Category Archives: focus on solutions

Getting creative about inclusion.

Ok, this is bad. It’s time for the hard hats. The exclusion rate is rocketing skywards, ground control has lost communication with Major Tom and everyone’s running for the shelters.

A headline from BBC News recently;

“Barnsley and Middlesbrough see pupil exclusion rises of 300%”

 “The number of pupils expelled from schools in some parts of England has risen by more than 300% in three years.

There were 5,800 permanent exclusions in 2014-15 compared with 4,630 three years ago, government figures show.

Fixed term or temporary exclusions rose from 267,520 to 302,980 in the same period.

Some councils where large rises have been recorded said the increase reflected a greater willingness to tackle “poor behaviour”.”

What causes what? Local authority resources like school support teams have been cut to the bone, traded services have replaced free-at-the-point-of-use specialist provision. Maybe it’s coincidence that these numbers have shot up at the same time. Maybe schools under pressure to perform are basing their selection of students on children’s ability to conform. What is clear is that there’s something here that needs sorting out, punishment in the form of exclusion is being used as the universal remedy and inclusion for its own sake is unethical and maybe unlawful.

Is exclusion working?

But hang on, if exclusion were the sure-fire way to guarantee inclusion by converting ‘poor behaviour’ into ‘good behaviour’, leaving out the issue of the health and happiness of children and their families caught up in this storm, then surely the numbers ought to be going down not up? At the very least permanent exclusions, coming as they do further down the road from temporary exclusions, should be showing a marked decline not a substantial rise in numbers? There’s a clue in the numbers – exclusion isn’t working as it’s supposed to, to teach children how to join in.

Middlesbrough saw the largest increase in fixed term exclusions, up 357% from 750 in 2012-13 to 2,080 in 2014-15. Barnsley saw a rise of 303% and North Lincolnshire 110% during the same period.”

You can see this as evidence of schools doing their best to get the best out of their students by the only means they know, the Government approved method of punishing children with the intention of reforming them. Here we have it, in clear terms;

“The council says the rise reflects efforts by head teachers to tackle poor behaviour.

 Exclusion – the measure of last resort. Really?

 “Exclusions are a measure of last resort when all other avenues have been exhausted, and are designed to change behaviour and improve life chances,” a spokesman for Middlesbrough Borough Council said.

All other avenues exhausted? Sure about that? If exclusion really is the only resource we have and we don’t exclude does that mean giving up, allowing these disruptive and verbally abusive children a free hand to cause chaos in classrooms?

We can all agree with this sentiment; “Poor behavioural standards by students damages not only their own chances but the prospects of those around them.”

But exclusion as an educational ‘measure of last resort’ to teach children how to behave differently, better, in the long-term? The originators of behaviourism warned against it’s use in the real-life situation of school, far away from the laboratory precision of rats running in mazes and pressing buttons for food or electric shocks.  They were clear about its potential to interrupt temporarily existing behaviour and its failure to establish ‘what to do instead’, i.e. generate new learning. And its potential to cause worse behaviour, escalating the problems.

Teaching – art and science in perfect harmony

New learning? That looks like the job of teachers rather than psychologists, it’s what we do – develop knowledge, look for explanations, explore options, construct solutions, correct errors. Teaching, unlike psychology, is not an experimental science, it’s based in the uncertainty of practical knowledge, possibility and relationship, characteristics specifically excluded by the psychological/experimental method of behaviourism.

The article continued; “The Department for Education was approached for comment three weeks ago. In a statement released on Tuesday, a spokesman said: “Every child should be able to learn without disruption – that’s why we’ve given head teachers more powers to tackle poor behaviour.

Permanent exclusion is still very rare and should only be used as a last resort.”


What does that mean? Every child? ‘Power to tackle’ sounds more like rugby than schooling. ‘Very rare’? Percentages don’t mean much to the individual excluded child and their family. Used for what? A last resort? It’s a clear sign of a failure to educate children to be full members of their community – their community, and using exclusion as a punitive lever to correct children’s errors is not our true work as educators, to my mind.

 “We have also announced plans to make schools responsible for securing alternative provision for excluded pupils.”

 Well that’s OK then, if we all agree with the Government that passing the parcel is good enough for these children lumped together for the one thing they have in common, that the grown-ups have passed them on because they’ve run out of ideas on how to include them in the fullest way. A group made up of those who have experienced family breakdown in their young lives, often repeatedly. Those who find learning hard for reasons of their own, those who look a bit different on the surface or see the world in their own unique ways.

And more stats.

Back to percentages. Most educators, including me, look for the best in children and treat them with kindness and if only there were a creatively knid way to replace exclusion with something better we’d take it. The simplicity of reward and punishment is seductive and in its gentlest forms seems fairly harmless. But we have no idea if it’s really necessary in teaching children to internalize and comply with rules and regulations, because most children are very biddable and it doesn’t take much to get them standing in line, wearing the right kind of shoes, at the right time and place.

But. When things get serious, when some children don’t fall into line, we have the clear evidence of consequent anxiety, mental distress and loss of entitlement, of harm being done. This tells that we should be more creative in how we view children and the ways they behave, as they meet challenges. More creative in how we build relationships and join with children in their struggles to become their best selves.

Hey …… over here!

So where can we look for a creative lead? Certainly not in the restating of the old lines, behaviour management by rote, ‘10 top tips’, all those lists of don’ts. And not in the support for any old type of schooling on the Darwinian grounds that only the strong should survive, misapplied.

The great hope lies in what’s already working, in those schools and their supporters, the children and their families and those who care for them, who have found inclusive and fully educational alternatives to punishment and exclusion.  We’re beginning to know what works. For me being creative means being Solutions Focused. It’s certainly one good idea, but we don’t know enough about who is doing creative work and what exactly they’re doing – that’s why we’re both joining the dots and taking action in Lincolnshire to make inclusion work. And wherever you are, doing what it is that you do.

Action on Behaviour as Learning – it’s a great project, let’s join hands. Practice and research and practice.








Solutions Focused coaching in schools – Impact16

Closing the gap in behaviour, engagement and achievement.



The first green shoots of spring were showing when I was contacted by the ‘Teach First Impact16’ conference organiser to be asked if I could run four workshops on Behaviour in summertime Leeds.

