It's common for schools to get outside help when they're struggling to support a child's behaviour, but sometimes this type of advice can actually do more harm than good.
In this weeks Behaviour Secrets podcast, we discuss why sometimes you shouldn't listen to advice given by behaviour experts, how this advice can actually make a situation worse and why you mustn't ever take this advice at face value.
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Show notes / transcription
Simon Currigan 0:00
I was asked to observe and give support for a child who was displaying some physical aggression. And I went outside to actually see the child play with their friends on the playground that made me realise that in trying to focus on that child in isolation was hopeless. Because when you looked at the child and their friends, the way that group interacted as a whole was unhelpful, they were all impacting on each other's needs and, or else we'd never get at my focus child's behaviour and needs without untangling and looking at how we move on the behaviour of the group as a whole. The child I was focusing on their development and improvement also relied on the development and improvement of the behaviour of the group.
Hi there. My name is Simon Currigan and welcome to this week's episode of school behaviour secrets. After a friend of mine heard this podcast he turned to me solemnly and summed up his listening experience with a few simple words character building, he said, and not in a good way. I'm joined today by my co host, Emma Shackleton. Hi, Emma.
Emma Shackleton 1:43
Hi there, Simon.
Simon Currigan 1:45
Hi, Emma. If you don't mind, I'd like to start today's episode by asking you a question.
Emma Shackleton 1:49
Oh, a big shock.
Simon Currigan 1:51
What's the worst piece of advice you've ever been given?
Emma Shackleton 1:53
Crikey. That's a hard one. I do remember though. When I first started teaching, there was a piece of advice floating around that the more experienced teachers would say to us newbies. And that was Don't smile till Christmas. I think what they wanted to do was to encourage us to be strict because then the children would listen to us. How bad was that? I think most people realise now that children don't learn from people that they don't like. And teaching and learning is actually all about building relationships. But why do you ask?
Simon Currigan 2:29
Well, today's episode is all about why you shouldn't listen to behaviour experts. And why some often well meaning advice given by behaviour experts or professionals who go in and support in school can often be counterproductive,
Emma Shackleton 2:43
Very fitting. Okay, so that sounds a little bit controversial. But just before we jump into the episode, how do you fancy paying it forward with a small good deed, we rely on word of mouth recommendations. So if you find the school behaviour secrets podcast interesting and useful, and you know somebody else who might like it to do them a favour by opening your podcast app and clicking the Share button.
Simon Currigan 3:09
So let's take a deep breath, plung our hand into the muddy river and pluck out that Slippery Eel we call behaviour. Right, So today we're going to look at the idea of why behaviour experts might not always get it right and why it's important to not always take their advice at face value as being in inverted commas. The right thing to do in a given situation or to support a pupil. Let's kick off with the first point we'd like to make. And that is behaviour experts spend all of their time thinking about children with the highest level of need. So they'll usually be called in to support a pupil with a complex need, who's having difficulty in class. We're talking here about things like autism or ADHD or trauma, or perhaps to work with a child who have ACE's in their background. So ACE's are adverse childhood experiences, and they've been linked to having difficulty managing emotions and succeeding in school. The ACE's are things like parental separation or parental divorce or the death of a parent, it might be having alcohol abuse from a parent in the home. It might be there's domestic violence in the home, it might be that the parents are struggling with mental illness of their own or depression or potential suicide. One of the ACE's is having a parent who is part of the prison system, it might be you're physically or emotionally neglected by your parent, or you've experienced physical, verbal or sexual abuse. So we know from tracking children that if they've experienced one of those ACE's, they're more likely to have difficulties in class. Now, these are really complex needs and meeting those needs often involves a deep understanding of the condition and applying and using really, really specific support strategies, strategies that are linked very, very specifically to that child's underlying need. And the thing about these strategies are, they often involve lots of time and lots of effort to implement for that individual students. So let's take the example of a student who has sensory needs, the advice might be to give them access to a sensory circuit a couple of times a day. So a sensory circuit is where the child goes out of the classroom, usually to another room, and they engage in a series of alerting, organising and calming sensory activities. The idea is that their sensory load is being dealt with by the sensory circuit, their sensory differences are being accounted for on them, when they return to the classroom, they're more able to be regulated and able to get on with their work and manage their emotions in class. Often, those very high needs pupils are the only ones, people like us behaviour professionals, or behaviour experts are called into support. And why is that? Well, people