A ‘bad girl’ reminisces on behaviour management…

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(Many people reading this will certainly know about effective behaviour management strategies and my ramblings will seem like old hat – apologies,  but…well, what are blogs for if not to cogitate out loud.)

I met up with an old teaching pal in the holidays, and we got into a discussion about children’s behaviour. It wasn’t long before my old friend poured out her frustration about what was going on at her school detailing how challenging the behaviour had become in this first term. Not an unusual story from any teacher working in an inner- city school. However, it wasn’t long before I realised that her main problem seemed to be the behaviour of some of the adults, and perhaps more so than the children.

It was clear to me that many of the support staff she described were stuck in the belief that behaviour management is about giving out punishments and exacting revenge on poorly behaved children with a view to this improving behaviour? My friend described support staff, and also teachers, who escalated challenging behaviour through their short-sighted belief that consequences for poor behaviour needed to be immediate, publicly humiliating and a very negative experience for the perpetrator.  I recognised this because I have experienced this myself and to an extent that I describe it as toxic.

It all came flooding back to me as I recalled the routinely angry, frowning faces of teachers at my secondary school when children sort their attention in any way they could, fulfilling their teachers’ short-sighted prophesies that these were bad kids destined for bad things. And while this might sound like a Dickensian scene from Hard Times, with one Gradgrind welding his cane high above small heads, this toxic attitude to children displaying challenging behaviour only needs to be held by a few adults for it to ignite into a spiral of negativity that gets worse and worse. This can reach a level so low that the relationship between pupils and adults is so toxic that even being together in the same room becomes a catalyst for poor behaviour.

I know this because I was that pupil who could enter a classroom, register the expectant expression on the teacher’s grim face and know that whatever happened, I would live up to his expectations, threats and humiliations with whatever disruption I could create. Yet, when I walked into another lesson, I could see a smile and experience a shower of positively that would refuse to let my negativity take over. They would not rise to my bait, (which might have been anything from tapping the desk repeatedly, flicking things at neighbours, humming, giggling and sighing so loudly they could hear it next door), but instead they met every cry for attention, every demonstration of insecurity disguised as nonchalance, with an attitude that although firm, clear and decisive was highly positive and positive about me.  This was because teachers like this didn’t make my behaviour about them. Whatever they thought inside, and I’ve no doubt they were intensely annoyed by my antics, they exuded care, calmness and strength. I could not get under their skin.

Challenging behaviour is frustrating and sometimes even frightening. I’m not saying that underneath we don’t feel deep irritation and annoyance when children disrupt lessons, we do, we’re human, but most of the time it serves no one well to show this emotionally. Teaching is as much about the image you bring to the classroom as it is the skills and knowledge you teach. If the image pupils have of you is of someone who is unruffled by challenging behaviour and who really does care how pupils feel then you will get a very different response from even the most angry, unruly children.

I once taught in a school where one boy regularly stood and turned the whole table over before kicking his chair across the room. What I learnt, and I think intuitively knew from my own more low-level behaviour as a pupil, was that meeting that kind of explosion with yet another explosion only creates one big blast! At that school, I learnt that while all behaviour must have consequences, and we need to teach that to children, consequences don’t need to be given immediately and often when they are they only serve to escalate already heightened emotions, when far better to calm things down, then talk about penalties when everyone is cooler. I’ve watched people get themselves into such a knot by listing the consequences to a child, while the child is getting angrier and angrier and more out of control:

“Right, do that again and you’ll have no play today!”

“Ok, right no play!”

“Carry on and you’ll go to Mr Jones!”

“And you’ll have no golden time…. It’s going to be a great one this week as we’re making biscuits too…”

“How dare you act like this is class. And if you break that pencil your parents will pay for it”. 

“Don’t you shrug your shoulders or roll your eyes  at me either!”

 This kind of response to challenging behaviour is just a ridiculous tit-for-tat approach to the situation. The adult here is actually encouraging the child to carry on. Go on, I dare you! It’s like a duel of who can do the worst to each other, and the picking up of the secondary behaviour like breaking a pencil or shrugging shoulders is the icing on the cake. It’s just foolish.  Sadly, over my years of teaching, and visiting  different schools, I’ve seen quite a few seemingly sensible adults take this approach when children are losing it. I’ve also seen adults get right up into pupils’ faces when issuing these kinds of threats and then they wonder why suddenly pupils are tipped over into a whirlwind. It’s as if some adults have watched too many episodes of Prisoner Cell Block H. Think about it, would you do anything for anyone if they threatened you and from a distance two inches from your face? It’s never going to end well, is it?