On Monday this week I was late getting to the main arena for the keynote speakers – I’d had a problem setting up the IT in my session room – and entered a space with 4000 enthusiastic people tiered to the roof, loud music, Twitter feed and live speaker video on a huge screen. ‘TFImpact 16’ in action!

The keynotes overran a bit and then I was just one of a torrent of educators making for ‘The Rosebowl’ building. I was a minute late, the room already filling up fast, lots of glass and heat.

‘Behaviour? Relax. You can do more by doing less.’

The name’s on the door. The room’s full, everyone’s settled. I ask my very welcome crowd of student and beginning teachers an open question to begin the Solutions Focused conversation; ‘What’s your best hope for our time together? When you walk out at the end what would tell you it’s been worthwhile staying in the room?’ People in the room have two broad best hopes; one is to hear more about conventional behaviour management, how to start off with a new class, how to put a stop to low level disruption; the other is to find out if what they can do in place punishment as a means of control, as one puts it ‘to be nice in a structured way’. Perfectly positioned questions, as they would be of course coming from engaged professionals. They’ve come to the right place. So let’s get started.

To connect what we’re going to be doing with what they’ve got already so I ask them; ‘Do you know what the solutions focused approach is?’ One person says he’s heard of it but doesn’t know any details.
‘OK then. By the end of this session you’ll be on the pathway to Solutions Focused coaching.’

Success and solutions instead of failure and problems.

‘The Solutions Focused approach is a slim and elegant way of working compared to the problem focused way of solving behaviour problems. I emphasised the fact that all teachers and support staff have a dual role, as a referee controlling the boundaries set by essential school rules and a coach developing their empathetic relationship with students as the basis for engagement in learning and performance. When behaviour is a problem the teacher as the Solutions Focused coach needs to know only the few elements of the Solutions Focused approach to promote a student’s strengths and resources in generating change. In contrast the problem focused behaviour manager has be the expert, analysing the student’s problem, matching it to diagnoses and disorders, to defects and deficits and delivering a psychological theory. One approach develops Dweck’s Growth mindset, the other fixes the fixed mindset. One sees a behaviour difficulty as a challenge to get working on and the other sees it as a sign of failure, of deficit.

Putting ‘behaviour’ next to ‘relax’ was my hint to people looking for a session to attend that there’s another way of working other than being the universal expert with a head full of advice on children’s failure and how to remedy it, and the room was packed. The idea of looking positively for strengths and resources in teaching and supporting children and young people facing challenges has come of age, after a period of slow and steady growth. Ten years ago the Department for Education’s National Strategies included ‘Focusing on solutions – a positive approach to managing behaviour’. That was a first step, but to judge from people in my room at Impact16 and professionals I am working with in Lincolnshire it hasn’t generated a general change in practice.

‘That would be to mistake lethargy for strategy’ (a line from ‘Yes, Minister’)

My project over the last twenty years has been to find and put into practice an educational approach to ‘behaviour’ as an alternative to the dominant non-educational practice of reward, punishment and extrinsic control. I’ve got at it by putting my research and practice together, working and studying full-time. What’s driven me on is the knowledge there has always been something wrong with the use of punishment, control and coercion to try to make children behave the way we want them to and incidentally modelling the unbridled use of unbalanced power. But there’s never been a well-worked, properly structured, more effective and kinder alternative until now – and now the Solutions Focused approach has emerged into the full light of day it’s irrepressible, happily confident and here. In education we’re always seeking structure and that explains why we stick to old routines even when we know they don’t work, and adopt new ones before we know they do. Behaviourism is well-structured and works for things that don’t matter much, like exactly how high the heels on girls’ shoes should be. It’s handy for setting arbitrary boundaries – school rules.

‘It’s structured niceness!’

We know conditioning doesn’t work for things that do matter for children whose needs show clearly that we must take a different approach, because thousands are excluded from school every year, removed because punishment has failed them. But kindness, empathy and inquiry? Too easily disrespected as just being soft and the road to anarchy and chaos. That’s where the Solutions Focused approach finds its place, with structure, practical action and theory underpinned by the values of respect, inclusion, cooperation and and the assumption of resourcefulness, success and hopefulness of all students in all schools.

I’m not joining in battle with the profligate punishers. I’m Solutions Focused, being mindful, calm and reflective, holding up a strong alternative and knowing people have the resources they need to change their own minds. Thoreau observed that when a man’s only got a hammer, everything he sees is a nail.

But when we take a person’s his hand in kindness and compassion, they may put down the hammer and put on the mantle of the teacher without even noticing it.


Why focusing on strengths in schools is a good idea

As teachers we promote the flourishing of children as an integral part of the job. Children’s health and wellbeing is expressed in many ways; physical, social, intellectual, imaginative, creative ….  this list seems to have taken root and be growing itself ….. dietary, reflective, sexual, mathematical, mindful, environmental. Mental health and wellbeing is on the list too, evident in the robust, confident, funny, sad, aura of ‘me in the world’ that most children have.

Of course sometimes children are unwell and as teachers we have special antenna that tell us about it and we react to what we sense. Mostly it’s sniffs and passing aches and pains, we know what to do and if it’s more serious we take appropriate action, let the office know, call home, call the ambulance, keep them safe and feeling safe.

It’s clear that we are not in the business of diagnosis and treatment of illness. That’s the preserve of medics, not teachers. And when it’s mental health we’re thinking about, there are some things that teachers can get involved in and others that bring out our uncertainty.

The question here in thinking particularly about mental health is, are we sure that what we do in schools promotes health and prevents distress and illness and how do we change our thinking from what ought they to be doing about children’s health and wellbeing to what can we do about it educators?

The new President of the British Psychological Society, Professor Peter Kinderman, supports this shift in thinking that puts health and positivity at the forefront and diagnosis and illness further down the line. In schools we’re first responders with the ability to promote wellbeing.

As well as sniffs and sneezes, children have the low-level kind of worries and fears that can catch any of us out from time to time. We know what to do here too, we encourage and empathise with their take on what’s going on or going wrong. With our support the child manages their distress and in so doing learns a bit more about how to cope with suffering, learning about stress and tension as challenges rather than barriers.

But sometimes the levels rise and we see the effects materialising in school as defiance, disengagement, disruption, underachievement.

And then something very odd happens.

If you look at any Behaviour Policy online, you’ll see that we switch off the empathy and stop listening in small ways at first, to the extreme of zero-tolerance towards difference and distress in some schools. The very children who need an authentic, trusting relationship most are denied it as they are incrementally pushed away and out.

