Notes from the chalkface; relationships and behaviour

Notes from the chalkface; relationships and behaviour

From Ben Davis, Headteacher at St Ambrose Barlow Catholic High School, Swinton ( Twitter @bendavis )

Normally when I tweet (which is not often) I get a handful of likes and a couple of comments so I was entirely unprepared for the reaction to my short thread on Sunday, June 19th, 2022 in which I offered some respectful professional challenge to a widely circulated image of slides from a conference.  There are many other schools who have similar behaviour policies to ours, are doing it better and have been doing it longer.  In other words the views I expressed are widely held and influence daily practice across the country.  We had been influenced by these ideas for quite a while, but in November 2020 we undertook a review and consultation on our policy. Our revised policy (link here: has widespread support amongst staff and is understood by pupils.

It has its foundations in our values and in research (some of which is acknowledged) and contains expectations and standards, simple systems for praise, encouragement and consequences – these wouldn’t be much of a surprise to anyone.  Our school is calm, safe and our pupils are good to be around; Ofsted recognised improvements in behaviour and, more importantly, staff and pupils comment on this. There’s lots more to do and improve – we’re doing so rapidly. Staff are assertive and gentle; people talk about a family feel. We expect our pupils to be appropriate, kind, on time, presentable, helpful, engaging.  We mostly get this right together.

Some respondents quite rightly pointed out that we are graded by inspectors as Requires Improvement.  I suppose how much this matters to you depends on your view of inspection (it’s not exactly nuanced, appreciative or scientific nor is it free of ideology), but the team in March 2022, commented positively on our work around inclusion and on the fact that the policy is called ‘Relationships and Behaviour’ (R&B).  This nomenclature is important: relationships first, good behaviour follows and is reinforced.  It also indicates that we approach the cultivation of relationships deliberately, creating culture rather than simply allowing it to happen. Sometimes (more than ever now?) children are dysregulated, angry, distressed, traumatised, confused, take risks, test boundaries or act out.  Sometimes they are silly.  Sometimes what looks like silliness becomes a pattern of actions that indicate something underlying.   We ask staff to ‘notice the niggle’; to look out for seemingly innocuous behaviours that might (or might not) communicate something about which we should be concerned.  (One sequence of responses to my thread discussed exactly what we mean by ‘all behaviour is communication’ and this merits much more exploration in its own right).

Of course, sometimes things just aren’t good enough.  When matters don’t go as we would wish we take action to address incidents, including suspension and Alternative Provision.  We often wish it didn’t mean this, but that is more a reflection of limited resources and the stage of the journey that we are at: taking action in the absence of anything that is credibly better, more immediate and appropriate. We still recognise the child and their needs within our response: there aren’t inevitable steps in a chain of consequences.  Our behaviour policy isn’t a tariff system. Again, there are other schools who have been doing these things successfully for much longer and we are keen to move away from reliance on such consequences.

Growth and change 

We have grown our capacity to support Social and Emotional Mental Health (SEMH), restructured SEND (Special Educational Needs and Disabilities) provision, our SEND Coordinator is now a member of the Senior Management Team as an Assistant Head Teacher, used the EEF (Education Endowment Foundation) implementation strategy and improved safeguarding. I’d love it if we had our own Educational Psychologist or Speech and Language Therapist.  We operate graduated responses to behaviour and SEMH.  We draw-up plans around anxiety, we use solution-focused coaching as a routine part of Pastoral support, nurture, zones of regulation and other supports.  Some of this is very new, some is slightly more established. All of it is a work in progress. A very positive step has been much greater unity between pastoral care, SEND and safeguarding – they’re all really the same thing.  This is evolving too.

We’re a Catholic school so at the heart of everything is our faith.  Our first school value is Love and it is under the school improvement plan priority derived from this (‘All pupils safe, healthy and included’) that our Relationship & Behavior (R&B) work sits.  Similarly our R&B principles are predicated on the idea of everyone’s capacity to change – the word ‘repent’ has its Greek root in the idea of ‘change’ rather than being predicated on sin or shame. The rubric of our three overarching school values is Love, Learn, Lead – I think talking about ‘love’ is important.  It’s hard to manifest it if you don’t name it, but I can see not everyone is comfortable with this.  The three values find their expression in our relationships and behaviour as a process derived from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and Self-determination theory:

  • Love (foundational – autonomy): understanding, acceptance and curiosity about a child’s uniqueness, background, story and needs and a belief that they have the internal resources, with support, to grow and change
  • Learn (pupils can learn when their needs are met – mastery): the need to teach and model healthy relationships and behaviour
  • Lead: self-efficacy and purpose*

We’re working really hard to know our pupils and their families.  We talk a lot about what children need, how we can get it for them, what their behaviour is telling us, reasonable adjustments and how we should respond.  But we don’t always get it right, we have professional disagreements (that’s how things improve), we get frustrated and we certainly don’t keep everybody happy all the time.