like us we have a cost, the cost of paying a professional to come in and observe children has an impact on the school budget. So naturally, schools often focus professionals time on children with much higher needs. And there's also a limited time budget available, those professionals only have so much time to come into school. So you're going to allocate that time where you think it's going to make the most difference. So why is that a problem? The problem comes when experts start to extrapolate, they're working with these very high needs pupils, and they thinking about these kind of really complex conditions all the time. And then they start to say that it makes sense that all pupils in the class or all pupils in the school would benefit from these much deeper complex strategies, or perhaps the strategies we're trying to use with individual pupils should be expanded to the entire school. And before you know it, these kinds of complex deep strategies that are linked to really specific needs are being written into the general behaviour policy. And everyone, all of the adults are trying to implement them with all of the students. But that's really hard or impossible, because the strategies are expensive in terms of hours, in terms of resources in terms of time, which is probably the most precious resource we have in the classroom
Emma Shackleton 7:13
And thinking about it, that theory might not even be true. So just because a strategy supports a small group of students, it doesn't necessarily mean that it is good, or that you'll get a worthwhile return on investment. If you implement that same strategy for the whole class. For example, if you take trauma informed practice, to support pupils affected by trauma involves the building of relationships and the flexibility of expectations on a moment by moment basis. It's all about the adult adapting to the child's individual needs in that moment, because they know that they're not able to cope with the unhelpful beliefs they've developed as part of their early childhood, or are able to regulate those emotions in a constructive way. So that's good for that one child. But it doesn't necessarily follow that that approach scales up, or that the other children in the classroom would benefit equally from the exact same approach that kind of brings us on to our second point. And that is that behaviour experts focus on the micro level. And sometimes forget about the macro level. What we mean here is there are two levels you can look at when managing behaviour in class. The micro level is the one that we've already been talking about. It's when we think deeply and carefully about a single pupil's individual needs. And we build a set of support strategies around those particular needs. The macro level is big picture, thinking about how you manage the whole group. So this is what we think of traditionally as classroom management, how you maintain good order in the whole class. So things like your routines, the environment, the layout of the furniture, how the teacher uses their voice and body language, how you set rules and expectations and how you teach those rules and so on.
Simon Currigan 9:17
So the analogy here would be macro thinking is the 10,000 foot view, it's like a bird looking down at the forest and it can see the whole thing it can see the edges of the forest, but it can't see any detail. Micro level thinking on the other hand would be standing on the forest floor looking at an individual tree with micro level thinking, you're not seeing how the forest works as a whole. You're just seeing one individual part and with macro level thinking you're not seeing how individual trees are affected by how the forest is managed. To do behaviour well in class as a teacher, you have to do both. You have to think about how you manage the group and that involves one very specific set of skill sets as Emma's already talked about, but then you have to think about how you adapt to the needs of a small number of individual children, which involves adapting those general classroom management principles down to a small number of children with specific needs. So here's the thing, there's not enough hours in the day to provide those highest level intensive strategies that are flexible to the entire group in the way you can do to a small number of individual kids. And for the group to be successful, it needs clear boundaries, it needs expectations, it needs rules, when you try and get rid of those things at the group level, the group falls apart then everything stops working, the strategies you use to manage the entire forest, that are kind of blunt edge strategies in a way are different from the strategies you would use to support a single tree. So if we take a strategy, like being flexible, responding to one child's emotional needs on a flexible basis, perhaps only focusing on a small number of classroom expectations that can work for one child, but you scale that to the rest of the class, and it's chaos, it just doesn't work.
Emma Shackleton 11:13
And because behaviour experts spend so much time focusing on the individual tree, we forget that those approaches won't necessarily work on the entire forest, we get so focused on the micro that we forget the macro and behaviour experts do tend to focus on a single individual, they treat that individual child as if they exist in a vacuum, as if we can identify their needs and put in place strategies on that child in isolation. And then bingo, they'll be successful. But in reality, the truth is that that child exists as part of the group and how they interact in that group. And how the children interact with them will also affect how they cope and what their behaviour is like. No behaviour happens just in a little bubble all on its own.