Which ones are over-represented in the lists of those not to be tolerated? Looked-after children, children with additional educational needs, children with disabilities that might affect their achievement. Do they deal with their failure with a phlegmatic shrug of their shoulders and so doing relieve us of our responsibility? Does the loss of their community cause them no sadness and distress? Is anything they might suffer balanced out in terms of the greater goo? These are children remember, many of whom have experienced repeated losses and failures already and all of whom are subject to the gnawing effects of uncertainty.

It’s happened because no thought-out and practical alternative to standardised behaviour management has presented itself, based on strengths rather than deficits, until now that is. Being kind to misbehaving children gets written off by some advisers as fluffiness and without a guiding structure it may well be. Of course children need clarity about community rules and reminders when they break them, but there’s more to teaching community values than that. Education has got stuck in the past while the rest of the world has moved on. It’s not nice. I’ve been in the position of the behaviour expert with only the tired old routines that had already failed children in need, and their schools too to be honest, fearful that I’m misleading people who were looking up to me as the guru, someone to wave the magic wand and do something different – and kind –  for the children they love. You can either work to change things for the better or toughen up. I’ve seen plenty of the latter but I went for the former and I’m happy I did that.


My mission over the last twenty years has been to develop my practice as a teacher supporting children struggling in school with a pedagogy that I can explain to others. With good luck, time and effort, always in the cycle of theory and practice, I found a way of working that focuses on the strengths and successes that children carry around with them and into school. Now I know what I’m doing and work together with others following the same track. It’s called the solution-focused approach, a practical way for teachers to help students in difficulty in the here and now.


Today is day three of the UK mental health awareness week with an emphasis on relationship. Awareness of relationship means we need to critically examine what we do to make sure that our relationship is based on honesty and generosity. As adults with children we have a duty to both guide and to educate. Both, and.


Let’s think about relationship and mental health today and see if we’re going in the right direction.






Relationships? Talk to the elephant

What’s Debate? Debate is all about winning an argument. It’s war and as we all know, all’s fair in love and war. We know what Debate means, the toffs learn how to do it at nanny’s knee. It’s a blood spattered battle of words, with crowned winners and cowed losers. It’s PMQs.

How about Discourse? That’s one of those words that drips off the balcony of the ivory tower and lands, plop, on the busy pavement below. Discourse is about throwing good ideas around in order to test them out and get even better ones, a fleeting shadow to most and the life-blood of invention to a few. Good Discourse doesn’t lead out and away to the podium, it just leads back up the tower to more Discourse, a Möbius strip of a stairway. I’ll leave it where it is in its interminably muted inexplicability and take you to where the music’s playing.

Bare Bait and Debate

Dominic Cummings is working at the edge of the Flat Earth, thrashing his way through the jungle of misunderstanding about how to get people to change their minds on something they hold dear. His approach is evidence-based.

You may have responded to the first few words with a slight emotional flutter when you read ‘Flat Earth’, making yourself an under-your-breath promise to read no further. The rest of the sentence was boring anyway, a weak attempt to drag in the image of the jungle, verdant density and darkness, all dripping humidity and biting insects, when the chances are the closest experience you’ve had of real jungle is Disney’s version. But having said it, having put it on the table, the possibility of the Earth being flat is there, just a niggly, metaphorical bit more than it was. I straightened the paragraph up by letting you know Mr. Cummings is at the cutting, not to say hacking, edge; yes folks, he’s evidence-based! Now you feel a bit more certain you can trust him, don’t you? Evidence-based eh? Can’t be bad.

Mr. Cummings, no relation to the horse painter as far as I know but I stand to be corrected, was Mr. Gove’s adviser when he, the aforementioned, was the boss at Education. In case you don’t have the faintest clue what I’m talking about, the two characters I’ve named are Conservatives. In case you don’t have a clue as to what that means either, they are members of a political party whose very successful stand at the last UK general election was entirely down to the stage management skills of the recently elevated Lynton Keith Crosby (born 23 August 1956). He has a clear and daring approach to winning elections that has stood him in great stead. He’s evidence-based too. Good man, an undoubted intellectual. So why did he say, during the UK elections; “How Would You Feel if a Bloke on Early Release Attacked Your Daughter?”

And why did Mr. Cummings say under interrogation by a House of Commons select committee last week; ‘Accuracy is for snake oil pussies’? a comment reported in a  Guardian article?

Mr. Cummings, adviser to the Vote Leave campaign apparently prompted this exchange;

“I don’t think it’s Vote Leave’s job to provide figures,” Cummings announced triumphantly, his eyes swivelling manically.

“But Vote Leave quotes numerous figures on its website,” said Tyrie (the committee chair), “Most of them misleading or inaccurate.”

“Accuracy is for snake-oil pussies,” Cummings hissed under his breath. “And besides, I’ve got a really bad memory.”

It’s rather a weird phrase isn’ t it? Having read it I’m not sure what sort of image I should have in my head to represent a snake-oil pussy. A rather beady-eyed and bedraggled small cat? A ….. no, I can’t go further into his parallel world. I just know how I feel about it. I hate it. I’ve been brought up to know that numbers have some factual equivalent in the real world, that even when the supermarket gives me a price-per-123gm.-portion I can recalculate this as a per-kilo price to compare it to a competing price-per-227gm.-portion, given a smart-phone (why do you think they’re called smart?), to find out which one is cheaper. With certainty built in. Mr.Cummings cuts across this by telling us that numbers are something different in his world.

They are symbols of power, transporters of emotion, no more no less.

But is that all there is to it, loud-mouthed bullying? Or is it (lowered eyes, reverential tone) evidence-based?

Because the evidence (no references, see? That’s how I’ll treat you, hanging on my word as if it were some kind of truth lodestone) says that if you want someone to do as you tell them, to change their mind or their voting habits even, the first thing you must do is to put on the table a big emotional jelly, wobbling about and looking like it might jump off the plate and down your throat any time soon. It’s even better if it’s a bit weird, morphing into the shape of an alien camel with three jelly humps on its head at one moment and into a snake-oil pussy at the next. That’s because it makes it even better at catching your flittering attention and holding it in its sticky jelly paws.