I remember at this one school; a teaching assistant would regularly come and find me in the staff room to report on what so and so had done. Straight away she would list his crimes and all the rude things he’d said, clearly wanting a reaction from me at the severity of the child’s misdemeanours. Every word was full of sensation, desperate for me to be shocked and outraged and for me to come back with a list of punishments that would follow. In my head, I would say to myself – ‘he’s got to you and now you want to get him back’. And who would deny that this isn’t a natural feeling that anyone would have when a child has been really rude, refused to do what you ask and ruined your lesson. The trouble is – it never works if you come at behaviour from that place. Whereas if you come at it wanting to help that child learn from the situation, learn to manage their emotions then something different happens. Adults dealing with challenging behaviour need to put all their focus on the child, helping them to understand where they’ve gone wrong and how they can make things right again. I wish someone had done that to me much more when I was that agitated young kid.

So, it was with sadness that my friend described all this when talking about her new school.

“It’s as if some of the adults are children themselves,” she lamented. “It’s like they seem to think managing behaviour is about being victorious!” And she was right.

What some people forget is that all behaviour is a form of communication. It’s important to think to yourself, ‘what is this child trying to tell me?’ Sometimes, it might be that they are saving their own self-esteem because it would be better to cause a stink and get sent out than to sit, struggle and fail at yet another learning activity. Sometimes, it might be that they are still holding onto the fact that Fred pushed them while coming into class and no one noticed and now Fred is smiling to himself.  Sometimes they just don’t know how to sit in their own skin and need attention in any way they can get it. Other times, it’s more straight forward, they had no breakfast and they’re too hungry to focus so all they can do it kick out, or it could be they had two hours sleep because of the noisy neighbours or parents arguing. All too often, you will find that there is a reason other then just ‘being naughty’ when children display behaviour above and beyond usual classroom antics. It might seem an insignificant trigger too sometimes, but will mean everything to that child: “You told us to line up in order and Joe didn’t, then when I tried to tell you, you told me to be quiet and you didn’t do anything, then Joe laughed at me.”  Things can seem so meaningless to us, but it’s everything to them – it’s their day, their world. Some children have the resilience to let things go, some haven’t learnt to do that yet and they need to learn what to do when they feel an injustice as happened. What is the they right thing to do when you feel something isn’t fair? What is the right thing to do when you feel bored? When you feel anxious or stressed? What about learning to recognise when you are starting to feel stressed in the first place? I wish someone had helped me like that at school.

Above all though, whatever they throw at us (literally and figuratively) it’s vital we show them that we care and we want them to thrive and succeed at school… and at life.

And they can miss their playtime later…

 

Four foundations for authentic assessment ….whichever tick list you use!

Whether or not you want to keep levels or not (you’ll have to use something involving numbers somewhere) there are four foundations, like four sturdy corners of a building, which will make any kind of assessment effective and meaningful. Whether or not you pay oodles of money for a whole new tracking system with lots of fancy coloured charts and graphs, or whether you merry along with levels for a while, or you spend time linking old levels to new year group attainment criteria, (what a minefield) unless you have these four foundations established in your school your assessment system will be partial and only semi-effective. Also, those summative assessments we punch into the tracker, they wont be as good either! And whether we like it or not, we have to show numbers eventually and everyone prefers them if they are on an upward trend and high!

If we accept that a numerical measurement of learning is limited and often limiting, we should also
accept that assessment is also the backbone of education. Teachers can try all sort of new initiatives, strategies and enterprises, but unless formative assessment is at the forefront of their practice anything they do remains akin to shooting arrows at a target while blindfolded. Sometimes you’ll get lucky – but mostly you’ll miss! Incidentally, fanatics of any kind are those who lose sight of their aims, but put in twice the effort, and I would suggest that if teachers do anything these days they should always make their aim to effect learning before anything else. When educators ask themselves ‘how does this effect learning?’ then whether things are worthwhile become clear.

Now, what then are these four foundations of assessment? Essentially they are common sense cornerstones which enable assessment to work. Assessment for learning (AFL), pupil voice, learning to learn (L2L – a language of learning) and relationships are what drive really effective assessment and in turn learning. I came across the concept of the first three while reading Dylan Wiliam some years ago, but I have added the fourth – relationships, because while pupil voice might account for some aspects of this area, relationships between teachers and pupils, teachers and leaders, teachers and parents usually decide whether a school has a chance of being effective or not regardless of everything else.

AFL foundations

AFL

If we start with AFL, we know now that the best assessment feeds learning for teachers and pupils. Pupils are clear about where they are and what they need to do to improve through effective questioning and feedback; they know where they are going through the explicit sharing of learning destinations or outcomes and they know how to get there through effective modelling and exemplification of success through the use of success criteria. There is robust yet simple feedback and marking system that everybody knows how to use so that there is a continuous two way communication system between pupils and teachers where next steps are clear and pupils are always given time to respond to these. There is also a healthy sense of urgency about this process, it’s in quick time so that connections aren’t lost, but exploited to their maximum. Every part of this is enabled through teacher, peer and self-assessment so that pupils come to understand themselves and their peers as resources for their own learning. Everything moves away from a centralised, teacher-led classroom to a dialogic, robust pupil dominated learning environment. This isn’t pupils running riot, (sorry Daily Mail) but pupils owning their learning and taking control of it – contrary to old fashioned ideas, when pupils feel in control they feel confident and when they are confident magical things start to happen. Engagement and challenge are high because through this system learning becomes personalised. Thanks to the work of Dylan Wiliam and Paul Black, these AFL practices are common now and need little more explanation.

