minutes.” Deliver the choice calmly, walk away to give some time for compliance, and make sure you follow up if you need to.

Outcomes and concessions: Identify the outcomes you need to achieve and the concessions you are prepared to make before you enter a discussion. Stay focused on them and you are less likely to “make it personal” or be drawn into an argument.

Calm, even tone: Most of the information people pick up about your emotional state is from non-verbal signals. Show you are in control of your emotions and that you care about theirs by using a calm, even tone and open body language.

Three good things: Give wellbeing a boost and help your relationships by talking about “three good things” every day with your class, team or family. Each person simply says three things that have happened in the last 24 hours that were positive, explaining what they did to contribute to one of them. It can be anything from having a cup of tea to climbing Ben Nevis! It is a startlingly powerful tool.


We firmly believe that this approach works and that a movement away from punishment (but certainly not consequences) is possible for all schools.

Most importantly, we feel that a non-confrontational approach to modifying behaviour can support our most vulnerable learners while never leaving them with nowhere to go – educationally or behaviourally.

If you would like to learn more about this approach, our book – A School Without Sanctions (2020) –follows our journey and explains why it works, how we did it and why we think the world of education and beyond should take a look...

  • Steven Baker is executive headteacher of The Aspire Schools Federation, which caters for children with social, emotional and mental health difficulties and includes Kilgarth Secondary School. He is co-author of A School Without Sanctions (2020).

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