Whatever you put on the table stays in the head of the observer, doing it’s creative work. It’s an act of imagination, so it doesn’t matter whether it’s a jelly of lies or of truths, it’s job is to splatter you emotionally. Because emotionally loaded information tunes your attention, narrows your gaze to that part of the world that is to be subject of the next part of the learning process, rational thinking. Without it you’d have no idea where you were going.

Talking to the Elephant

I was riding an elephant in Nong Nooch garden one afternoon, up wide pathway between two low hedges. The elephant trainer walked ahead. It was obvious to me as the rider where we were going, up the path to the top of the hill, in clear view from my vertiginous vantage point. Then I felt the elephant take a sudden, swinging left turn below me, walk breast high into the hedge and selected a juicy nosegay of greens. The trainer addressed it sharply in Thai, the elephant ignored him, munched the first bunch  and was carefully searching for another trunkful. As the rider, my only option was to keep calm and wait to see what happened next, looking beyond the hedge. The trainer laughed, touched the elephant’s ear and we all swung back onto the path, the elephant chewing the veg, the trainer chatting to the elephant and me sweating elegantly. My elephant was forty six years old and she was bigger than me in many ways.

Jonathan Haidt in his wonderful book ‘The Righteous Mind’ develops the elephant and rider metaphor in thinking about how to teach monkeys new tricks, to make learning happen. He says; Talk to the elephant, not to the rider, because the rider serves the elephant, not the other way around.

The elephant is intuitive, emotionally sensitive, non-reflective, it responds to information from the world as if it’s life depended on it, which of course it does. It is always looking ahead, a gustatory optimist, and if it steps to the left, the rider must pay attention to what the future looks like over that way, to search out the hazards and the possibility of life beyond the hedge. The rider is a reflective intellectual and serves the elephant well if she pays undivided attention to where the elephant is going, but there’s no point in trying to get the elephant to take another route by winning an argument with the rider. She’s the servant, not the boss and the elephant is just plain big. You have to talk to the elephant.

A light bulb moment

So that’s why relationship is always top of the pops when we look for what leads to successful learning and what the teacher can do about it. Relationship is elephant talk.

And that’s why debates/arguments between tweeting riders go on for ever and the big roll bloggers/advisers go for your guts with their pointy phrases.

And that’s why we – that is people like you and me who know that schools are not supermarkets, with executive directors looking at everything on the distant shelves though their number binoculars – keep on telling stories that make you laugh and make you weep, that the elephants, big and small, understand, and why we keep on and keep on. We do it because we trust intuition, we’re elephants too, with our own clear-sighted riders serving our every step and turn.

And that’s why we have to keep all the little pachyderms with us, and know about their strengths, their hopes and their dreams to make sure they’re in their best space and why we play out real stories in imagined worlds with them. Big ones, small ones, some as big as your head. And only when we’ve got the elephant-talk flowing freely do we get the riders to switch on the headlights and show the life ahead, whatever it might be, for the best.

It’s relationship folks.


Asthma and behaviour – a modern parable

Asthma’s in the news at the moment because of an odd problem about something with an odd name. The problem is that it’s being overdiagnosed, diagnosis often leads to medication and too many people, many of them children, are using puffers when they don’t need to because they don’t actually have asthma, a dangerous condition in its most severe form.

From a lay perspective diagnosis might seem like an open and shut process. Medical professionals have a huge amount of knowledge in their heads and match what they see in a patient, the symptoms, with what they know could cause them.

A bit of reflection and Hey Presto, they make a diagnosis and come up with a strategy to fix the problem. We see the most positive type of diagnosis in action when we go to the doctor with a physical injury, cause and effect clearly linked and the treatment connected to both. The car door traps the finger that you show to the doctor who asks you how it happened. She judges it’s not broken but only bruised, sends you for an x-ray to be certain, gives you a once over and sends you home for tea and sympathy.

But even doctors can’t know everything, so they use reference guidelines especially when it looks likely someone has a condition for which there’s no definitive test to prove the diagnosis as is the case with asthma. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence regulates health care and has new draft guidelines for England that say doctors should use more clinical, objective tests to back up their judgement and avoid the misdiagnosis of asthma.

The charity Asthma UK are saying that more funding is needed for research and the development of a definitive test, to eliminate the diagnostic subjectivity. Dr Samantha Walker of Asthma UK summed it up recently: “It is astonishing in the 21st century that there isn’t a test your child can take to tell if they definitely have asthma.”

Without doubt one specific objective test for asthma would be good, but certainly would be astonishing because asthma is a global term covering many different conditions with many different causes, triggered by different factors at different ages. To complicate things further symptoms that might indicate asthma change from day to day in a sufferer’s life and this overall complexity leads to it being both over- and under-diagnosed.

Off to school

As I was reading the article about asthma, it struck me that the position with regard to behaviour is similar in the way we in education attempt to diagnose and treat it as a single disorder.

Interestingly I can cut and paste from the paragraph above; “(behaviour) is a global term covering many different conditions with many different causes, triggered by different factors at different ages. Added to this the symptoms that might indicate (behaviour disorders) change from day to day in a sufferer’s life and this overall complexity leads to it being both over and under-diagnosed.”

But surely this is going too far, isn’t it? We’re educators not medics and we don’t diagnose disorders in school, we’re teachers interested in the best ways to promote learning aren’t we?

I’m not so sure. In the same way that current diagnostic methods used in the case of asthma are an uneasy mixture of subjective and objective assessments, the way we approach behaviour is a mixture of the two. We use our behaviour policy as a kind of diagnostic and treatment schedule, giving us reference guidelines. We certainly categorise bad behaviour as a disorder, a part of a child that’s is dysfunctional. School behaviour policy sets out the symptoms klthat indicate the level of severity of the disorder. We collect diagnostic data by means of unsystematic observation, but this is well-known to be unreliable and prone to observer bias. For example, badly behaved children come under more scrutiny than their well-behaved peers so their files listing symptoms grow proportionately thicker, faster. The data set is then matched to the intervention schedule in the behaviour policy and the appropriate level of punishment applied, as the treatment for the behaviour disorder.

