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  • Sarah Johnson

Behaviour beyond the surface

Not a week goes by when I see or hear discussions about how to improve behaviour within schools. Often, the discussions are set out from specific lens of understanding. On Twitter you might read people describing their approach as trad(itional) or prog(ressive). The approaches might be behaviourist in nature, perhaps trauma-informed and so on. These defined positions set out the best ways to pre-empt behavioural issues and to resolve them when they occur. Some phrases that I hear include:

  • Connect before you correct

  • It’s all about relationships

  • Behaviour as a culture

These shorthands are great soundbites with little to disagree with but without real substance to support teachers and senior leaders in developing supportive mechanisms within the schooling community.

These are surface phrases, and that is the point of this blog, that we need to look beyond the surface to really understand what we are seeing with behaviour and what we can do to drive real change.

Behaviour challenges within school do not come out of nowhere and nor is it a new thing that teachers are struggling with. I’m old enough to remember my geography teacher throwing a blackboard rubber at my head, the kid bringing in the knife to school in year eight and the racist abuse in the playground.

My mum tells me stories about her teacher washing her mouth out with soap, and I am sure my children will likely tell their own children about how they were treated and responded to in school and how others behaved that may shock, seem out of date and dare I say it, cruel.

Have a look at this situation at a school which happened hundreds of years ago:

The Head Teacher finds out that some school pupils had broken windows, he tells the boys from the older year groups that they must pay for the repairs. Instead of paying, the students smash windows throughout the school and set fire to furniture.

You can find out more about the Rugby School Rebellion here. The story is punctuated by ideas around restorative justice (pay back to the community), taking responsibility for your actions until his authority falls apart and the army is called in to restore order before issuing exclusions to key children involved in the incident.

Hopefully, we don’t quite see this behaviour in school but we can see how the influence on the communities, subsequent attempts to resolve and respond to the issue are driven in the sort of things we would probably do today.

However, we could imagine that our understanding of how to successfully deal with this situation or avoid it in the first place, would be very much developed a few hundred years later. But we haven’t. We have become stuck and divided as a profession. Our roles, our schools, have become increasingly fragmented from the communities we serve. The support we try and bring in from other professions are increasingly difficult to navigate and understand.

Imagine, or perhaps just remember, a child in front of you. You can see that they are upset, perhaps they are angry? You know that x,y,z is happening in the home environment, that they have free school meals and that they meet the threshold of social care involvement but nothing seems to be shifting for that child.

That child is trashing the art classroom that you have kindly let her use during lunch time. She is throwing things, breaking things, crying and shouting. She feels overwhelmed because life is intolerable. She won’t get changed for PE because people might see the cigarette burns or the shoe imprint where she has been stomped on. She wears her jumper in the heat because it hides the bruising on her neck where she was strangled the night before.

I know these things because I am that girl. I didn’t know about these catchphrases then but what I did have is people that saw beneath the surface.

I wasn’t excluded that day, issued a detention or have a restorative conversation about my behaviour. The only response was that I was given a piece of paper. I sat down, drew and cried.

My life at home continued and it wasn’t to change for far too many years. There would be many more tears. I became quieter and would pick and choose what lessons I would attend.

But school was my safe place. After dodging blackboard rubbers in primary, secondary was a space in which mutual respect was a key component of (most of) my relationships with teachers.

We can have all the approaches in the world, read all the books on behaviour in schools but if we don’t look beyond the surface what we miss is the complexities of human struggles, relationships, deprivation, intersection of culture, race, ethnicity.

Whilst our schools might feel orderly on the surface, there can still be chaos in the minds of children. Make school a real safe place not one that just appears so on the surface and disguised by quiet corridors.

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