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Elizabeth Holmes

Teachers struggling with behaviour need support, not ridicule

Asking for help with behaviour management is not a sign of incompetence. Elizabeth Holmes suggests adopting an approach to development based on evidence and understanding could help to reduce fear and stress.

‘Pain explains a great deal of human conduct, but the fear of pain even more.’ Neil Abramson, Unsaid

Behaviour management remains a significant concern for many teachers and consequently a focus for CPD in schools. Yet much behaviour advice comes in the form of generic tips which are heavily influenced by the whim of the writer or trainer. The advice given is often based on personal experience rather than interdisciplinary research and, understandably, does not take into account the peculiarities of the context, experience and personality of the teacher being trained. It’s extremely rare to find proven, specific advice which has a tangible, positive impact on an individual’s experience of behaviour in their classroom. And that’s a challenge. Of course there will be some generic tips which, when deployed, work beautifully for most teachers. The obvious ones, such as being compassionate and consistent, are failsafe and can happily bolster any school behaviour policy. Refining attitudes to behaviour management, however, necessarily happens throughout a career and is naturally an individual process. The dynamics between you and your learners are unique. Anyone observing in your school with a view to advising on behaviour needs incredibly sophisticated skills of analysis in order to avoid telling you to do what they would do – an approach that's doomed to failure.

Taking a multi-disciplinary approach

Undoubtedly we should be exploring with more enthusiasm what other disciplines can tell us about human behaviour and the way in which we interact. A multi-disciplinary approach to behaviour in schools will help to prevent major clangers (such as an over-reliance on consequences), if we bring together what we know about behaviour from neuroscience, psychology and education at the very least. If employing the services of a ‘behaviour expert’, always check whether their particular model is based on a multi-disciplinary review of the relevant available literature on behaviour in schools. In addition, has their model been used to good effect in a range of settings? How is this demonstrated? If it isn’t, I guarantee you’ll do better at sorting out your own behaviour needs in-house than by spending money bringing someone in. Examining the relationship between leadership attitudes, behaviour and how consistent teachers are will be a good place to start.

The importance of a healthy environment

One of the most important actions a school can take in improving behaviour is to talk about it as a full team, as small groups and one to one. For reasons perhaps best not dissected here, some schools remain reluctant to do this, fearing that to do so would risk exposure for those who really aren’t coping with challenging behaviour. I remember that in one of the first schools I taught in saying ‘is anyone else finding Johnny’s behaviour a challenge’ was tantamount to saying ‘I’m incompetent, please ridicule me’. A healthy environment would support those kinds of conversations and facilitate practical solutions that will work in that context. We know from the work of organisations such as the Teacher Support Network (@teachersupport) that challenging behaviour in the classroom continues to be a source of negative stress for teachers. It is utterly counterproductive for a school effectively to block frank discussions about teachers’ experiences of behaviour in displays of bullish bravado (‘he only behaves like that for you’ and the like). So if behaviour is a target for your school’s professional learning, pause first before searching for input. What, specifically, are the needs of your staff and students and how will those best be met using strategies based on the broadest picture of what we know about behaviour in schools? By Elizabeth Holmes

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