Graham Chatterley is an assistant head at a school in Warrington for pupils with a range of SEMH needs. He has 4 children, the youngest 2 of which have varying ASD needs. One being very high functioning with some social and understanding difficulties, however managing well in Mainstream Primary. The other having significant ASD, ADHD and Sensory Processing Disorder needs requiring an SLD setting. This has put Graham in an unusual position of experiencing both sides of Special Education Needs which has aided his understandings of both. He has kindly provided this guest post for the Axcis blog.
4 bits of behaviour management advice I’d give my NQT self
In recent weeks, I have been doing some training on behaviour management and de-escalation techniques with a couple of university students who are lucky enough to have been placed in our school for pupils with SEMH needs. Probably a daunting experience for them, but one which will definitely stand them in good stead for their future. Which will more than likely be a mainstream one.
It’s handy for me to see what their university course has offered by way of behaviour management and how it matches up against other things like planning and assessment. It also allows me to see whether things have progressed since I was last in a university. It is evident though that the concept of being an authority figure and emphasis on rules is still up on a pedestal. The “one size fits all, consistency at all costs, every child needs to be a round peg” style is still being pushed on to our trainees.
I get it – focussing on the majority makes some sense. Planning is very important and assessed data and progress will be ultimately what you live and die on – but would it hurt to give our future teachers some different information? Information like; it’s the minority who are the lynchpin of your lesson, and the very best planning in the world won’t matter if your behaviour management is weak – and if you can’t engage the children there will be nothing to assess and no progress shown anyway. Surely more focus on understanding behaviour will set them up more effectively for a career in teaching?
It wasn’t that many years ago I went to do some speaking to a major teaching university’s outgoing NQTs and the last advice they were given before going off and starting their careers was; ‘I don’t want to see you smile till Christmas’ and ‘Ignore all low level behaviour’. Now don’t get me wrong – I get some of the logic behind these statements. If the class is full of children with a great work ethic who rarely do more than lightly chatter then these strategies are fine. However, unless these guys are doing their NQT year in the prep school from the film School of Rock, advice like this is not going to help a great deal. It’s far more likely they will get challenging groups, children from deprived areas and children with a multitude of additional needs in their classes. Children who often don’t respond well to authority and if you ignore their early behaviours they will find a more significant one to get your attention.
I look back at the mistakes I made when going to my first secondary teaching placement. I was once told by my secondary school mentor that I was like a robot and needed some personality. I was teaching that way because that was how I understood you show authority!
Then there was my first job after qualifying – I was teaching a year 4 class who I thought I could ‘wear down’ with seating plans and missed playtimes, thinking if I shouted loud enough they would behave themselves!
I realise looking back that I was going against my instincts and as a result what would have actually made my classroom management better! This was because I was straight off the university teacher production line. It’s why I nearly failed my first 2 teaching placements and it’s why I very nearly failed my NQT year. However, I struggled through them and then I relaxed – the pressure of constantly being assessed on everything I did stopped and my personality started to come out. And I started having fun with the children! School became a more enjoyable place for me to be – and without me realising it, I made it more enjoyable for the children in my class, too!
And guess what happened?
The atmosphere in the class improved
Children started to progress more
So I took this with me to secondary and I realised that my strengths lay in my patience and my humour and I found that I built a good rapport with children who gave other teachers hell. When I had them, they behaved better. Maybe because we got on, maybe because I had their respect or maybe it was because they knew that with me I wasn’t expecting the worst of them. They didn’t have the bad kid expectations to live up to. Whatever it was; by having the most challenging children in the class on task, the others followed suit and teaching wasn’t the battle it had always been before.
I have no doubt whatsoever that without these realisations, my teaching career wouldn’t have lasted 5 years, it was purely a job and one I didn’t enjoy. I realise I was not equipped at all when I started my career. However, I went to university with a guy from the Valley’s in Wales, he was mad as a box of frogs and the funniest and most charismatic guy I’ve ever met. I never saw him teach but I often wondered why he did so well in his teaching practices. I’m guessing it’s because he couldn’t be tamed, couldn’t be turned into a production line robot and because of that the children adored him and hung on his every word. He just had it and we can’t all just be like that, but we can learn from it. For others as teachers; we are performers and we blag our way through sometimes. We might fake a passion for a subject or topic we have no interest in and at times we imply years of knowledge in things we only just looked up on the internet 10 minutes before the lesson. Most importantly however and where we have to be the best performers is convincing a challenging child that we like them and are interested in them. If it’s the truth then brilliant, but as long as they believe it then that will be enough!
