I quickly realized, all those years ago when I first entered the profession, that teaching is much more than good subject knowledge and sound pedagogy. This was never more evident than the day an administrator came in to observe my 8th-grade English lesson. The worst point came when he said, “I assume they must have done some work at some point?” This followed a seemingly orchestrated ambush of the following pattern: when I tried to speak to the class, they all coughed in unison, drowning out my voice; then, when I turned to write the instructions on the board, they banged their hands on the table in unison. I faced them, they coughed; I wrote on the board, and they banged their desks. I’d only been a teacher for three months.
How children behave is, I imagine, the main topic of conversation in staff rooms across the world, and one that can be divisive and sometimes damaging. Children who behave in difficult and disruptive ways are communicating unmet needs, and of course, those needs have to be met. Simple, right? The problem is, meeting those needs is a joint responsibility that extends beyond the classroom and beyond the school itself; it’s a problem that seems to be incorrectly addressed and insufficiently resourced in most schools.
The most influential person I worked with as a teacher was a child psychotherapist who supported children as part of the Special Educational Needs program I organized in two different schools. We would often meet at the end of the day to talk through her caseload and have wider discussions about social-emotional support in general. What became clear from our talks was the complexity and extent of underlying needs and the systemic failure of educational authorities to meet the level of need that schools face on a day-to-day basis. Managing difficult behavior in class is the teacher’s responsibility – up to a point – but it cannot work in isolation: it has to be part of a coordinated, multi-faceted, holistic approach.
When speaking with colleagues about children’s behavior, I often use the metaphor of a puncture in a car tire. What we see is a flat tire and a car we can’t drive. We could inflate the tire, which might enable us to drive for some distance, and in that sense, we’ve managed the situation. This is only a temporary fix, though, and we’re most likely to drive it straight to get a new tire or the puncture fixed. If we don’t, the puncture will get worse and cost more in the long run. Behavior management in class is a temporary fix. Its purpose is to keep everyone safe, minimize disruption and enable continuous learning. Managing a child’s behavior in class won’t enable long-term change: for that, there needs to be a systemic approach that evaluates and plans individualized support across several agencies.
There are many ways of formulating a multi-element approach, but the most important aspects that need to be focused on are:
Assessing the Need
What are the needs of the child, the family, and the school? This means looking at how the child behaves, but much more importantly, why? We need to look at the child’s lived experience from birth to the present to be able to identify risk factors that cause them to act in the way they do. It also means ensuring schools are equipped in terms of staff training (at all levels) and other resources to implement protective factors and meet the required level of support.
Planning and Implementing
Schools must determine what is needed to support long-term change and manage day-to-day issues. We must plan and implement strategic, therapeutic support for the child and the family, as well as include day-to-day management tactics for the school and the class teacher. If the assessment identifies issues with the child’s lived experience and environment, then these have to be addressed. The child needs to have a consistent, supportive experience in each aspect of their life: adult responses to their behaviors have to be the same at home and school, including how the adults speak and the language they use.
The Child’s Voice and Consequences
We must involve the child as much as possible according to their age and emotional and cognitive abilities and ensure they know they have a plan of support and what that will look like when things go wrong and when things go right. This must involve consequences, which have to occur with certainty and be consistently applied at home and school.
Support for Staff
Managing challenging behavior can be stressful and have a profoundly negative impact on staff well-being and mental health. Staff needs to be cared about, and they need to feel cared for. As a senior leader, I make it known that I put staff first so that they can put the children first.
So far, so good, right? But who does what, and how is this funded and coordinated? I have some experience with this approach, but it came too late and was missing some key elements. As a minimum, we really need early intervention when it comes to:
- Health – specialists to treat mental health needs, physical illness, make diagnoses
- Social Services – to support in the home, provide parenting support/parenting courses
- Education – to provide in-school support, processes and policy, training, and well-being support for school staff
The bottom line is that such an approach will need to involve several public-service agencies, and any in-school plan has to involve a multi-level approach where senior leaders are involved if and when situations escalate. This, then, means it will be expensive, but it has to be considered in terms of the long-term costs associated with future issues if we don’t do something now – issues of recruitment and retention, staff well-being, life chances for children and, of course, the physical and emotional safety of the other children and adults in the school. Resources and funding are stretched and limited, but then, they always will be, and spending less in the present just means there will be greater costs in the future. As budgets are squeezed and funding streams cut, more and more is being expected of schools, and as workloads increase, so too does the pressure on staff. As we know, the costs aren’t simply monetary. And actually, we can’t and shouldn’t put a price on the well-being of our teachers and the futures of our children.
Steve Newton is a semi-retired teacher in the UK. He is at the tail end of a long career that ranged from teaching English in secondary / high schools, to specializing in behavioral support.