Pupil Voice

The trouble is that AFL can only start to work when other things are already in place and having a strong sense of pupil voice in a class and school forms the basis of AFL. If pupils feel a sense of agency and self determination they start to realise that what they think and do really matters to teachers. Who do you remember fondly from your school days? Who did you learn most from? It was the teacher who you felt wanted to hear what you had to say. However, pupil voice doesn’t just happen, schools and teachers need to work at it. Tokenistic ‘have you say’ moments won’t be enough, nor will a nominal school council which amounts to little obvious change. Pupils need to see that their opinions matter and are acted upon. The message is that ownership of learning is precipitated by tenure of the environment surrounding pupils so that feelings of belonging and responsibility are firm. If you make a child really feel that ‘this is my place, I matter,’ you will see a level of responsibility and seriousness about learning like never before.

Classrooms where pupils aren’t allowed to decide much at all, and teachers directs every move, mean that pupils will feel less in charge of themselves and that’s the opposite of what AFL requires. To add to that, in the years I have taught, I have never ever found that giving children more responsibility has resulted in them being less responsible – never. Like this, true and authentic assessment relies on pupils taking responsibility for it themselves as much as they can.

Learning to learn – L2L

This is the third building block, for without a language of learning, pupils can’t talk about their learning with the depth or richness that will make peer, self and teacher assessment have impact. Pupils need to get to know about the mechanics of learning, then just like someone who knows a bit about car engines, when it breaks down (which it often  does in learning because that’s the nature of it) they can jump out, fix it and get on the road again.  Learning is emotional and pupils need to be able to talk about learning experiences and unravel them. This is what makes children expert learners who are able to negotiate around obstacles and recognise when things aren’t working and why they aren’t working. When pupils have the chance to meta-cognise about their learning they are able to recall things they did that worked well and approaches that didn’t. They learn what words like ‘focus,’ ‘concentration’ and ‘understanding’ really mean. We use these words everyday don’t we in school? But how many times do we ask a child what they know about them, what they really mean to them? Having a classroom with a ‘learning orientation’ (to borrow the term from Chris Watkins) is to have a classroom where learning is on the table and conversations about learning are common. Ensuring pupils learn how to learn means that the feedback given to learners is effective because they understand how to use the feedback in a much richer way.

Relationships

The relationship between pupils and teachers are really what underpins all of the above. If a pupil trusts their peers and teachers they won’t mind making a mistake. They will understand feedback is for learning and will use it to improve. If there is a whiff of being made to feel small because you got it wrong in a classroom – learning seizes up like a rusty machine. Pupils stop thinking in an environment like this and just start to try to survive. They try to survive by either staying quiet and disappearing, or they start to clown around to displace the focus on learning (because learning is too scary).

If you set pupils against each other in ability, so there is an implicit pupil ranking in your class, then relationships  are all about looking up to or down on each other. It’s an uncomfortable environment – a nervy place. How can you learn and thrive if you think you’re not that good? How can you really learn if you think there’s nothing much to learn either because you’re top dog? Relationships are vital in learning. Pupils need to trust each other with their defeats and victories, they need a brother and sisterhood between themselves and  protection and care from their teacher. Everyone is a supportive resource for everyone else.

But relationships don’t stop here. Teachers needs to feel like this too otherwise they won’t learn either. Just like a child will close down and try to survive if a teacher is waiting in judgement, so will teachers if their peers and leaders are like this. Trust must permeate everywhere.

If you know it doesn’t work when you rank and put your pupils in a pecking order against each other, then why would it be different for teachers? What do teachers look at on observation feedback forms – the list of comments or the grade at the bottom? And how do they feel when people stand over them with a clip board and a pencil watching every move? Just like a pupil does – awful and unable to be themselves. Does this scrutiny help their performance? No. Does it help them learn? Very rarely.  However, if you put a bunch of teachers together to share and talk about good practice, do they learn then? Yes they do and a lot!  So if you know pupil voice and learning to learn work with pupils – ensure the same is in place for teachers. Give them a voice in your school and a language of learning too and you’ll have teachers who feel valued and want to improve all the time. Which head teacher doesn’t want that?

So – all this is a long winded way of saying that effective assessment needs more than a few fancy success criteria and different coloured marking pens. It needs an ideology of learning behind it and an understanding of the psychology of learners as people with self-esteems and emotions. Effective leaders will establish and support on these four areas in their schools so that assessment and learning thrive.