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

You’re not on your own

If you've noticed a change in pupils' behaviour recently, Adele Bates has some reassuring advice - you're not the only one.


If you don’t read another word of this article, read the next five:

You’re not on your own.

In my role as a behaviour and education specialist who supports primary schools, secondary schools, mainstreams, alternative provisions, PRUs and special schools, the one common thread in the last year or so has been that behaviour is ‘different’ to how it used to be.

Whether it’s that more pupils now have behaviour needs, that the behaviour is more distressing and extreme or that the usual tools for supporting behaviour no longer work – it all leaves schools with a stressed workforce.

And because our workforce is made up of incredible human beings who love to put others first, who want to think about the next generation’s wellbeing and have a tendency to blame themselves for ongoing troubles, I am also witnessing a lot of individual staff and school units who believe that the difficulties they’re having are only affecting them.

But I am pleased to be able to tell you:

You’re not on your own.

Behaviour is different now

What with one-pandemic-thing-or-another affecting education in the last couple of years, behaviour is impacting every school or staff member I have spoken to.

Not one educator I have worked with has said to me, ‘Oh actually, behaviour? Everything’s tickety boo.’

This makes sense. Behaviour (of pupils, staff, ourselves) is dependent on context: the context of what’s going on personally, whether or not we ate breakfast, what’s happening with our family, how safe we feel in our community, what’s going on in our country and, yes, whether there’s a global pandemic.

There is no magic wand, or something you’re missing

As key workers, teachers are reported to experience higher levels of anxiety and depression than our private-worker co-partners – and that’s without a pandemic going on.

Alongside this, there has been a notable increase in mental health disorders in children and young people. In 2017, one in nine (11.6%) six to sixteen-year-olds had probable mental health disorders. This went up to one in six (17.4%) at the end of 2021.

Ofsted has reported regressions of learning in pupils since the pandemic. Young children who were previously potty trained have returned to nappies and older children have lost stamina with basics around reading and writing, and some have lost physical fitness.

What exactly can you do?

So, having established that this isn’t a personal problem if you’re teaching three-times tables for the twelfth time since September – there is no magic wand, or something you’re missing.

Encourage feelings of safety and belonging

What with the hokey-cokey-in-out style learning we’ve had recently, there are many pupils, particularly those who have transitioned between or starting schools, who don’t yet feel that school is their place.

As I explain in my book, “Miss, I don’t give a sh*t” Engaging with Challenging Behaviour in Schools, if we do not feel safe or that we belong, we cannot learn, and safety looks different for everyone.

It’s a tough one when the guidance keeps changing, the school down the road has different mask rules to you and you can’t remember if the whole of Year 3 washed their hands before snack time.

This accumulation of concerns means that our focus on making ourselves and pupils feel safe physically and emotionally needs to be more of a focus. In my blog post, Safety First (Learning Second) I share further advice on this.

In practice, it could look like more settling reading time and more frequent sensory activities (that’s for secondary pupils too!). 

Encourage socialising

The first time we were released from lockdown, I remember my adult housemate at the time sharing with me how nervous they were about meeting friends again. In many ways, seeing people in the flesh has become more unusual (there are some great comedy YouTube videos on post-lockdown awkward social situations).

It does still pay dividends if you can maintain boundaries and routines

So how can you reintegrate social skills into your lessons? It doesn’t have to be a separate lesson – there’s a lot of content we’re trying to pack in.

Doing a memory fact check starter? Use a quick pair work-led approach. 

Drafting an essay? Use a ‘talk-it-through’ activity to assess before writing.

Maintain boundaries

Expectations and rules have been constantly changing – through no fault of you or the school, ‘adapting’ has been the name of the game.

We’re feeling the kick back of this with our pupils, with many teachers reporting an increased number of fights. Sometimes it does feel like an uphill battle, but it does still pay dividends if you can maintain boundaries and routines 99% of the time.

I find that being honest, in an age-appropriate way, can be a really useful strategy: ‘I know things keep changing, it frustrates me and I’m sure it frustrates you – but right now, we’re back to Year 1-only lunch queues again. I know you might forget. Don’t worry, I’ll remind you.’

Then with this, realise that they will get it wrong and they will need reminding – that it is not necessarily personal or defiance, and that de-escalating or even preventing behaviour blow-ups is a lot easier than dealing with them.

Above all, keep connected. We’re all going through this and we’re all learning as we go along… still. Remember:

You’re not on your own.


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