Thinking about children’s behaviour and learning

I’ll state the obvious.
When children start school they are all young and small. They might have already learned how to walk and talk but they mostly can’t do maths and don’t read and write too well. They’re also pretty shaky when it comes to Geography and the history of the Celts and in how to behave courteously to other young and small people. Some of them know how to use the toilet but ask them put them in front of a mass spectrometer and you’ll get nothing back.

But don’t despair. When they leave primary school to move into the big complex world of secondary school these same children are older and bigger. That seems to happen automatically. Many of them read and write, they do maths and they might know that there’s somewhere called Paris, somewhere. Many of them move to high school with their friends from primary, they know how to play together and how to walk down corridors and keep quiet in big assembly time.

Since many of them seem to know quite a lot of things, this implies they’ve been learning in the time between starting primary school and arriving at high school. So what’s been going on as far as teaching them all the knowledge and skills they’ve developed?

Jade is in Reception. It seems like every day she comes into school she cries. She starts crying as her Mum says goodbye to her, she cries for a long time after she’s gone. It’s seems like a habit and it’s getting in the way of her having a good time in school. The staff in Reception sees a lot of emotional upset as a regular part of their work. Some children cry, some get cross, some do both. They know how to settle children, they haven’t been formally taught how to do it, they know how. But Jade just cries and cries. The Head teacher decides to intervene. When Jade seems a bit more settled he asks her to think about a time when she came into her class with her Mum – and she was happy. Jade has a think and tells him about it. He asks her about the details of that day and in her four year old way she tells him. He sums up her story and asks her to look out for it happening again. He doesn’t mention the problem of her crying and being unhappy so often and neither does Jade. Within a week she’s coming in happy every day, no more crying. Her Mum says it’s because they’ve moved Jade’s bed away from the boiler and she’s sleeping better. In Reception the children’s learning about their behaviour, individually and as a member of their group is enmeshed with their learning about letters and sounds and numbers, the early components of the academic curriculum.

Eddie is six. In school he’s very aggressive, he’s angry and he swears a lot. His Primary school is in the centre of a big housing estate and has lots of energetic children to educate. They have a lot of resources to match the children’s needs, a red-yellow-green card behaviour system, restorative justice, assertive mentoring, a range of support staff and a well-run SEN department. Eddie has absorbed all their support and emerged unchanged, still aggressive, angry and swearing. He’s getting closer to permanent exclusion by the day, as the school uses up its resources and his teachers continue to report the effect his behaviour is having on other children’s learning. I get a request in my role as Advisory Teacher to work with him. I meet him with his Mum who is expecting a baby very soon and the SenCo who made the request. He looks apprehensive and talks in a small voice. I ask him about what he’s good at and what he likes doing and we’re soon chatting freely to each other. I check out his understanding of numbers and number lines as we chat and I ask him to mark where he is on a 1 to 10 ‘How is it going in school?’ scale that I’ve drawn in pencil on a sheet of A4 paper. He puts himself at 2. I ask him ‘If I come to see you next week where do you hope you might be on the number line?’ He marks it at 9. I tell him ‘When I come in next time I’m going to ask you where you are on the line. I’m going to give you a job to do – your job is to notice things going well for you and I’ll ask you about that when we meet again. OK?’ He says ‘OK.’

Next time we meet, just Eddie, the SenCo and me, he’s remembered about the numbers and tells me he’s at 10 without my asking. I ask him what tells him that, what his Mum might have noticed that would tell her he’s at ten, what his teacher might have noticed. He tells me that he hasn’t got any red or yellows; he’s not been swearing or punching people. I ask him what he’s doing instead – he says he’s asking his teacher to help him even though he feels angry sometimes. He says he hopes he’ll be at 13 the next time. The SenCo tells me that the day before he had got angry with someone. We hadn’t talked about that because he hadn’t brought it up.

The next two meetings are a rerun of the first. He tells me he’s moved up on his scale, I ask him what tells him that, what people around him are noticing that has changed a bit. I ask him his best hope for the scale for the next time we meet and he writes 10,100,000,000 on the scale. After he’s gone back to class on is own, the SenCo says that it looks like we’ve done the job with him. He’s getting on well, no more outbursts or punching, he’s getting on better in class too. It’s going to be hard to hold our review with his mum because the baby is due this week, but she’ll contact her to bring her up to date and we’ll review our work with Eddie and close the next week. That’ll actually be next week. This is a work in progress.

Jack is twelve. I’ve been called into his secondary school because they’ve tried everything in their Behaviour Policy to get him to change and nothing has had the slightest effect. He’s very disruptive, he runs out of class when he’s in trouble, he confronts teachers who attempt to control him and is attendance is poor. There’s no problem with his learning, in fact he seems to be a bright boy but he’s not behaving. The only thing left to is to permanently exclude him. I’ve worked in this school before, notable with a violent and angry thirteen year old boy, in foster care, who was also just about to be permanently excluded and I’m seen as a last report. That boy changed his behaviour and was not excluded, going on to take his exams and take up an apprenticeship when he left school. The first time I went in to school for Jack he refused to come to meet me. The second time we did meet, just the two of us. I did the same thing as usual. We agreed on our project. He didn’t know how close he was to permanent exclusion because he’d been doing the same things for the whole time and he was still there, so I explained it to him. I asked him what his best hope was and he said ‘Not get kicked out’. I asked him what he hoped might happen instead. He said ‘Stay in this school.’ I said ‘So if we were working on that, it would be useful to you would it?’ He said it would and our project was agreed. I asked him what he liked and was good at. I asked him to scale where he was on the ‘Stay in school’ scale. I asked him where he hoped to get to and what he might be doing a bit different to get there. From our first meeting he stopped his disruptive behaviour and after a few weeks we agreed to end because he’d got to his ‘best hope.’ At the last meeting as we were agreeing to end our work with the project completed, I asked him what had changed, that made the difference. He said ever since he started at high school he felt worried and now he didn’t feel worried any more. After a few months I called in to check out how things were going. He said he was getting on well, no problems. The SEnCo agreed. He wasn’t excluded.

