The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Steve Baker

Establishing high expectations of behaviour

Steve Baker explains how to put good behaviour at the centre of your school ethos.

How should we go about setting high expectations?

The behaviour policy is not a bad place to start. Does it focus on positive behaviours for learning? The worst policies are a thinly disguised list of complaints about pupils’ behaviour.

(‘Pupils should arrive on time. Pupils should bring the right equipment.’ One can almost hear the staffroom cynics adding, 'But they don’t!’) The best begin with a statement of values: what do we believe about young people and their potential? How does that affect the way that all adults are expected to behave? The behaviour policy should apply to everyone in the building and it should provide a clear rationale for challenging staff behaviour that is not in accordance with those values.

What does ‘high expectations’ mean? The process of writing the behaviour policy should include a chance for staff to thrash this out.

There are those colleagues who say they have high expectations but in practice simply have a wish-list of the behaviours they would rather be experiencing; they do not genuinely expect good behaviour from their classes.

Staff who act as if they are wearily having their worst fears confirmed when they deal with inappropriate behaviour give the lie to our message. We must all act as if we genuinely expect good behaviour from every child.

The medium and the message

As senior leaders we must be careful that assemblies give a consistent message. An image from last September in a secondary school in the north of England comes to mind: the head of PSHE standing gloomily on the stage with a face like a wet weekend, hyper-vigilant as pupils entered the hall and barking at anyone who dared breathe, whilst behind her the inspirational PowerPoint message in joyous technicolor was ‘Reach for the Stars!’

She may as well have switched the projector off.

It is not the words we use with pupils that will establish and maintain high expectations, it is their lived experience throughout the school. We must ensure the medium is in keeping with the message.

In every classroom

High expectations start with the ‘meet and greet’. Staff must be upbeat, radiating both enthusiasm for the lesson and a genuine welcome for the class. If this does not happen then all the positive messages communicated in the welcome assembly will turn to dust.

The ‘critical skills’ framework has a special title for the set of ground rules that good teachers always set up with their classes: the full-value contract.

  • How do we need to behave so everyone gets full value from each lesson?
  • Here’s what I expect from you.
  • What do you expect of me, your teacher?

Of course, this positivity has to be wedded to teaching approaches that enable pupils to enjoy success in frequent, bite-size portions. Anticipating success and holding high expectations go hand in hand.

If you look after the small things...

When we hear ourselves say ‘I’ve told you several times...’ an alarm bell should sound in our heads: ‘If I’ve told him several times, shouldn’t I have taken action by now?’ The same is true at whole-school level. If we disregard the trainers, leggings, headphones, etc, we are in for a world of trouble.

Senior leaders have an opportunity to lead by example at the start of the year, not only in consistently picking pupils up for these infringements but in modelling how to do it. One of the key reasons that staff sometimes avoid noticing issues in the corridor is that they fear the conversation will escalate. Senior leaders must be confident in modelling a wide range of de-escalation techniques that can get the miscreant’s hat off, without getting his back up.

Mind out for that moonwalking bear

A road safety advertisement some years ago asked viewers to count the number of passes made by one team in a sequence from a basketball game. During the sequence, a figure in a bear costume moonwalks across the screen à la Michael Jackson. Time and time again, those watching this advert fail to notice the hairy intruder until it is pointed out to them. In its original context the advert was reminding drivers to look for cyclists. In our context it reminds us that we can be so transfixed by the inappropriate behaviour of the few that we fail to notice the excellent behaviour of the many.

There is, quite rightly, much provision for those at risk of disaffection: the breakfast clubs, the literacy catch-up classes, the learning mentors and, as they get older, alternative provision. However, part of establishing and maintaining high expectations is ensuring that the way to get attention is getting it right. From classroom management to rewards policies, assemblies and all other aspects of school life, doing the right thing must be the way to get noticed.

Senior leaders can make this a focus of learning walks: who does the teacher talk to? How many of the class receive individual attention, however briefly?

Approaching whole-school behaviour as outlined above serves a number of purposes. It stresses both the importance of learning and of positive behaviour which is for the purpose of learning.

The listening school

In emphasising the messages that schools communicate at this time of year and hopefully throughout, one should not forget that communication is two-way. The most effective way that a school can demonstrate its commitment to pupils’ wellbeing is to be what John Stead of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children calls ‘a listening school’.

In terms of anti-bullying, feedback on learning, restorative approaches and in countless other ways, pupils will know that the school cares about their wellbeing if they know that they will be listened to. Making sure that the school council can point to changes that originated from their feedback might be a tidy task for a senior leader expecting a visit from Ofsted before the term is out.

Successful strategies

Which strategies are most effective in combating bullying? This summary of recent findings will provide some inspiration for adopting successful whole-school approaches. 


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