Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Guest Blog: Behaviour is communication.

By Ella Hughes

Behaviour is communication.  ‘Managing behaviour’ is about listening to what is being said; not necessarily through words but bodies.  The relationship between those involved is key.  Through mounting pressures in schools, relationships can be overlooked, in favour of desires for a ‘quick-fix’.  There is no one-size-fits-all solution to behaviour management.

I (like the majority of the teaching profession) am hard working, committed and continually learning.  This is my 10th year as a teacher, 5th as Deputy Head, I’ve worked in the UK and New Zealand in a varied range of schools, came into the profession through a Biology degree and PGCE and have completed my NPQH.  Yet, until recently, had never heard of Attachment, or the neuroscience behind it.  Attachment is the foundation for all relationships and it deeply concerns me that I could have ended my career with no awareness of its existence, let alone an understanding of its impact for children and schools. 

For any child to learn they must first feel safe. Feeling unsafe, within any setting, inhibits a child’s ability to learn and suppresses their curiosity, independence and resilience.  Their tolerance is dramatically narrowed along with any self-regulatory strategies they may have.  As adults we experience the same, when stress levels exceed our thresholds the reptilian elements of the brain take over and hijack our usual ability to think and feel effectively.  This can lead to detrimental changes in behaviour, as part of the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response.   Either hyper-arousal from the ‘fight’ (aggression, loud, outwardly destructive) or hypo-arousal from the ‘freeze’ (withdrawn, quiet, unresponsive, shut down). 

Often ‘behaviour management’ refers to hyper behaviours but it’s important to remember the often-unseen hypo children too.  Because if behaviour is communication, we must be mindful of our responses to all behavioural changes; not just consequences (or worse punishments) for what is perceived as poor behaviour.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs outlines that to achieve self-actualisation, which includes so much we expect from children (including creativity, acceptance of facts, morality) it is essential that their needs have first been met from previous tiers, which focus on the child feeling safe in every sense of the word; physiological and psychological.  Similarly, the first layer of the ‘Parenting Pyramid’ in the Webster Stratton ‘The Incredible Years’ training includes Empathy, Attention & Involvement and Play, and Dan Hughes’ PACE approach, which aims to make children feel safe, is built upon Playfulness, Acceptance, Curiosity and Empathy.  While it may seem unusual to be quoting parenting resources in relation to schools, it makes sense when considering that teachers are ‘in loco parentis’.

To sustainably manage behaviour a change is needed in general approach.  The Incredible Years teaches that parents will usually find strategies such as ‘behaviour charts’ and ‘time out’ ineffective if they are not first dedicating time to play and building their relationship with the child.  The same applies in schools.  Rather than a top-down focus on strategies to ensure children ‘behave better’ a ‘bottom-up’ whole school system of understanding is needed; consistency, boundaries, trust and responsiveness. 

This is, and will continue to be, an evolving area at our school.  The learning and ideas outlined below, from our journey so far, are not unique to our school and need to be considered by the DfE Behaviour Review:

   Knowledge & Understanding
-        Attachment training needs to be a compulsory element of all teacher training.
-        Whole school training to up-skill & enable all staff; teaching assistants, lunch-time staff, volunteers and governors.  We use
-        We provided all staff with a copy of “Inside I’m hurting: Practical strategies for supporting children with attachment difficulties in schools.” by Louise Bomber and reflected on the reading in Staff Meetings.  Key Stages also have copies of, “What every parent needs to know: The incredible effects of love, nurture and play on your child’s development.” by Margot Sunderland for staff to borrow.

   Consistent approach
-        Shared language: Behaviour is talked about in relation to safety not shame.  Less words and more listening with our eyes, what is the child’s body telling us?
-        Be mindful of what our behaviour is communicating to the children around us.  Our heightened stress levels can make us unpredictable, short tempered and therefore triggering.
-        Behaviour policy embedded in learning about attachment, neuroscience, trauma and the damage of shame.
-        Curriculum that has emotional literacy, wellbeing and creativity at the core.  We consider PSHCE a core subject alongside Maths and English.
-        Ask children and actively listen to their responses; they often know what they need.
-        Involve parents and carers wherever possible.
-        Well thought out transitions, unstructured times and changes to routines.

-        Responding to children’s emotional / developmental age rather than chronological
-        Clinical supervision for staff; so they can respond from a place of reduced stress and fear
-        SDQ all children, three times a year; to identify those in need who may slip through the net and to measure emotional impact
-        Protected space(s) for emotional interventions, which ALL children access
-        Playtherapy as past of a tiered approach to creative emotional interventions, nurture and ‘Time in’
-        Dedicated Health & Wellbeing Team

There is an important place for Traffic light systems, reward charts etc within behaviour management, as one part of the whole approach.  Not the primary focus.

These things all take time, money and commitment.  This requires Heads, like ours, to be creative, courageous and child-focused in the face of relentless constraints.

I haven’t specifically referred to adopted children, children in care, or those experiencing identified loss, separation and trauma because I believe that a system built on solid foundations of attachment, neuroscience and being child-focused can meet the needs of all children.  After all, trauma is “a deeply disturbing or distressing experience”, “often the result of an overwhelming amount of stress” which is different for everyone.  As professionals we don’t know the extent of trauma that may be hidden in the life of a child and it is our job to be a protective factor for all children, supporting them in integrating and regulating their emotions.  Ultimately, this will lead to well-managed behaviour in schools.

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