I could tell you dozens of stories like these from my working life, but these will do for our purposes for now, to ask some questions about what is going on in schools around children’s behaviour. My work is just one of a number of possible alternatives that could be available to children who are at a point of crisis. I didn’t invent the solution focused approach to change. I’ve done no more than learn how to do it and to understand what’s unique to the solution focused perspective. I’ve taught many people in many schools to use this approach as have other solution focused facilitators in this country and across the world. I’ve supported people learning to be solution focused through short training course or buy personal coaching – whatver fits people’s avaliable time and resources. It requires practice and effort to get to be good at it and it has this in common with all thorough going professional work no more, no less. It goes together with learning about yourself.

When we are very young our learning about ourselves and our learning about the world around us is seen as being fully integrated. When we’re a little bit older this previously integrated field is divided into two parts, which in schools are currently and usually called ‘learning’ and ‘behaviour’.

The ‘learning’ component is well understood and well supported. Children are assessed using standardised assessment tools and support programmes, often informed by research evidence, are matched with those with additional. Children with the highest level of need, or to put it another way those who experience serious barriers to their learning and participation, are assessed by educational psychologists or specialist teachers and, at present, receive a Statement of Special Educational Need which specifies the barriers and the actions to be taken to lower or remove them. They may be educated in a special school which is staffed by people who are trained specialists in the areas of the child’s main needs.

The ‘behaviour’ component is treated differently. As teachers our focus is on children’s intended learning outcomes and what we can do about teaching and learning to help them make progress. Once a child is identified as having a ‘behaviour problem we start to burrow into the child as a person and make guesses about the cause. Because this is really outside our teaching and learning remit we import ideas from other fields and often assign labels. In my work I hear teachers talking about children being ASDish, with signs of ADHD, a bit of attachment, anger problems. Children needs are managed in the first place by generalist pastoral staff where they are in post in a school and sooner or later by control and punishment systems. By now they’ve been moved out of the ‘learning’ zone and into ‘behaviour’.

Four year old Jade is supported by the Head teacher using the solution focused inquiry approach to her unhappiness and is soon starting her school day like all the others in her group.

Six year old Eddie is initially nurtured by the pastoral team in an approach common to most infant and primary, but when it’s not effective in bringing his behaviour within the boundaries of what’s usual in the school community the control and punishment system comes in to action. This is different to what would be done if he were showing a learning need. If he was not making expected progress with his literacy he would be given additional learning support. But if he is not making similar progress in learning about himself as a person in his community he subjected to increasingly tight control. There is clear and generally accepted evidence produced by the early experimental psychologists that punishment only interrupts existing behaviour, it does not promote new learning. It produces a short term, temporary effect and this is what happens in practice.
whether one is interested in short term changes in performance without enhancement of learning or longer term changes in learning itself. (Journal of Neuroscience 2009 Differential Effect of Reward and Punishment on Procedural Learning Wachter T. Ovidiu V. Tao Liu Willingham D. Ashe J.)
Twelve year old Jack he gets caught up in his new school’s control and punishment system as soon as he starts there. As expected his behaviour is regulated to some extent but in the end it seems that he can’t be managed in school, until I meet up with him to do something completely different, and effective in supporting his leaning and long-term change.

A consequence of this diversion of attention away from proper teaching and learning work is that in my opinion there is insufficient in-depth critique of non-educational programmes which are hauled in to deal with ‘bad’ children. When a child has a suspected ‘learning’ need, this can be assessed by trained people using standardised tests. When a child behaves badly, there is no such assessment process although such children are often subjected to removal from school to a ‘specialist’ provision for some sort of claimed assessment, which focuses on their ‘bad’ behaviour. I’m speaking from experience here, having worked in and around pupil referral units and specialist resource bases. To deal with children’s guessed-at internal problems programmes which were designed for other purposes are brought in. Mental health professionals themselves cannot positively diagnose the deficits most commonly talked about in school and themselves have to use differential diagnosis (‘if it’s not this, then it must be that’).

I think that as teachers we should base our work on what we know about teaching and learning rather than uncritically accepting inappropriate ‘stuff’ from anywhere else. Take restorative justice for example, set up in the criminal system to bring together a harm-doer, the criminal, and the harmed, the victim. The harm has been proved by the court so there’s no doubt about it, and the criminal must be remorseful about the harm they have done for the restorative meeting to go ahead. Does it make sense to use the restorative approach with children as young as five, in school? Are we sure we have a criminal and a victim with clearly assigned roles? Do we want children to conceptualise themselves as harm-doers? Is it appropriate to use an approach developed in the adult criminal justice system to deal with children in schools? Can we treat children as adults, and should we?

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