Critical thinking

We think carefully about the language we use (someone on here was right to question my use of ‘misbehaviour’): for example, we don’t do ‘rewards’ (too extrinsic), we do celebration and recognition.  We are investing more and more in hearing and understanding the story each child brings.  At a recent Continuous Professional Development evening a senior leader read out a child’s life story, staff looked at their adverse experiences, trauma and other issues and considered how we should respond.  We did it as a whole staff – the responses were moving and humbling.  The care and determination to get it right was palpable.  We’re learning a lot, we’re humble about our progress and we have a strong sense of service to our community.  We’re doing our best, making mistakes sometimes, but trying to be kind, empathetic & effective.  It’s very much a team effort.  I am happy to share policy by Twitter Direct Message (please be patient with me) or email, but I think it’s much more about the story, the journey, daily practice and the ‘heart’ of the thing than the written words of the document.

If you’re after research that supports relational approaches there’s plenty and it’s easily accessed.  It’s important to look at and it makes sense to be open to and influenced by, for example, Sarah Jane Blakemore, Suzanne Zeedyk or Helen Immordino-Yang as much as practice around cognitive load theory and retrieval.  The Education Endowment Foundation publication ‘Improving Behaviour in Schools’ is helpful and balanced, there are trauma-informed LA policies available and the Royal Society of Arts has published useful research into exclusion.

We’re proud of the direction we’re going in and the impact we’re seeing; of the way we have brought together our principles and our practice; of what might lie ahead.  We’re also very motivated by responding to the extraordinary level of need that results from the turbulence of the last two years. I don’t think we’ve really seen the full impact of pandemic trauma on our young, certainly there is an emerging and troubling research base that should give policymakers, educators, leaders and politicians pause for thought.

The past few years have seen the emergence of what is now an entrenched tendency to endorse only a small number of acceptable paradigms of behaviour strategy in schools and to polarise discussion, even to base approaches on very negative views of young people.  How leaders and educators view and react to this debate is often, on some level, a reflection of their own life experiences, broader social viewpoints and school context – there are other factors too.

Regardless of a school’s behaviour policy or the views of individual educators we can all find common ground, I hope, in the aspiration that children deserve nurturing and potentially transformational relationships with adults in school.  They deserve a hopeful view of themselves.  There are many ways to achieve this and it’s good for us all: adults and children alike. Needs don’t suddenly stop or decrease when we leave school and childhood trauma doesn’t disappear at 18; consider especially all those adults with trauma and unmet needs whose personal tragedy is that they hurt others and are jailed. And of course I believe it to be good for our communities: children who have been listened to and had needs met contribute to a more accepting, inclusive and caring society.  Consider too the research into Adverse Childhood Experiences and the notion that successful mitigation of these by institutions including schools would reduce illness, improve educational outcomes, increase longevity and enhance mental health amongst other benefits.

The end and the beginning – hope 

Finally, to reiterate, all of these thoughts are offered in response to numerous questions from those who responded to my four short tweets.  I offer my views is humbly, imperfectly and with a  circumspection borne of years of experience.  In no way do I set out to diminish the views and ideas of others or inflate claims for our own practice.  This piece is simply a reflection on our ongoing journey and the principles that guide us. Far from being the reason for behaviour deteriorating, these principles have informed an evolving policy that is improving behaviour. There isn’t, and needn’t be, a dichotomy between inclusive, child-centred, relational practice or high standards and safety.  It’s both/ and.  Everyone is doing their best: successful, hopeful, resourceful.

*Some readers might be interested to know that Love, Learn, Lead came out of a period of consultation with staff during the first lockdown.  It was also influenced by the Jesuit pedagogy of faith, learning and action and by St. Paul’s well-known Letter to the Corinthians, specifically the section that contains the famous phrase ‘be ambitious for the higher gifts.’  I share this only to emphasise that it is not a hollow slogan, the three words are underpinned by deep thought and engagement with texts that are identifiably Catholic and familiar enough to be inclusive I hope.

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