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

Adele Bates

How do you deal with behaviour?

Been told you shouldn’t smile until Christmas? Adele Bates explores how you can work out how to do behaviour your own way.

When talking about behaviour there is often an underlining assumption that there is one way that really works. It’s the booming voice of discipline creating compliance, where silence in corridors, classrooms and across the school is perceived as golden – and often it’s the voice of a particular demographic – male, SLT and older.*

And yes – for some this might work. However, we do have to acknowledge that ‘silence’ and ‘compliance’ don’t automatically equal learning (it can equal doodles and much more), though that’s another blog post….

So: what do you do if you don’t fit into this demon headmaster stereotype of behaviour management?

  • Do you just have to pass your ‘tricky’ cherubs over to others?
  • Does it mean that you will have a lifetime of unruly classes?
  • Does it mean you have to be something you’re not?

*‘Older’ is up for interpretation and will depend on the context of your school!

Monk or Mary Poppins?

There have been many times that I’ve approached behaviour management differently to my colleagues, but it’s worked. Equally, there have been times – particularly during my training and early career years – where I tried to emulate the management styles of others, only to fall flat on my face.

Whilst on my PGCE, I was lucky enough to observe a fantastic, experienced teacher working with ‘the Nurture Group’ – which is generally code for ‘the-ones-who-struggle-to-behave-that-only-certain-teachers-can-deal-with.’ I was amazed to find a calm, quiet and focused atmosphere throughout this classroom. The teacher did not shout; instead he retained an almost Buddhist-monk-like presence and attention to his charges.

When I attempted the style, it was forced, ineffective, and I’m sure produced some strange faces as I tried to stifle my smiles

His language was positive, he spoke slowly, clearly and quietly. He never took his eyes off them. There was no sly catching up on the inbox – he was with the students for the full 90 minutes. I noticed he only smiled once in the whole session, which baffled me: the pupils clearly had great respect for him, and what he said was very positive, yet he held a neutral face. It was truly like watching an artist creating a masterpiece.

Armed with this wonderous new style, I returned to my boisterous mixed-ability Year 10 to channel my inner nun and harmony for all. And guess what? It was a disaster. My students are used to my pseudo-Mary Poppins persona – smiling, jumping, creating impromptu battle scenes with desks pushed aside as we interpret a line in a poem – they walked all over this quiet mouse in the corner.

I had learned my lesson. The monk-like behaviour management style worked for this particular teacher, because it was based on who he was already. It was authentic. When I attempted the style, it was forced, ineffective, and I’m sure produced some strange faces as I tried to stifle my smiles.

But I’d learned something else too: I’d learned that there were other ways. Instead of trying to copy, over time I tried out peppering my behaviour management with more moments of calm, stillness, and pause. This had a positive effect, and gave me another tool in my box when needed.

Behaviour management comes in a variety of forms

In the last five years I have become a behaviour and education specialist. I work in some of the most behaviourally challenging school environments (PRUs, APs, SEMH special schools), with pupils who have been excluded from (sometimes five!) mainstream schools, whose own trauma and adverse childhoods mean they don’t have the tools themselves to know how to ‘behave’, regulate – or sometimes how to keep themselves or others safe.

I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing an even wider range of behaviour management styles in these environments: the ‘I’m you’re cool older cousin *fist pump*, that’s not cool mate’; the ‘I’m everybody’s mother hen – and I taught your mum, so you’ll be in trouble if you step out of line, but let me lick my hanky and get that mud off your face meanwhile’; the clown – ‘let’s turn this into a game whilst getting you in line’ – and many more.

There’s a whole variety of approaches that work with the most challenging behaviour, yet this is not the story I hear when new initiatives come from the Department for Education.

So, I decided to start a conversation.

Behaviour and YOU!

Last year, in my community of Inspiring Educators, I invited teaching staff to contribute to the Behaviour and YOU! project, the beginnings of a narrative that shares the idea that there are many approaches, and their effectiveness depends on factors such as who you are, who your pupils are, what happens to be going on in your life at the time, and so on.

This has become particularly pertinent in the wake of Covid-19, with many teachers telling me that their ‘usual’ approaches no longer work, and they’re at a loss as to what to do. (For some ideas, see step back and think differently: extending your classroom management tool kit.)

For the project, I ask participants seven questions about who they are, their behaviour approaches, what works-even-though-it-shouldn’t, and their top tip for behaviour management. Participants so far have included a teaching assistant, supply teacher, teachers who are also parents of children with complex needs, and a maverick female gay teacher.

What has thrilled me about this investigation is finding the golden-nugget-tools that work for individuals. Here are just a few!

  • Virtual gold stars, lots of praise, and a clean slate once a sanction has been given.
  • A small bell which means pupils need to look and listen, rather than shouting.
  • Always try and think about what may be driving a child’s behaviour, whilst also acknowledging that it may be annoying.
  • Focus on what a child is doing rather than what they are saying.
  • Build relationships up from the small stuff – remember the quirky stuff kids tell you and use that as material.
  • Walk away from some things – pick your battles.

What works for you?

So how about you? What works for you, which didn’t come from a textbook, but you’ve discovered through your own practice? What might you try out this year?

I love to hear about what has – and what hasn't! – worked for you. Share your stories with me via Twitter, or how about joining the Behaviour and YOU! conversation?

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