When planning fails… what to do when behaviour breaks down

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“There is in the act of preparing, the moment you start caring.” Winston Churchill

Lots of people who don’t normally like the stuff I write seemed to approve of the post I wrote on responsibly planning for predictable behaviour to reduce exclusions, and some of those who are usually approving were less pleased. There’s two things I might take from this: 1) I’ve occupied the centre ground and communicated a moderate message that confirmed readers’ biases, or 2) I didn’t manage to explain myself very well. I think there’s a bit of both at work.

My point is that we should plan for predictable problems. Sometimes, despite our best efforts things go wrong. Just as airplane designers plan for crashes, we need to plan for failure. If our plan hasn’t taken failure into account then it’s an unscrupulously optimistic plan. There needs to be an emergency solution behind safety glass, waiting to be smashed in the event of an emergency.

Let me reiterate my main points:

  1. Certain behaviour is predictable. The responses of our most vulnerable children to being taken into care, for instance, can be anticipated.
  2. If something can be anticipated then we should prepare for it. I agree with the need for ‘no excuses’ behaviour cultures in schools and think that children should be responsible for the choices they make. However, inflexibility in the face of crisis is tyrannical. It’s unlikely are most marginalised pupils are going to learn useful life lessons from being punished when they’re at their very lowest ebbs.
  3. To prevent these children running foul of our behaviour systems we should put certain adaptations and accommodations in place, just as we do when making exam access arrangements. What these arrangements ought to be should obviously be up to individual schools but I would recommend closely monitoring these children for any signs that anticipated problems might come to the fore and intervene before sanctions become necessary. One solution might be to withdraw the student from lessons until they have begun to come to terms with the fear, rage and desolation and guilt of being taken into care. This does not mean pandering to children. They should categorically not be allowed to swear at teachers, chuck chairs about or do anything else that disrupts the education of other students; it means containing them during a crisis period. How this is done depends on the personalities of the individuals involved. Often it’s best to be no-nonsense; some children respond best to kindness and calm, others prefer gruffness and clear boundaries. I’m definitely not talking about there being a need for wishy-washy platitudes and meaningless middle-class guilt.

There’s a need to exercise some negative capability here: children need to know that they are accountable for their choices, but at the same time it’s wrong to treat everyone the same all the time. Holding on to these essential contradictions might be the best place for decision making.

I used the analogy of a child with a broken leg in my last post:

We know that if, say, an otherwise ‘normal’ student falls off a trampoline in his PE lesson and breaks his leg only the worst kind of idiot would expect this student to hobble along to his next lesson and crack on with the school day. We know they should be treated differently.

They should not, of course, be treated differently for ever or in every circumstance. Having a broken leg does not give you can’t blanche to behave badly and more than going into care does. But it does mean you should be treated differently. In planning for the responses of children in extreme situations we must make it clear that they have to follow the rules. We should make it clear that we want to prevent them from making poor choices but, ultimately, their behaviour is their choice. We should never deny students the need to take responsibility by excusing bad behaviour. Always remember that what we accept becomes acceptable and what we permit we promote.

What then when our careful planning and responsible intervention fails? What should we do when marginalised children refuse to play ball and just won’t fit in to the system? What happens when their predictable and understandable emotions mean that even with our best attempts to accommodate them it’s just not safe to have them in school?

When that happens they have to go. This is sad but it’s fundamentally the case that mainstream schools just can’t cope with children on the extremes. Schools exist to provide an education to all the students in their care and if the few are making this impossible for the many, then, with regret, they have to go.

I hope that’s clear.

3 Responses to When planning fails… what to do when behaviour breaks down

  1. nancy says:

    I think, perhaps, that part of the problem is in interpretation. For a start, there is the interpretation of behaviour, and then the understanding of it. You have used the example of the looked after child – I might use the example of a child with, say, autism who is unable to cope. Then there is the child who has witnessed violence or another traumatic event, or the child who doesn’t have the words to express how they feel when they don’t understand what is expected of them. All of these roots can be the cause of similar looking behaviour in school – and, in my view, they need different approaches to sort them out.

    However, you are right when you say we should plan forward rather than waiting til we hit crisis point – and that we know that traditional discipline isn’t the way forward for many of these children. The problem, for me, is that although we know this, and we (as a profession) know all about what we should be doing, and put in place groups and cushions and teddy bears, these things are very often for outside appearances, or are too little too late, or the actual doing of these things, the supporters, too little understand what they are supposed to be doing. It all looks very pretty from the outside, but in reality it changes nothing, or our actions compound the problem.

    And that’s before we get to the problem of pressure on schools to perform results-wise and hurry everyone up.

    In my view, there needs to be a wider understanding of how it all works – and the length of time and commitment it takes to make a change.

    Sorry about the length! I really should write a blog of my own!!

    • teachwell says:

      Nancy – I agree completely with the first paragraph that you have written. I respect your understanding of

      However, I could not disagree more with the ‘we know traditional discipline is not the way forward’ when it comes to children who have witnessed violence. If anything, it is exactly what is required – boundaries, taking responsibility for ones behaviour and learning to avoid rationalising or justifying poor behaviour by making excuses for it, are key strategies to breaking the cycle of abuse and violence.

      I have been researching this field recently and I am shocked by the gap between what is known about domestic violence and the knowledge and understanding which underpins so much teacher training that I have sat through. To say that studies, evidence, case studies and testimonies from reformed abusers, former abuse victims, children who have grown up in households witnessing domestic violence, have been ignored is as gross an understatement as I could make. Teddy bears and cushions are not recommended or required. Neither is endless amounts of unconditional love at any cost or nurture groups to ensure secure attachments with adults.

      This study:http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3286724/ is simply one of thousands which indicate that it is already known that:

      “Treatment …. is multidisciplinary, and should be conducted in a team setting which involves parents, teachers, psychologists, social workers, psychiatrists, paediatricians, family doctors, police, and lawyers. Treatment should be offered to the child, family and the abuser. Different therapeutic approaches should be implemented, including cognitive behavioural therapy, psychotherapy, art therapy, social support and medications when required.Thus, early recognition of the abuse and prompt intervention will reduce the possibility of long-term negative effects.”

      Similar to your comment – this is probably worthy of a blog – however, the first step in actually helping children in these situations is accepting that teachers alone can not ‘save’ these children (and that is not desirable, acceptable or appropriate behaviour in an adult working with young children), the issue is not purely emotional and a move away from simplistic checklists of indicators of abuse to a rounded understanding of what is happening to the child in that family to a deeper understanding of the complexity of how and why the cycle repeats itself. This includes an understanding of what abusive relationships are, rather than what is happening right now, which is the advocation of ideas and strategies that replicate the most toxic aspects of abusive relationships.

  2. teachwell says:

    That should be “understanding of the different reasons why the same behaviours may occur.”

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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