Behaviour Management in Alternative Provision

Children who struggle to cope in mainstream settings often present with behaviour which the adults find difficult to deal with. There are different schools of thought about how best schools should manage problematic student behaviour. England’s Behaviour Tsar, Tom Bennett advocates  ‘zero tolerance regimes’ where children are sent out of classrooms if they threaten the learning of others.  In common with, from what I can see is most professionals who post on LinkedIn, I favour a needs-based approach founded on authentic relationships of mutual respect,  when it comes to creating the best outcomes for children, and this applies, perhaps most acutely, for those for whom inclusion is a daily challenge.

Regardless of the philosophical perspective on behaviour management one adopts, I suggest that key to an effective strategy is the commitment of the professional to the role of “the adult” in the relationships they have with the children they work with.

For many of the children who find themselves in ‘Inclusion Units’, Alternative Provisions or Special Schools, the adult/child relationship is a complex proposition; they will all have had difficult interactions with staff at school, for some, relationships with adults in their communities and families are painful and unsafe.

For this reason it’s important to establish what a positive adult/child relationship entails, and to model it in our work. Jane Bluestein, the American educator, breaks down what she calls the ‘win-win’ approach necessary for a positive adult/child relationship in the classroom (Bluestein J, The Win Win Classroom: A Fresh and Positive Look at Classroom Management, Thousand Oaks, 2008).

Jane Bluestein on Behaviour Management

For me, Bluestein’s model is as good a description of being the adult and professional in working with children as I’ve seen, and I’d like to suggest that we could all benefit from acquainting ourselves with it.

Bluestein notes the importance  of 8 key factors:

  • Suppotiveness
  • Boundaries
  • Integrity
  • Eliminate double standards
  • Win-win
  • Proactivity
  • Success orientation
  • Self care

According to Bluestein, it’s the responsibility of the adult to ensure that all these elements are present at all times in our relationships with our students. We need to be sure that whatever we say or do is driven by supportiveness for the child; that we set and hold boundaries and communicate them clearly; that we create situations where the child and the professional both feel they have the outcome they need from any interaction; that every aspect of the environment is geared towards the child achieving success; that we are proactive in anticipating any problems and mitigating them in advance; that we have the integrity to stand up for what we think is right, even when it’s difficult; that we don’t demonstrate double standards and that we look after our own wellbeing and resilience so that we can continue to be a positive adult in their school lives.

Bluestein’s model asks a lot from the professional, and balancing all 8 elements of being the adult can be an extremely big ask for staff working at the sharp end of challenging behaviour. The best possible model for implementing this doesn’t just ask for more from individual staff; it puts the onus on leadership to find ways to ensure these 8 features can be embedded in the fabric of the school or community. Using these 8 as a starting point can help ensure that processes, policies and practice are aligned to create the best possible set of circumstances for staff to “be the adult”.

Being the Adult in Practice

An example from my own experience involved the concept of eliminating double standards. One of the hard and fast rules of the AP I worked at was that fizzy drinks were banned from school grounds. In order to give this policy the best chance of succeeding, staff were also banned from consuming fizzy drinks on site, a policy which (during my first week) I had failed to register in my cursory reading of the staff handbook. I thus strolled into the lunch area one day with a can of diet coke in my hand, only to be met with (playful) consternation from one of my senior colleagues. He publicly challenged me on my consumption of the offending item and made me pour the contents down the kitchen sink in full view of our students.

It was done with a light touch and in good humour, but it underscored for me the importance of being able to challenge problem behaviour in adults in order to show that the same rules apply to all. Had I been allowed to consume the diet coke in view of students, it would have contributed to a culture where students felt a strong sense of injustice around the ways the rules were applied. While in mainstream settings it could be argued that understanding the complexities of how rules apply differently to children and adults is possible, it is certainly not a great idea to operate a set of double standards in the context of children whose relationships with adults in education has been fraught. Here was an example of how integrity and the elimination of double standards had been built into the culture of a school in such a way that staff felt comfortable to challenge a senior person (new as I was). In this way, I argue, it is possible to embed these 8 principles in practice across a provision to ensure the best possible chance of success and limit the extra “work” staff need to do to inhabit the role of adult.

In her book Bluestein also gives detailed examples of what this might look like in practice; it’s an accessible and insightful read and I recommend it. I want to suggest that by really thinking through our responsibility as the adults in our professional relationships with children, our philosophical stance will develop in ways in which ensure that practice is effective and outcomes for children and young people are consistently positive.