We do seem to have medicalised what we term ‘behaviour’ as a problematic disorder of many children in schools. Even given the diffuse and fuzzy relationship between causes and effects, we stick to one-size-fits-all medical-type interventions. Where the treatment fails to cure the illness, we transfer children out of mainstream school to more specialised treatment facilities, where we assume they can be cured by specialist treatment. Maybe they’ll go to a Pupil Referral Unit where the treatment they get is intended to normalise their behaviour and enable them to return to mainstream school in a few months. When I taught in a PRU it was called ‘the revolving door’, although in practice it tended to stay closed. Or maybe they’ll get a formal diagnosis of behaviour disorder and this will be their ticket to special school, where the aim is to cure their disorder over a longer term and educate them at the same time. Or maybe we’ll shift them sideways, manage-move them to another school where they don’t know anyone and that might be the cure they need, to be a stranger in a new community – social disorientation or a fresh start? Depends how you look at it.

What questions does this raise?

Taking the essentially medical approach to behaviour and focusing on deficits, diagnosis and treatment raises some structural questions.

Is it right to cast what might be developmental issues as disorders and disabilities when they could equally well be seen as transitory phases connected with growing up and learning how to be?

The children who get swept together with the behaviour brush are likely to have additional educational needs, to be living in care, or disadvantaged in other ways and are heavily over-represented in exclusion data. Are we saying that the type of behaviour that triggers permanent exclusion is a fixed characteristic of these children and not likely to change and this justifies their ejection from their community and their school? If so why are we funding and expanding alternative provision whose intended outcome is to change them? If not why do we set such a high barrier to their transfer to high quality specialist schooling? If we don’t see bad behaviour as a fixed characteristic then are we only excluding these children because we don’t have any way of teaching them that results in their behaving differently – in other words we’re stuck so they have to go?

Are we saying that mainstream schooling is only fit to meet the needs of children at the centre of a normal distribution for a wide range of characteristics and that children who do not match up should be identified as soon as possible and directed elsewhere, to home schooling or specialist provision?

And the big questions: What’s the alternative?

There are alternatives to focusing on deficits and taking a deficit-focused diagnostic approach to the changing and often unpredictable needs of children as they grow up – and of their teachers and other adults in school for that matter.

From outside education, taking a broad view clinical psychologist Peter Kinderman proposes a shift towards a psychosocial approach to wellbeing and mental health. Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi have developed the idea of positive psychology, focusing away from the general preoccupation of psychology with dysfunction and towards positive aspects of human life, such as happiness, well-being and flourishing and human strengths such as hopefulness, creativity, intrinsic motivation, and responsibility.

As a teacher/researcher I’ve been working with the solution-focused approach to pastoral support, centred on behaviour but with the much wider application of a non-specific strengths focused approach to any hoped-for change.

There are numerous examples of committed educational professionals challenging the prevailing conventions, Nancy Gedge, Tom Sherrington, Tim Taylor for example all thinking and writing about their ideas and communicating on the web.

I believe it’s in a teacher’s nature to gravitate towards kindness and compassion as a counter-balance to the necessary control and regulation that we as adults model for growing children. I believe the shift towards the recognition of strengths and all this brings in supporting children’s healthy image of themselves and their wellbeing has come of age.

Now we need to join hands in doing more of it, more of the time, to the benefit of all.



1500 words



Teaching, relationship and children’s mental health

The problem

Are good teacher/student relationships important in promoting children’s mental health?

When the subject of children’s behaviour comes up, teacher/student relationship is always mentioned as an important factor in the development of good behaviour. Good relationships engender good behaviour, good learning and good memories of school too.

When we talk about behaviour it’s not usually good behaviour that’s the main topic.

Good behaviour gets treated as if we can take it for granted, there might be the odd sticker or treat but we don’t really shout about it.

The good relationships between teachers and students and the good behaviour and success in school that goes with it are the norm, unremarkable, largely unnoticed.

The hot topic is bad behaviour. Then, under instruction from the behaviourist psychologists it is pursued, single- mindedly.

“I like you, I don’t like your behaviour” we say to baffled students, as we give them another reason to feel uncomfortable. We wouldn’t say “It’s not you who’s getting another Saturday detention, it’s your behaviour” because that sounds too odd, but that’s what we intend them to comprehend.

Although we might have the mental agility to square that particular circle, children don’t and punishment is a significant factor in leading a student to dislike a teacher. It spoils their relationship. School can turn into a place where a student who makes mistakes can get labelled, isolated, rejected and feels the same in return.

Do they feel it in their heart or can they rationalize it as something impersonal, their behaviour not them? It’s an uncomfortable fact that many students who get tagged with the ‘bad behaviour’ label have additional learning needs or are looked-after children. Do we really expect them to survive the experience of loss, punishment and segregation cheerily unmarked?

We know all this but we persist in doing things to children who make mistakes, to make them change their ways, to force them to comply.

By now you might be thinking that I’ve gone too far. What I’m writing here is a parody, many teachers care deeply about their students, the more needy no less than the more robust. I’d say you’re right and I’d go further, most teachers care deeply.


The current process by which badly-behaved children (whatever we take that to mean) are managed by control and coercion is pretty well universal and teachers have no alternative but to follow the trodden path, no matter what their heart says.


There is an alternative that strengthens relationship and develops change at the same time. It’s called solution-focused support. It has built in to it the promotion of children’s mental wellness because it focuses on their resourceful, resilient, autonomous, self-actualising self.

The one we all want to see shining through.

The solution.


New book ‘Transforming behaviour in the classroom – a solution-focused guide for new teachers’ Geoffrey James (2016) Sage


Solutions for behaviour – Behaviour and Snake Oil


                             Sixty second summary

If we were designing our approach to helping children behave well in school today, we wouldn’t start from where we are now. The reward and punishment approach has been subjected to a long field-trial, a natural experiment, which shows up its limitations. It produces segregation of a large minority of children and promotes exclusion. It’s largely unchallenged and is vociferously supported by its proponents, but may be no more than an undesirable habit. It’s under-researched and poorly described theoretically at classroom level.

It’s a good time to go back to first principles and to take a look at what we could do better, to escape the loop we’re in now. There is an alternative to this approach that acknowledges recent developments in diverse scientific fields and it should be trialled, researched and assessed for it’s value as an additional practice in schools. What we have now is problem-focused problem-solving, very valuable in its right place. What we might add is solution-focused problem-solving, a powerful new force for learning and change.


                             Ten minute read

A welcome to you

I’m writing this for you, as you set off on your adventure into teaching today and tomorrow.

It might be you first year in harness or your fifteenth, duration is irrelevant.

