This is the second part of my blog following a course from Bill Rogerswhich was aimed at school leaders leading whole school behaviour. The course wasn’t aimed at developing classroom practice – there was a second day to the course that was for classroom teachers seeking to develop their behaviour management. That said, the day was interspersed with practical tips from Bill – generally speaking, the “soft skills” of managing behaviour. Whilst I am generally of the opinion that a school system is the most important thing that supports teachers with managing behaviour, the day did remind me that there is always going to be a place for the “soft skills” that we need when managing young people. This is something I often reflect on and my views definitely aren’t fully developed yet. I veer from thinking that teachers shouldn’t “need” the soft skills because the system should support them, to thinking that, because we’re working with humans, there is always a place for the soft skills in a classroom. In reality, I think it’s a bit of both. We need the professional judgement and soft skills to respond to children, but we also need the system there to support us. The poor behaviour of a child shouldn’t ever be blamed on a teacher – the child has made their choice. But, there are approaches, like ones that Rogers explored with us, that help us manage situations where children make good choices.
Passive language (ok that’s my name for it – I forget what he called it)
One key tip that Rogers referred to throughout the day was in making non threatening comments about students’ behaviour. The example he gave was “I have noticed”. So, say you’re starting the class off on a piece of writing and a few students aren’t doing as you’d like, Rogers suggests that passive language can be used to prompt students into doing what they should be doing. You might say “I have noticed you’ve not made a start yet” to a student. The simplicity of this stick me – and it’s clear to see how it can serve as a non threatening prompt.
Rogers suggests following up the passive language with an instruction. You’d start by saying “I’ve noticed you’ve not made a start yet, Carly. Grab your pen and make a start on writing the title down”. He then suggests following this with a “thank you” rather than “please” so that the implication is that the student is doing it without question.
Take up time:
Some other techniques he talked about are well known, but still the reminder was a helpful one for me, especially when my role in school sometimes means I am supporting staff with their classroom practice. One such example was around take up time. Rogers argues that, once you’ve described the problem, and followed it with an instruction or direction, and an assertive “thank you”, give the student take up time.
He also suggested that this should include ignoring secondary behaviours. That’s a tough one for me, and, a lot like tactical ignoring, I’m in two minds about this. I am a firm believer that what you permit, you promote in school, and therefore ignoring instances of poor behaviour doesn’t always sit well with me. Over the course of the day, I reflected on why that was. Having thought about it, I realised the problem can be that tactical ignoring can, sometimes, be used mistakenly, when some staff are actually reluctant to challenge behaviour. It becomes an excuse for them – you tell yourself you’re tactically ignoring it, and it sounds like you’re making deliberate, informed choices. Except, in these cases, you’re promoting what you’re permitting. The problem here is masked – it’s likely either because the teacher needs some support with their confidence, or that the systems supporting them are weak, and they’re of the view that there’s no point challenging it, because the student won’t do the detention anyway. Or, they’re already snowed under with marking, and the thought of making her another phone call home, completely unsupported, and suddenly, challenging it becomes less than enticing. This is why strategic leadership is so important – it needs to support teachers so that they don’t use the cover of tactical ignoring just to get out of challenging behaviour, and instead, they use it in a more forensic, strategic way, responding to the student and behaviour in front of them. If that’s the motivation, it’s a strategy I can support. But, like all good things in life, too much of it will be bad for you!
Each of these strategies are ones that I’ve used myself in the 10 years I’ve been teaching – they’re ones I still use now. But I did spot myself in some of the things Rogers said not to do. It had been known for me, in a moment of rage, to question students about their behaviour. I did it on Friday, as it happens. I was staffing a lunch time detention and 3 girls were outside of it, laughing. I was fuming, obviously. I went out of the room and out came my rage “why are you here, disrupting the detention?”. I remembered Bill’s words and laughed inside. We’re all human and we occasionally slip up, but by thinking about the way we approach students, our language and tone can help us a great deal in managing a situation positively.
Social time behaviour
Rogers also talked about a concept called “relaxed vigilance”, especially around managing behaviour in social times or in lesson change overs. His argument was that responding to behaviour was the crucial part, not that it was sanctioned. I found, and still do, that I don’t agree with this. We have a clear sanction system for poor behaviour during social times or lesson changeovers. A student doing anything that does not meet our expectations is issued an on the spot lunch detention for the following day. It’s a made a difference to the language and the behaviour we see on our corridors. I’m not convinced that just challenging this without sanction would have improved much about behaviour in our school. It was one of the things I disagreed with most, but I found it did help me with thinking about the way we approach behaviour around the school. The principle of it is in interacting with the students – and I think, with a bit of a tweak, this could pre empt some behaviour and stop it escalating, in the right context. For example, if a groups of children are behaving in a way that could become more loud or boisterous, going over and engaging in a bit of social chit chat, or a friendly “I hope you’re not about to start running down that corridor, James. You know just how that would upset me” with a cheeky smile, used in the right way, on the right kids, will calm a situation without the need for sanction. This was a real area of reflection for me – too often, the temptation when on duty is to stand around, thinking about the next thing you need to deal with, or sneaking a look at your emails (I’m so guilty of this!), rather than interact with children. We need to spend our time wisely when out and about – this could make a difference to the culture of a school. I do think you need this alongside a sanction system though, and you’ll never convince me otherwise!
I was expecting to find myself disagreeing with far more than I expected. I did find the absence of any real comment on sanctions somewhat frustrating – I think they’re absolutely vital in a school, especially secondary phases. I was also hoping to hear more about supporting children who are our most challenging, most vulnerable young people. I suppose there’s no one size fits all with this kind of situation, though. Those situations will need a highly individualised approach, drawing on the support of external agencies, to support these students. A one day course probably couldn’t respond to that, so it’s perhaps an unfair criticism, but it was one that a few on our table talked about together. I have a hunch that this is a national gap in the system, though. And one that will always be a challenge to fill.