So I thought I’d put together my own list. Tips and advice I wish I’d had when I started out. Here it is:
Build relationships, especially with the challenging kids
Above all else this is the key. It’s a lot harder to mess about for someone who means something to you, it’s a lot harder to abuse someone you like and it’s a lot harder to disappoint someone who has shown faith in you.
If that child sees you as a statistic, another teacher to come and go then why would they invest in you?
But if they see a person with shared interests, who is fun to talk to and cares about them. It may well influence them in a positive way.
In a child’s file there is likely to be pages and pages written about what the child has done in the past, risk assessments etc but good schools will also tell you what a child’s likes and dislikes are, what they have experienced and what they are good at. If those interests are similar to yours then great; if you support the same football team or like the same music, brilliant. However, if not, take some time to find out. It will mean giving up some time, maybe time away from planning and assessing but I promise it will be worth it. I was onto an immediate winner with our sporty kids but I’ve had children who have been obsessed with ‘My Little Pony’ or ‘Pokemon’. It’s no good me asking them if they watched the Utd game at the weekend! Therefore I’ve done my research and now I know my ‘Flutterby’ from my ‘Rainbow Bright’ and a ‘Pikatchu’ from a ‘Charmander’. I now have just enough to start a conversation with these children. A conversation starter that might be enough to use as a distraction/de-escalation when they are heading for crisis, but more importantly it shows them that I am a person and that I’m invested in them. Therefore I start to build trust and they might just invest in me.
The big piece of advice I often give to students when they go into a class is; identify the most challenging pupil who is often a strong character. How that child behaves often dictates the whole class. Then get that child on board and the lesson will manage itself. It’s almost like a sibling relationship where the brother/sister can make each other’s lives hell but nobody else is allowed to look at them wrong. If they aren’t going to misbehave in your lesson then nobody else is.
Don’t take anything personally
I hope the phrase ‘behaviour is a communication’ is making it out there, but more importantly is being taken seriously. When you have been told to be a figure of authority it seems only logical that being told to ‘f**k off’ is an outrage and a pound of flesh shall be taken! After all it is what the child expects, but it continues the cycle and school stays the negative place they hate with another teacher who isn’t bothered.
But what if we weren’t outraged? What if we recognised that the child was distressed and talked to them about it? What if we talked about something completely different, made them feel more positive and then talked about what had made them angry? And what if we did all that and found a strategy for letting you know they are angry that didn’t involve telling you to ‘f**k off’?
Or we could just give them their usual consequence and carry on as normal. React as they expect and give the anger something to feed off. Wondering why it never changes.
Empathy and understanding
For anyone familiar with the Team Teach Conflict Spiral, Children have experiences, this leads to feelings and that drives behaviours. If those experiences are negative it will end in negative behaviour and if we react in a punitive/challenging way we end up with conflict. This is the process and the cycle I see so much of.
We see the child who knocks over the chair – we tell the child to pick up the chair – then we give a consequence when they refuse to follow instructions. We see the child’s behaviour, not the child themselves. We give a punishment for the aggressive action without understanding the root of the aggressive feelings.
If we react differently and ignore the chair and put an arm round a distressed child, we probably find out that the chair got knocked over because the child hasn’t slept – perhaps because parents were arguing all night, or they are frustrated because they find the work too challenging or their anxiety has flooded their body with chemicals and they are scared by how they feel. Just having these bits of knowledge means we feel better; then we can be different and show a different kind of reaction and give them more positive experiences of how an adult can react. From there we can help them to find a better way to express their need for support.
Have a Plan
If a plan exists for a pupil – know it. If a plan doesn’t exist – make one. Always stay calm and use what you know. Use your knowledge of the child’s experiences and feelings to avoid triggers. Use their interests as a distraction tool. If you can identify early signs of negative feelings, you can intervene early and prevent the behaviours and there is no need for conflict.
I hope the movements in understanding behaviour and mental health in children is filtering down to universities because I was not prepared when I started my career. I was weeks from leaving teaching and looked very carefully at other careers. I realise now that would have been a shame.
Whatever your personality is, make sure you show it. Get out onto the playground and play with the kids, get involved in clubs and camps. Show the children you are a person as well as a teacher, and if they do things wrong tell them how it makes you feel and that you know they can do better, but don’t make the behaviour more important than the child.
These would be my main bits of advice I would give my NQT self. I’m not saying be best friends but you don’t gain the respect of a challenging pupil by beating them down with consequences. However, if you get to know them, understand them and like them even when they are at their worst. Then there is a very good chance that they will give you their best.
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