Better Behaviour: Teaching is a relational activity & the power of belief.

A 7 minute read.

First watch this:

The impossible is possible tonight
Believe in me as I believe in you

Smashing Pumpkins, Tonight, Tonight

As an 8 year old in a He Man t-shirt, all I really wanted to do was make a difference. Zoom forward in life and I find myself leading on behaviour within a context where there is little community support. I’ve also found myself listening and reading many of those linked to behaviour; hearing their confessions of how different they are, when all I see is the overlapping common ground. Mainly, as they advocate their point of view, they know that they can make a difference.

The first point about achieving better behaviour in schools is that there needs to be collective teacher efficacy: the belief that we can, do and will make a difference to the lives of young people. Indeed, if we were purely put in to schools to impart knowledge and run retrieval quizzes, wouldn’t we all have YouTube channels and choose schools where behaviour isn’t a daily challenge? (Thank you to Tom Bennett for that idea, that I’ve paraphrased).

Personally, I choose to work where it is difficult. I choose to work where I can make a genuine difference. I work in a place where, sometimes, relationships and giving a shit about young people trumps learning. I believe in the sacrosanct nature of teaching and learning but, if they aren’t in the classroom and aren’t able to behave and teachers aren’t able to establish relationships, all the cognitive science in the world won’t make a difference.

Sometime we have to be that pushy parent. Sometimes the line between educator and social worker is blurred, particularly when working within a local authority judged inadequate. I don’t think that we should stand on the side lines proclaiming ‘I’m not a social worker’ when we can make a difference by caring and trying.

Teaching is a relational activity. It’s mad, crazy and often allows little time for strategics planning. And I am (back) in love with it. We make a difference.

Anyway, enough of the ranty Rogers and more of the substance. Here are the operating principles and foundations of Better Behaviour as I see it. I’ve left out the full chapter and verse, but do come along to ReserachEd Surrey or come to pop into work to find out more.

Operating principles

These are what we come back to time after time:

  • Amplify the signal, not the noise : reducing workload and simplifying systems. Ensuring that there are clear, simple whole school behaviour systems that are understood by all. This has included simplifying the code of conduct, reducing the number of behaviour categories for logging (everything is treated the same).
  • Empowerment: we may not be able to control the home lives of young people not what social workers do or don’t do. We can’t control parenting. What we can do is change how we react to it. We can be the calm, predictable, caring and human professionals. We can make the cognitive, rather than the emotional response. We also need to be aware that for some students a different approach is needed: an inflexible tariff based system doesn’t work.
  • Research informed: I’m tasked with reducing exclusions. The external research shows how this can be achieved. However, the internal information also shows that 90% of young people get it right. Indeed, 70% of them get it right with very little reminders. It’s easy to lose perspective.  Ultimately, the Better Behaviour journey will lead to better learning behaviours, leading to self regulation and metacognition.
  • Relationships first: they matter. Behaviour is contextual. What works at our place, may not work at yours. That’s ok. Our young people have a fierce and intoxicating loyalty to the school and colleagues, but it is hard earned through building relationships. From lesson 1 of Year 7 all the way through to the final lesson of Year 13.

The main research framework (as well as books from the 1970s) is provided by the EEF (summaries excellently by Chris Runeckles over at Shaun Allison’s Class Teaching.) The diagram below summarises and links to our way forward.

This post won’t go in to the full detail here, that’s for another day!

Key messages

Our students are known and nurtured and we can be both relentless and kind. The main messages are in the diagram above, and below is a brief summary of each.

  • Together we make the difference: Neo in the scene at the start of this post realises that belief is very powerful. As a school, we can, do and will make the difference.
  • High expectations of behaviour and learning: Teaching is weaving. The waft is the longitudinal thread. It has to be strong and consistent so that the intricate pattern of the horizontal  weft can be woven through it. The waft is behaviour. The weft is teaching and learning. We shouldn’t lower our expectations of learning or behaviour because otherwise we leave the cognitive room for young people to do other things, other than learn. This means that our twin threads of behaviour and personalisation go hand-in-hand. I love the stretch zone diagram from Shaun Allison, and it’s slightly adapted below:

  • Relationships, recognition and reward: we worked hard on restorative justice last year. Indeed, the restorative conversation is very powerful when done properly. However, teachers also need permission to establish and maintain relationships. This article from Impact gives one great way of doing this.
  • Withitness. As teachers, we wear many masks. It’s very very difficult to shrug off what is occurring in our personal lives, but we are the adults and we must make cognitive, not emotional, decisions. We have to be the calm, predictable professionals. Withitness is a concept from Jacob Kounin (a useful summary here) from the 1970s and is very useful. The basic equation is below (thanks to Behaviour Buddy). I can’t say strongly enough that the power of the fresh start is paramount. As teachers, we can’t afford to hold grudges. Smile, acknowledge every young person every lesson and give a shit.

  • We will support professionalism. Everyone struggles with behaviour. This is about being aware that colleagues within their first 5 years of teaching will need support as well as those within their first 3 years at our school. It’s ok to struggle and it’s very ok to be focusing on teaching the behaviour we expect and focusing on behaviour until the students take responsibility. Although consistency is key, there does need to be some flexible consistency for some students. I’m going to tactically avoid expanding any more here at this time….
  • The role of the tutor is essential. For some students this may mean being a pushy parent or having caring conversations. It may be nagging a student to make an apology or being disappointed. You don’t have to like young people but, in my view, you should at least act like you do. Teaching is a relational activity. It is not simply the imparting of knowledge in some contexts.
  • 80% of behaviour management is proactive. This is not ‘plan great lessons and they will behave. It is thinking ahead and planning for the behaviour as well as the learning. It’s discussing tactics and asking for support. It’s about explicitly teaching the behaviour we expect from young people. It’s about establishing, maintaining and restoring relationships. it’s about scripting potential conversations and practicing choice conversations and our poker faces. It’s about going over low level disruption techniques. It’s about getting the mundane things right. It’s about making sure that young people take responsibility for their behaviour and never, ever accepting behaviour that is not acceptable. It means repairing relationships ahead of the lesson for some students. It’s about making reasonable adjustments. It’s about giving a shit about the young people that we serve.

Finally, it’s about a journey. I’m putting this here, just in case the boss is reading….. 😉 Behaviour for learning is far more than rules and sanctions. It’s about teaching young people how to self-regulate and take responsibility. Yes. That’s a role for parents. When students have parents that are capable. I could spend all of my time lamenting the poor parenting of some students, just like I could have used growing up with domestic violence to drop out of life. I could curse the failure of social services and community support created by years of toxic government policies. I could. Instead, I get out of bed in the morning to make a difference. Because we can. We do and we will.


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