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Primary Education News
News Learning and behaviour management: two sides of the same coin?
Schools often have separate learning and behaviour policies, but it's time to explore a more joined-up approach, says Geoff James
When it comes to children's behaviour, we're all looking for something that works - so how about this idea?
I'm employed by a children's service in England as an advisory support teacher. The main behaviour problem in schools is low-level disruption which is routinely managed by consistent good classroom practice. My work is with the much smaller group of children whose behaviour soaks up so much time and effort, often with so little success. My service gets requests from schools to support children who are disengaged, confrontational, disruptive; children experiencing serious barriers to their learning and participation in school. I've been working in this field for 18 years and I've got an MA and PhD during that time.
We depend on children to bring their strengths and resources into the room to connect with our teaching, to make sense and meaning out of the work we do together. If they don't understand something we've got strategies to help them. We all need a well-ordered space to concentrate on what we're doing and to use our time effectively. As teachers we bring this about through our professional practice, our pedagogy. We don't separate children's learning about maths and English from their learning about themselves as it all goes on together in school, as they grow into themselves.
If they experience a barrier to their learning, we provide assessment and targeted interventions. We work with the children, an intended outcome of this additional provision being to strengthen their independence and self-confidence as effective learners and to meet and overcome barriers to learning if they come up.
However when children have behavioral difficulties, we see this as sufficiently different that we have separate learning and behaviour policies in schools, as if a child's behaviour isn't an aspect of their learning. The usual approach to the problem of behaviour is to take control and direct children, to make them change, gradually stepping up the pressure if they don't respond.
Public experts in behaviour tell us to write lists of rules, make sure children are punished before they're rewarded, exclude disruptive children to protect the learning of others. There is often little in the way of objective assessment of a child's needs and interventions are based on guesses about their deficits. There's a limited repertoire; anger management, ASD type problems, signs of ADHD. There's nothing new here, we've done the same things for decades and failed to make a difference. It clearly doesn't work and maybe things have even got worse.
What to do about it? A problem with behaviour can be approached in two ways.
One way is the problem-focused approach, concentrate on the problem itself and try to make it go away. In schools we usually do this. A problem-focused problem solver is the expert, getting detailed knowledge about what's gone wrong in the past and deciding which strategy will eliminate it. The behaviour policy contains the strategies – traffic-light cards; loss of privileges; removal from class; detention; front of school; involvement of parents/carers; exclusion. The child must be compliant for this to work and often it does, they comply. But what about the ones who won't or can't? They misbehave. We try to stop them. They misbehave more. We try harder to stop them. It's like they've got a bad-behaviour habit and we've got a try-to-stop-them habit and as with any habits, we all just keep on doing the same things. If you do the same you get the same and the way to stop a habit is to do something completely different.
The other way, the solution-focused approach, is completely different. It's going directly for what you hope might go better in the future and what's already working to help you get there.
Last year I had a request to work with a year 11 boy, Jim (not his real name) who was doing no work, was disruptive and seriously interfering with the GCSE work of other students. Unless there was an immediate improvement in his behaviour he would be permanently excluded. I went into school to meet him. The pastoral manager told me he was on the playing field, he'd refused to meet me. I left a message for him that I'd be back the next week, same time same place. This time he turned up. I asked him if he knew what our meeting could be about, that it had to be useful to him or there was no point in us talking. He agreed and said it might be about his behaviour and that's what we'd be working on. We met three times over a month, for 40 minutes, 20 minutes and 15 minutes. He said he was getting on with his exam work and had stopped messing about in class and that our work was done.
Three months later I called in to check out with him how things were going. There were no problems and he'd caught up with the work he'd missed. He still felt he didn't need any additional help to complete his year in school. He was keeping his own record book to know he was doing well enough.
For Jim, who had withstood and resisted the problem focused approach, the solution focused approach was the difference that made a difference. Rather than seeing him as hopeless and helpless, I characterised him as resourceful, successful and hopeful. We didn't get caught up in the past but looked forward at what might be possible. He had agency and when he engaged this in working towards his best hope, to stay in school, the change happened.
Pedagogically speaking, I had set up an inquiry, framed by a set of questions:
Suppose we did some work together that would be useful to you, what would we be working on? What are your best things, what are you good at?
What would tell you that you'd been successful when you get to the end of the year?
'What's already working?
On a scale of 1 to 10 where 1 is you being permanently excluded and 10 is you staying in school to the end of the year, where are you now?
Suppose we met up next week where do you hope you might be then?
What might change a bit for things to go better for you?
I left him with a task: "Notice what's going well over the next week." I told him I'd ask him about that next time we met. I complimented him on his clear thinking in answering my questions.
At our next meetings I asked him where he was on the scale and what was telling him that; what his teachers might have noticed that was different. As we ended the third meeting he said that we'd done the work we set out to do and we didn't need to meet again.
What 's the difference that made the difference with Jim?
I knew it was possible to get to the solution directly without analysing the problem. I believed that Jim was resourceful, successful and hopeful and he would use his strengths to make the changes he hoped for. I respected Jim as the expert in himself, he had agency, the ability to influence the world.
I didn't have to do anything apart from being consistently solution focused because Jim was doing the work. I don't have to carry the stress of being responsible for the other person's progress.
I have introduced many school professionals to the solution focused approach and many are making it a part of their regular practice. You don't need permission to take this approach because it's pedagogy and if you want training it's a short course to get started. For myself I'm deeply grateful for the insightful work of Insoo Kim Berg, Steve de Shazar; Harvey Ratner, Evan George and others.
Dr Geoff James is an advisory teacher, a very occasional lecturer at the University of East Anglia and a solution-focused practitioner, trainer and writer. To find out more about his work, visit his Solution Support website.