YOU HQ Article: From the extreme end of behaviour management

YOU HQ Article: From the extreme end of behaviour management

Originally published for YOUHQ 22.11.23

I spent the last eight years as a senior leader in an Alternative Provision for pupils excluded from mainstream settings. Many of the pupils I had the privilege to work with were from backgrounds where parents face genuine hardship as well as their own physical and mental health challenges. Like all education settings, we found ourselves having to plug the gaps in services against the backdrop of austerity, an increasingly stretched NHS, and a worldwide pandemic.


As the last option before a secure residential placement for a great number of our pupils we were always aware that making it work with us was essential; our policy was zero permanent exclusions, but this meant finding ways to ensure pupils with a range of diagnoses and health and social issues could succeed. It also meant figuring out how to take care of staff because a zero exclusions policy meant pupils remained with us even in the wake of major incidents involving staff.

Pupils had usually faced trauma upon trauma before arriving with us and behaved in ways that communicated this very clearly. The biggest circle to square was how to ensure that while supporting the wellbeing of traumatised pupils, the mental health of staff was also prioritised. How could staff be there 100% for those who could (and did) behave in ways that no school could manage, without creating a high-anxiety environment for staff?


What I learned from working at the extreme end of challenging behaviour has been in the context of small class sizes, a strong no-exclusion ethos, and extremely talented and committed staff. However, I want to share some key takeaways for managing staff and student mental wellbeing that are applicable no matter what kind of education environment you find yourself in.


Banking compassion vs reasoned empathy


The term “banking compassion” is not my own. It refers to the process of investing (or “banking”) time and energy in a pupil despite constant rejection in the form of withdrawal and/or challenging behaviour. To bank compassion is to recognise that we may never see a return on our investment but if we do, it’ll be absolutely worth it. It is the bedrock of good practice in alternative provisions.


However, being supportive, patient, empathetic and committed can take its toll on even the most experienced and positive member of staff. For this reason, banking compassion has to be balanced with what Paul Bloom describes (in his 2016 book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion) as “reasoned empathy”. For Bloom, reasoned empathy is the natural check to banking compassion – the recognition that to over invest too much empathy is to risk making it all about ourselves and not the person we are supporting. This is something that can happen when you work with vulnerable pupils: staff can begin to believe they are the only person that can have a positive relationship, the only person the pupil can rely on, and that can take its toll.


The concept that one cannot fill from an empty jug will be familiar to those with an interest in mental health and this draws on the same principle – to be available to bank compassion we have to manage our own reserves. When working with extremely challenging behaviour, managing our own mental health is about investing in our pupils in a professional and fully boundaried way that recognises that we are part of a team and we aren’t always going to be the superhero of every situation for that pupil. It is vital to understand what role we play, including our strengths and limitations, and how that can contribute to banking compassion holistically across our team.


How you look at a pupil always matters


A lot of pupils arrive at alternative provision schools having been the “worst kid” in their previous school. How do you stay mentally well and foster wellbeing in pupils in a whole school full of the self-labelled “worst” kids? One key concept is that of looking at a pupil in the way you want them to be rather than as how they are while behaving at their worst.


I worked with one student who came to us with the label of “worst”. His behaviour was unpredictable and had resulted in restraint at previous schools – he made staff very anxious and I am sure there had been a degree of power in that for him. His favourite thing to do was to access staff-only areas and he was genius at finding opportunities to do this. Faced with this behaviour, we made a conscious decision that we would look at him differently. Instead of being quickly (often physically) pushed out of places he shouldn’t be, we opted to actively welcome him in. We asked him to enter when he was on the periphery of a staff area and take a seat, tell us about his day/weekend/week, ignoring any negativity despite the temptation to challenge the problem behaviour continuously.


At first he was disruptive, but we continued to look at him like a person who was welcome (even though, frankly, we could have done without his visits) and eventually it became true. After weeks of looking at him like a person who could be trusted despite evidence to the contrary, he stopped the problem behaviour and settled into a new label – one that was much more positive. The impact on the anxiety levels of staff around the pupil was huge because we had stopped fighting the inevitability of challenge, physical restraint and damaged relationships and looked at the pupil like the best possible version of himself. In doing so we were able to open up a powerful space into which he eventually made the step. Staff mental wellbeing improved, and so did the pupil’s outcomes.


Positive language – fake it til you make it!


Language matters, and it can be a powerful tool for positive mental wellbeing in situations where behaviour is very challenging. Almost all the pupils I worked with had spent their time in education being told what they couldn’t do. The pupil whose name, spoken by a teacher, is always followed by a negative comment begins to stop listening at all after a while. The opposite can be true if they are spoken to in a positive way when this isn’t something they’ve been particularly used to. In my experience, it is essential to consistently challenge problem behaviour; it is not OK to let a pupil break rules or behave badly without challenge just because they are facing serious difficulties. How we verbally challenge is the important part.


The best verbal challenge to problem behaviour is clear, concise, and positive, focussing on what the pupil must start doing rather than what they must stop doing. For example, instead of saying “stop throwing things” say “put those away please” even though you suspect the pupil won’t comply. It is unlikely that switching your language in this way will have any immediate impact on behaviour. However, if done consistently it will create an environment where you can be assertive without the cycle of negativity associated with the sound of your voice. If it has no other effect, using positive language will equip you with something to try so that you can “fake it til you make it”. Done consistently, reframing the way you challenge can help establish an environment where language is carefully geared towards a growth mindset, encouraging positivity and mental wellbeing for you and for even the trickiest of pupils. It can’t hurt – so why not try it?

Being the Adult in Behaviour Management

Being the Adult in Behaviour Management

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.