What is highly relevant is your perspective on teaching.

If you’re like me and come into the work with an open mind, susceptible to the energy of new ideas and knowingly vulnerable to change in the interest of transforming your practice towards the best it can be, then we’re talking.

If my naming this piece ‘Behaviour and Snake oil’ caused a little flare of interest and you’re still reading, because you think behaviour and how we approach it is something worth questioning, then you’re very welcome to stay and reflect on some issues with me.

But if you thought this piece was going to be the promotion of one perspective, The Truth, over what’s written on the a bottle of Snake Oil, if you’re perfectly at ease with the status quo and A/E/G then you may as well pick up your Fender Strat and leave.

If that sounds a bit discriminatory – well, it is. We seem to have arrived at a place where those determined characters who declare The Truth to be One Thing hold the centre ground and respond to those who offer Another Thing by shouting at them in the hope they’ll go away. This has the effect of keeping things as they are. It doesn’t matter how reasonably an alternative is presented, it’s clearly rubbish and not even to be nodded at, so there! they say.

So thanks for coming along to all of you, goodbye and good luck if you’re leaving. You can pick up a leaflet as you go, no charge. Or not.

Rockin’ all over the world

It’ll take a few moments for things to settle down and we can go from there once we have a quiet space. I’ll just note this on the board;

The threshold concept: Changing behaviour – from the inside or the outside?

If we started thinking from scratch about children’s learning, the kind of behaviour we hope for, it’s likely that we’d come up with lots of ways we could go about growing children into happy co-operators making the most of school. Taking a bold approach we wouldn’t be in awe of other professional groups but stand confidently on our own ground as educators.

 What have we got now?

There are two main approaches; (1) centred on the use of unequal power and authority by the adult to bring about behaviour change from the outside, (2) centred on the resourcefulness or agency of the child to navigate change from the inside.

(1) Behaviour in schools at present is dominated by the Rossi-Parfitt approach to rock and roll. The argument goes like this; we’ve got reward and punishment, it’s simple, it doesn’t need much thought to do it because it’s habitual and it’s popular. So we’ll keep on rockin’, no change.

It’s so well established that it seems like a natural truth, whereas it’s actually no more than an accident of history. A century ago behaviourist psychology seemed to offer firmer ground than mentalism when it came to the inscrutable nature of the mind and it appealed to school managers and their managers. Rats running around mazes could stand in for children in schools. Corporal punishment was legal and in use until 1987 and transferring to other forms of punishment, shocks for rats, could be seen as liberal treatment for offensive children.

With little grasp of its theoretical foundations but their own experiences of school in mind, reward and punishment was advocated by ministers of state and their civil servants. These were the levers that teachers must use to regulate children in schools of all types and phases, referral and secure units, approved schools (until 1969), borstals (until 1982) and special schools, all the way up to mainstream schools.

The educational effects of the behaviourist approach, whether intended and desired or not, were sidelined because the focus of the treatment was on behaviour change by conditioning as had been demonstrated in the experimental psychologists’ trials on animals. Most animals don’t have the kind of personalities that lead them to refuse to cooperate, living in a cage and given electric shocks when they press a food button. Maslow’s hierarchy is unknown in the rat’s universe.

Complicating this apparent simplicity a good relationship between teacher and pupil was recognised as essential by the earliest inquirers, Lord Elton and his panel of experts, into what engenders good behaviour. The effects of rewards and punishments on the quality of the relationship were not considered and were and are largely unknown1. Certain characteristics were desirable as learning outcomes for the main part of the curriculum, such as engagement, self-regulation, self-discipline and resilience. For children who behaved badly these were put aside. They were not to be the intended aims of behaviour management from this perspective, focused on external discipline and extrinsic motivation.

The outside-in approach also explains the odd fact that schools have been pushed to treat children’s growing and maturing as people as something that can be scripted and taught, with the social and emotional curriculum, delivered to children in massed ranks.

And when things have got too difficult for schools to manage, cognitive behaviour therapy might be available; this requires the child to develop insight on the connection between their bad behaviour and their distorted thinking, to accept that their thinking is in fact distorted and to be willing to cooperate and change, to develop more positive cognitive processes. If the patient does not express their motivation they won’t be taken on.

Do you think this will work with children you know?

(2) Despite the widespread use of external control and discipline there has been another note to be heard, when you listen carefully. It’s embedded in what most teachers actually do with all children and only depart from when led away by unwanted behaviour into taking all the power into adult hands.

They’re both well-organised and kind at the same time, keeping the child at the centre of their work.

In the 20th century, Carl Rogers developed the idea of person-centred psychology and its application to education. Rogers died in 1987. Martin Seligman, born in 1942 and 35 years old when Rogers died has carried the baton to the present, with his development of positive psychology. At the core is a refocusing away from children’s deficits and towards their strengths.

When a school is identified as attempting to manage behaviour without punishment it makes the deficit-focused behaviour experts jump up and down with fury, because this represents a rejection of the Truth. It’s a paradigm shift and such a big realignment in thinking can cause a nasty headache. Opponents of this shift tend to characterise it as no more than an acceptance of blind optimism and a ruling out of failure and negativity but as well as being a cartoon representation this misses the point as far as education is concerned.

As children grow and develop they are bound to make errors. My own practice and research2 has shown that by treating what is called bad behaviour as a learning error and paying attention to the child’s resourcefulness and natural tendency towards what Rogers called self-actualisation, change happens from the inside. The learner’s agency brings it about, reinforcing their desired strengths such as autonomy, resilience and self-discipline. In my work this has led to the prevention of exclusion of children at high risk.

It’s time to stretch our legs and walk into the world again.

What might we do next? Starting from scratch as we are, we could try jumping paradigms. When child gets one thing wrong in their behaviour, it doesn’t mean they’ve got nothing right. Find out what it is. When we think of children as resourceful, successful and hopeful we can go looking for growth and change knowing we’ll find them.

We’ll be Solution Detectives, searching for clues to success.

And if the child needs a higher magnification glass?

They might move on to solution-focused brief therapy. Which means doing more of the same, more of what works, based on the same three beliefs.

Simple. But more than Rossi-Parfitt.


Next steps

Be solution-focused and do the research – extend Payne’s (2015) investigation. Use the solution-focused approach in schools and evaluating the outcomes from multiple perspectives, including students and their carers/parents, teachers and other staff.




