From “Behaviour Management” to “Behaviour Empowerment”

I’m feeling brave today (or foolish?).

Thoughts of what a Learning Powered Approach to behaviour looks like have been swirling around my head. I’m using this blog as a way to distill and vent my thoughts – straight from synapse to paper. So please be kind. Please be open. Use this blog as a means to reflect on your own strategies and approaches to developing positive behaviours. It’s an invitation to reflect, take stock and not to judge the experience and approach of others. It’s an invitation to find a shared and supportive way forward for everyone when it comes to nurturing the best learning behaviours in our schools.

This hasn’t appeared from nowhere. Not so long ago the #banthebooths campaign has hit Twitter by storm. More recently, I’ve seen people sneered at for saying they have no behaviour management issues in their school. My first, gut reaction to each of these “Twitter storms” respectively was this:

“People isolate children in booths?! Has it really come to this? How on earth did things get that bad? Why would you do that?! There has to be another way.”

“Why would you want to put down an awesome leader who has created a culture in his school where children love learning? Surely that’s something to be celebrated and learned from? Why the attack?”

But then another voice came in. One that took me back in time to when I was a supply teacher, teaching in inner city schools. Memories of (attempting to) teach a Year Five class. I was eaten alive. My pre-emptive, positive, nurturing behaviour management strategies had no place here. It was only when the very understanding Head stepped in and removed a third of the class that I could attempt to teach the rest of them. They didn’t go into booths. But no learning was going to happen in that class without this action. Not for that lesson anyway.

Or when I took my buzzing, engaged Reception class up into Year One. They went from excited, engaged, inquisitive learners to shell-shocked, fragile children who cried about coming to school. They (we) simply weren’t prepared for the regime the school leadership team had in mind for Year One – This wasn’t even a transition planned badly. There was no transition at all. Straight from Reggio Emilia-style play-based inquiry learning to sitting at desks, writing in books, keeping to a rigid timetable. We just weren’t ready. I hadn’t been prepared to prepare them. Children ran from the classroom, slammed doors, broke down and cried. This wasn’t what I wanted for them but what power did I have to change things around? We were told in no uncertain terms that this was the way it had to be.

I speak to plenty of friends who are stuck in similar situations on a daily basis. They desperately want to nurture the children they teach; to meet their needs, to find another way, to plan inspiring, meaningful learning with them. But they find themselves in a spiralling hand-to-mouth situation, where they and the children are fire-fighting, exhausted and stressed. If you can relate to this, or this is you now, perhaps the last thing you want to here is, “Just inspire them. Job done.”

Or is it?

Because, if you take the anger, frustration and blame out of it; if you take a minute to step back; perhaps you do have some power. You do have some wins. You do have some ways you can build a system and classroom ethos you would like.

Ask yourself:

What do you want? What do you really want? For your learners? For you? What kind of a learning culture do you want to build?

YOU get to choose how this looks. Even if you’re in a seemingly desperate situation. Even if your boss doesn’t get it or doesn’t approve or is too stressed and busy to notice.

Take the example of my Year One class above. With no support from management, we brain-stormed ideas as a team about how to improve behaviour in Year One. These were a couple of the reasons we felt the children were exhibiting such extreme behaviours:

  • Education was being “done” to them – they had no say in what was happening, no say in directing their learning. Having previously learnt in an environment where they were used to directly their own learning, this was particularly hard for them (Although, I would argue, that even if they hadn’t been used to this, the children still deserved to be in the driving seat of their learning).
  • The curriculum was dry. The children were being asked to jump through hoops, rather than there being any purpose to their learning.

So, bearing those two things in mind, we adjusted our approach.
We started sharing learning intentions with the children at the beginning of the week (or the end of the previous week) and asking them:

“What would you like to learn?

How would you like to learn this?

Why do you think it’s important for us to learn this in Year One?”

This showed them they and their ideas were valued. They weren’t invisible to us. They, and their ideas, mattered.

Some ideas were obviously more viable than others. Some were genius – better than our own. How empowering and motivating to the children to know they would come to school on Monday and their ideas might be used a vehicle to teach the class.

Although we had no say or leeway on the order in which learning intentions had to be taught, we could think creatively about how to make them meaningful. We started to tie in maths and literacy learning throughout the week to work towards an end of week project. I remember one week tying in writing instructions with 3D shape. At the end of the week, the children designed and made a 3D bag to carry home Easter eggs that had been left by the Easter bunny. They wrote instructions about how to build their bag to take home to their families so they could try too. We sent home card in their boxes with the instructions and invited parents to take photos of them learning from their children. The children loved it. It empowered them. In those lessons (and subsequently in any lesson the children really bought into and could see the point of) there weren’t any “behaviour issues” – the children were excited, engaged and purposeful. There were no tears. No one ran from the class.

Obviously, this wasn’t a “quick fix”. The children didn’t suddenly start behaving perfectly the instant we involved them in their learning and planned more engaging, meaningful and purposeful projects. It was for some of them though. For others, it took a few weeks for them to settle and trust in the new system. It took a consistent approach and a commitment to ensuring learning was meaningful. It meant that we had to take full responsibility for planning this curriculum with the children and not let excuses (time, pressure, lack of support) overwhelm us. We had to be “what if …” thinkers and not “yeah, but …” (as Ron Ritchhart so eloquently talks about in Creating Cultures of Thinking). It was totally worth it though. The children learned to love school again. They wanted to learn. They were engaged in learning. And because they were excited, involved and knew they were valued, they exhibited positive learning behaviours, not disruptive ones.

This is just a snapshot. There are plenty of examples of schools that are teaching engaging curriculums with fantastic buy in from the children. School 21 is a great example. St Bernard’s in Ellesmere Port is another (blogs about these schools here and here). My current school is another example – We regularly co-create “expos” with the children to celebrate their learning, as suggested in Ron Berger’s book “Learning That Lasts“. All of these schools share one thing in common: they are all working with their staff and students to build meaningful engaging curricula. When children are excited and engaged in learning; when they feel involved and see the point, they are MUCH more likely to feel invited to learn.

Which is where the concept of “behaviour empowerment” has come from. I sought a definition of “management” to try to figure out why it feels so uncomfortable to me:


man·age·ment
/ˈmanijmənt/
noun
1.
the process of dealing with or controlling things or people.


“The process of dealing with or controlling people”. Control. Dealing with. I neither want to “deal with” nor “control” the children in my class. What I want them to do is to feel inspired to be better. To do better. To be the best they can be. I want them to understand how and why their behaviour affects other people and what they can do to change that. I want them to know it’s okay when they make mistakes as long as they learn from them. I want them to understand how and why this is important to them now and for the rest of their lives.

Hence the term “behaviour empowerment”. It came into my head whilst drinking a cup of tea. What do you think?


N.B. Planning an inspiring curriculum is just one tiny thing you, as a teacher, have control over to improve learning behaviours in your class. There are so many others … There will have to be a part 2!


My hope with this blog is that you, too, will feel motivated to make the learning as meaningful, exciting and empowering as possible for the children in your class. I would love to hear about the results.


This blog related to chapter 3 in “Powering Up Children” which explores making your classroom a warm, inviting and inspiring place to learn.

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