Simon Currigan 12:08
I guess it's a bit like to go back to tree analogy, forest analogy, we're starting to stretch a little bit now. But that tree exists within an ecosystem, how the other trees are growing in the forest affects the tree that we're looking at. It really reminds me to bring this back to a practical example, I was asked to observe and give support for a child who was displaying some physical aggression. At lunchtime, I was asked to give some strategies. And I started to talk about what they could do to support the child, giving them some basic emotional regulation strategies. And then I went outside to actually see the child play with their friends on the playground. And it made me pause it made me realise that in trying to focus on that child in isolation was hopeless. Because when you looked at the child and their friends, and the way they were playing with each other, it was very much rough and tumble, there was lots of play fighting, the other kids were getting overexcited and piling in the way that group interacted, as a whole was unhelpful, they will all impacting on each other's needs, and or else we'd never get at my focus child's behaviour and needs without untangling and looking at how we move on the behaviour of the group as a whole, the child was focusing on their development and improvement also relied on the development and improvement of the behaviour of the group. So it's not just the strategies that we use at the micro and macro level a different we have to think about how pupils exist and interact within the whole class ecosystem. It's not just what the focus child says or does it how other children in the class respond to our students words and actions. It's a dynamic system where one affects the other.
Emma Shackleton 13:47
And I guess this is why it's quite complicated, isn't it? There is no magic wand, there is no one thing that you can say, Oh, well, we'll just teach the child to do this. And then everything will be fine. Because we all know that behaviour is much more complex than that. So what does that mean for individual schools and teachers then, and for professionals working alongside them in school? Well, we have got to stop making lazy assumptions. What works for an individual isn't necessarily scalable to the rest of the class, and might not work anyway, by all means, try it. But if the evidence is that the strategy you're applying to the whole class isn't working, don't dig in because of your prior beliefs or knowledge about how to support an individual. We've got to use the evidence of our own eyes.
Simon Currigan 14:40
We have to appreciate that managing the whole group or class requires a different skill set and a different approach to supporting individual children. And we need to look at the interaction between the individual and the whole group to help them thrive and succeed in school and if we're not doing all of those things then we are setting ourselves up for failure.
Emma Shackleton 15:02
So we're not saying that behaviour experts give bad advice. What we're saying is that in order for the advice to be implemented successfully, we have to take both a big picture view, and a close up view of how a single child fits within a group, or whether it's even appropriate for a strategy to be expanded from one pupil to the rest of the group. And if you'd like to get a comprehensive framework for developing behaviour plans and interventions, we've got a completely free download called the graduated S E M H framework that I'm sure you'll find really useful.
Simon Currigan 15:41
SEMH stands for social, emotional, and mental health. And this framework is going to do four things for you. It gives you all the behaviour plans and risk assessments, you need to make sure you're approaching behaviour issues in the right way a comprehensive way. By focusing on causes and tackling those.
Emma Shackleton 16:00
It will give you clarity on which behaviours you're going to focus on, what strategies you're going to use, and how to measure your success
Simon Currigan 16:09
Organise your approach. So you're meeting those needs in a graduated way. So you'll be using the best practice plan do review approach
Emma Shackleton 16:18
And the tool will help you collect evidence to prove that you've acted in a graduated proportional way, which is really important. If you're in the UK, your pupil might need an education health care plan assessment for their SEMH needs.
Simon Currigan 16:34
The framework also comes with a video guiding you through the process, everything's completely free, and I'll put a direct link in the show description.
Emma Shackleton 16:43
Or you can download it by going to www.beaconschoolsupport.co.uk. clicking on the Free Resources button and scrolling down to the graduated SEMH framework.
Simon Currigan 16:54
If you found today's show interesting or valuable. Remember to subscribe. All you need to do is open up your podcast app and hit the subscribe button or follow as it's now called in Apple podcasts and then your podcasts that will automatically download each and every episode as it's released so you never miss a thing. And to celebrate Well, why not strap some raw animal meat around your shins, walk into a forest and wrangle yourself some ferrets. Ferrets are loyal and hardworking companions, who can be put to use as skilled labourers in settings like underwater cheese farms and organic felt horticulture, both very much growth industries. In fact, you can even use this approach to attract foxes, wild dogs, and potentially mates at speed dating venues. Although obviously this won't work. If the mate you're trying to attract is vegan. That would be ridiculous. You've partially digested vegetable matter instead. That truly is the smell of success.
Emma Shackleton 17:51
Okay, I'm that pungent note. It's time for me to say thank you for listening to today's episode. Have a great week, and we look forward to seeing you next time on school behaviour secrets. Bye for now.
Simon Currigan 18:03
(This automated transcript may not be 100% accurate.)