(About 1650 words)


1) Ruth Payne (2015) Using rewards and sanctions in the classroom: pupils’

perceptions of their own responses to current behaviour management strategies, Educational

Review, 67:4, 483-504, DOI: 10.1080/00131911.2015.1008407

To link to this article:


2) Geoffrey James (2016) ‘Transforming behaviour in the classroom – a solution-focused guide for new teachers’ London: Sage

Available on Amazon


Behaviour Report Card – 2016 week 1

Section 1: What’s been happening this week with behaviour as we set out into the new term?

  • A behaviour expert, who asked not to be quoted and who shall therefore remain anonymous, has told us that in his personal experience of working in a secondary school, 95% misbehaviour is opportunistic. Children are poised and waiting for the opportunity to muck about unless he can get in there first. These children are just firing up randomly and all the careful preventative teaching and reinforcement of rules hasn’t worked to control their impetuosity. Consequently the best preventative action is to warn them they’re being watched and if the student still makes a break for the gap they’ve been warned so they’ll understand that it’s a fair cop. This is for non-serious behaviour. If this doesn’t work and behaviour is serious it’s time to get the big guns out, we’re told. This means handing the student and the problem over to someone else so they can do the nasty but necessary follow-on work.
  • In Lincolnshire a study gathering the views of lead teachers on behaviour found that TA support for behaviour was more effective than any other intervention. The brief report didn’t mention what the other interventions were or how the teaching assistants were trained, what approach they used and so on. But the claim warrants further investigation as TAs take a major support role with children most greatly in need. This flags up the need for research, training and development around the TA role in behaviour support, in addition to the highly publicised need for high quality initial training for teachers in behaviour.
  • The headteacher of the Sands school in England is in line for a major award, in a school where the pupils have a voice in deciding what rules are useful and how they should be taught and learned. The school has taken this approach for many years, foregrounding student autonomy. A behaviour expert commented that in his view ‘sadly educational experiments like this rarely work outside of tiny privileged communities.’ This was countered by another commentator who has carried out and published research into the issue, who said he had surveyed students in schools in very disadvantaged areas and found that practices that enhanced autonomy and respect are key success factors for students. A third commentator said that she knew of many examples of this approach being successful in schools.
  • Children who are found guilty of an offence are sent to secure training centres. The Medway STC holds up to 78 children from 12 to 18. Seven staff including training centre assistants, team leaders and two duty operation managers at a G4S-run young offender institution were suspended on the 30th December after allegations were made that they used unnecessary force, including claims that staff punched and slapped children and squeezed their necks to restrain them. The Youth Justice Board, under Michael Gove the minister for justice who is advised on re-offending by the ex-Behaviour Guru Charles Taylor, has temporarily stopped placing children at the centre, which can hold up to 76 young offenders aged 12-18. This follows the recent removal of another training centre from G4S control for similar reasons, evidence of another kind of reoffending. What kind of training and supervision do G4S staff have to behave in this way in delivering training to these children and what does it reveal about this private companies’ ethos?


Section 2: Comment

There might be more to bad behaviour than just random opportunism. Maybe it’s often true enough and maybe some students need more than a quiet word and a tap on the shoulder. Maybe they are giving us the nod that they need attention of a different kind than the big gun if they struggle to comply.

What’s your view?

Teaching assistants are part of the team and need great support and the opportunity to develop as much as teachers do. If the problems with behaviour ars related to the quality and type of intial training of teachers this must be true for teaching assistants too. What’s missing is familiarity with the fundamental ideas that support different approaches to support. It might be argued that reward and punishment get results in some cases, but what effective teaching assistants actually do when they support a student will be broader than this, involving human qualities like empathy and the ability to make a productive professional relationship.

What’s your view?

Student autonomy or teacher control? Either/or or both/and? The question here is what is the educational purpose of behaviour support and the teaching of rule-following behaviour? If an overall purpose is to enable children to grow and flourish as active citizens, then in the crucial area of learning to behave an understanding of the importance of autonomy and personal agency is vital and not to be sidelined for ideological reasons. It’s a straightforward educational issue.

What’s your view?

Children permanently excluded from school are heavily over-represented in penal institutions. Ostensibly they are there to be educated but it looks more like punishment is allowable for their being children who made serious mistakes. The use of punishment as a behaviour management strategy comes into question when staff at all levels threaten the safety of children through their actions. But should they be punishing at all.

Note: it costs us £160,000 per year to keep one child in a secure training centre in the UK.

Money well spent?

What’s your view?


Section 3: Making changes

Is there any fairer and more effective alternative to the present use of punishment and control to support children who behave badly? Have a look around this website and see what catches your attention. Be solution-focused.

Look out for Behaviour Report Cardweek 2





Support …….. now!

I am writing this in response to an article by ‘Bergistra – “Headteacher on a Knife-Edge’ in the Education Guardian of May 28 2013. She said ‘I have a reception child, aged four, who desperately needs some serious long-term therapy. In school she is unmanageable.’ She goes on to talk about the difficulty of keeping this child in school and her deep commitment to fulfilling the broad needs of her community of children and their families. She talks about the length of time to get support from outside agencies and says ‘It feels awful not being able to provide this little girl’s family with the support they need now. Not in six weeks, or six months or next year.’

‘Bergistra’ has systems in school to support children. She said she recently reintegrated a year 4 boy whose ‘behaviour was so extreme I seriously considered a permanent exclusion.’ When he returned to school ‘he seemed to be stuck in a tornado of rage and fury that swept him along, trying to destroy everything in his path.’ She made alternative provision for him, but his behaviour deteriorated there and when he was back in school she excluded him again. She said neither his mother nor herself knew what to do. ‘It felt hopeless.’ But she’s taken him back again and hopes to find a way to get him back on track.’

In the context of the new approach to special and additional needs of children, with more responsibility being put on school staff to identify and meet these needs, the tension is obvious and growing. If only the school could have an educational approach to meet the needs of the relatively small number of children who experience the greatest difficulty.

I work with children like the two in Bergistra’s article in my job as an Advisory Teacher. I take referrals where things look hopless, people feel stuck and children are at imminent risk of permanent exclusion. From finding myself in Bergistra’s situation fifteen years ago, I have developed my use of the solution focused approach to problem-solving. If what you’re doing doesn’t work it’s a good idea to do something different and this is certainly different and produces remarkable results. The following two case reports are illustrations of this approach. The names are locations are fictionalised to protect identities.

On a Thursday morning two weeks ago I was driving away from a primary school where I’d been meeting a boy and his mum, when I got a call on my work mobile. As soon as I could stop the car I checked the voicemail. An infant school SENDCo had called – “We’ve got a serious problem with a child and we’d like your help with an intervention – we’re in the danger of exclusion zone – so if you’d get in touch as soon as possible ……thanks Geoff.”

At the primary school I’d been holding a review meeting of the solution focused programme I call VulCAN looking over the work I’d been doing with nine year old Chris over six weeks. Chris had been seriously bullied in his previous school, to the point where his Mum had decided to move him to another school in the hope he could make a new start. He had been very unhappy, his behaviour had become difficult and he had been very aggressive with other children. What we call here a managed move was recommended and supported by the Local Authority Behaviour Support manager who requested my solution focused work with Chris as a key part of the process. Until I could report a successful outcome Chris would not be put on roll in his new school. If he failed he would have to return to his original school.
My first meeting had been with Chris and his Mum, when we’d agreed the purpose of our work together. I’d asked the SENDCo to come along but he wasn’t able to. Chris had been in his new school for three weeks and he told me how he knew things were going well. His Mum agreed to a point but felt he needed to do more about getting angry with other children and this would be central to his success at his new school and Chris agreed with her. His being calm was our project.

I asked Chris to scale himself on what he called the “Calm”/ “Losing it” scale and he put himself at 5. He hoped to be at 7 when we met next time. Over the first weeks Chris noticed himself being calm; after three weeks with this going well we refined the focus to ‘Staying calm even when people annoy me’. At the last-but-one meeting I asked Chris if our project would be complete when we met the next week to review things with his mum and we could finish. He said maybe we could meet for a few more times, maybe fortnightly rather than weekly as we’d been doing. I said we’d check this out when we met to review our work.

When we met for the VulCAN review both Chris and his Mum felt that we had done what we set out to do, Chris was securely in school, he had friends and was keeping calm even when he felt a bit angry inside. Again the SENDCo couldn’t attend but I spoke to him after the meeting. Later I called the LA Behaviour Support manager to say our work was complete. He said that Chris’s move was completed in his view.

From my car I called the Infant school and asked for the SENDCo. I was put on to the Deputy Head teacher – he told me that the SENDCo was teaching her class – and arranged to go in to meet the boy, Tom, his mum and dad and the Teaching Assistant working closely with him the following Tuesday afternoon.

Then I drove on to meet a year 10 boy at an Academy, who had been urgently referred to me because he was at the point of exclusion and his school had ‘tried everything’ and were stuck.

The following Tuesday, when I arrived in school the SENDCo told me that Tom lived with his Mum and spent weekends with his Dad. Both his parents were coming to the meeting and were happy for any help we could offer. Tom is five. After introductions, I asked Tom if he knew we were going to have this meeting. He said his mum had told him. I said that if we were going to do something useful we needed to agree what our work would be about in this meeting. After a bit of talk involving all of us he said it could be about him being calm in school. So I said if we did some work on that it would be ok? He said “Yes”. I said we’d talk about that later.

I asked Tom what were his best things, what he liked doing, what he was good at. We talked about this for twenty minutes, Tom answering questions and thinking about his strengths and his best things, often sitting on his chair or coming back to it after he’d done some thinking and playing. He talked about Scooby Doo and rattled off the names of a lot of Scooby videos. He told me that in school he stayed with his friend Carrie and helped the girls get away from the boys when they were playing outside. He liked reading time and the story they had in class now, “Rat a tat tat”. He said his Dad would say when he was at his house he liked to watch TV and running and shouting. Mrs. Brett the TA would say he was good at making Lego models and picture drawing.
When we’d done a lot of talking about what he liked and was good at, we moved on to how things were going in school. I checked out his understanding of a number line and I wrote the numbers 1 to 10 on a line I drew in my notebook for him. I gave him the pen and he drew a number box across the page and wrote 1 to 10 inside the box. I told him we’d call his ‘calm’ scale, where 10 was him being calm in school and 1 was him not being calm in school. He drew another number box as before which he left blank. I asked him if he wanted the numbers inside. He said ‘yes’. I asked him if he wanted to write them. He said ‘no’ he wanted me to do it. I wrote them in and said that 10 would be him being really calm and 1 the opposite to that. He told me he wanted 1 to be the ‘calm’ end and 10 to be ‘really crazy stuff’. I asked him where he’d put himself now and he put a circle around the 1. I asked him where he thought the others in the room would put him and he said 1. I asked him where he hoped he would be at the end of the same day and he said 1. I gave him a job to do – to notice things going well and him being at the 1-end of the scale. I asked the others if we could give Tom a compliment about the meeting he had just been doing and asked him who would go first. He said mum, then dad, then Mrs Brett, then me. I asked him to give himself a compliment. I asked him again what his job was. He went back to his class to get his things as it was going home time.

In a few minutes I explained the purpose of what we’d been doing to Tom’s parents and outlined the solution focused approach. I asked them if they needed anything else. They said they were impressed by how well Tom had concentrated and stayed on-task in the meeting. He usually couldn’t do this. They left and I asked Mrs. Brett if she could make a scale with him as a reminder – which Tom was calling his number line – maybe he could choose the colour of card and they could write the number line together. Perhaps they could laminate it and agree where to keep it so it would be most useful to him.
We had a plan, the meeting had taken 30 minutes and Tom was fully engaged throughout.

I’ll catch up with how things are progressing when school restarts after the holidays.

An important aspect of this solution focused approach is that schools can do this work for themselves – it’s an educational approach to a child’s learning needs, and if it’s school based it’s highly responsive. Provided it lies within a rigorous framework of action and review, where appropriate and timely referral to outside agencies, like mental health or social services, is made to ensure the safety of and appropriate support for children who have needs additional to their learning needs, it’s useful for a school to have this resource in-house. A few do already.
It strikes me that Bergistra is doing all she can, following the established routines in her school. She’s not giving up – and that is the most common reponse of teaches in this situation. They don’t want to give up on children but they don’t know what else to do. If like Bergistra you feel you’re stuck, get solution focused. It’s the difference that makes a difference.