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Leading from the Heart as a Headteacher

“They focus on what he can do rather than what he can’t do”

A quote from a mother of a child with complex Social, Emotional and Mental Health (SEMH) needs who attends Vernon Terrace Primary School accessing the mainstream school and nurture provision. Whilst working with Mrs Julie Cassiano, the Headteacher, discussing the school’s use of relational approaches I heard this which was music to my ears as an Educational Psychologist (EP) who is promoting this across educational and community settings. Julie and the school’s SENDco, Alison Steele, work with their staff team to motivate and inspire children to reach their potential.

Through sheer determination, motivation and hard work Julie has quickly accelerated from being a Newly Qualified Teacher (NQT) to a Headteacher in just 10 years! She has taken her passion to share compassion, empathy, and kindness through her relational focused leadership. This is something which she felt able to successfully achieve at the school as previous leaders had already started to promote this way forward and Julie was keen to embed this into her practice.

In order for staff to work together and bring about the best possible outcomes for children in school, Julie reflects on what is needed to support the staff.

1. “Creating a culture of lifelong learning”

Julie encourages the staff to be at the centre when considering their own well-being and professional development. All staff are encouraged to be a part of the school’s shared vision moving forward. “Everyone in school has leadership responsibility”, she explains. For example, teaching assistants, teachers and support staff have opportunities to lead in a particular area from reading interventions to emotional well-being. Equally, Julie respects staff decisions who perhaps are less inclined to want this type of responsibility and instead encourages them to continue to focus on their relationships whilst supporting the children to learn.

Julie’s passion for inclusion filters right through from supporting children in the classroom to supporting the individual needs of the staff. She meets all staff regularly to reflect on their strengths and areas for development, ensuring appropriate support is in place for all. Nobody is excluded and all have their own professional development plan. She welcomes staff to consider opportunities for CPD. For example, next year, she will invite teachers to join a national network on a monthly basis to share good practice. Julie believes investing in her staff helps to promote a culture of lifelong learning for all.

This discussion led me to reflect on the Self-Determination Theory (SDT) developed following the work of Deci and Ryan (1985). This theory outlines the need for growth which drives behaviour, encouraging people to gain mastery over challenges, which is essential for learning and development. Another assumption is that autonomous motivation is key, reflecting on an intrinsic motivation to bring about desired change and development. In order for people to experience psychological growth, the SDT suggests that the following 3 ingredients are needed:

1. Autonomy – people need to feel in control of their goals and own behaviour to take direct action. This will play a key role in helping people to feel determined and motivated.
2. Competence – people need opportunities to gain a sense of mastery to develop and learn new skills. When people feel they have the skills needed to bring about positive change and success, they will be more likely to feel motivated to work towards their goals.
3. Relatedness – people need to feel connected within relationships with others, allowing them to feel supported and to experience a sense of belonging.

Reflecting on Julie’s leadership style and approach, Julie is applying the SDT which enables her staff team to consider their intrinsic motivation to be part of the school community, rather than relying on extrinsic motivation e.g., through performance related pay. This application is likely to mean that staff are more likely to filter this message and approach whilst working with the children. For example, providing pupils with positive feedback, helping them to reach their own goals, whilst fostering a sense of belonging within their learning environment. The factors within the SDT are central to staff well-being as we know that if we have more control moving in directions that align with our goals, we will feel happier and capable of bringing about a greater sense of positive change and development.

2. Sharing the school development plan

The school development plan is openly shared with all school staff and whilst this is largely co-created by the school leadership team, everyone is a part of this. This plan is reviewed half-termly with staff and there is a shared vision regarding how the school plans to progress and move forward. Staff professional development targets are linked to aspects of the school development plan. One example from the school development plan includes ‘achieving high expectations for all’ and one target is around supporting children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Julie believes that all staff can support this through the direct support being offered to children within the classroom, whole school and through targeted interventions. One TA in the school has been asked to lead interventions to support children accessing Pupil Premium which was welcomed. This also helps staff to know which direction the school is heading allowing them to reflect on how best to be a part of this journey.

3. Encouraging pupils to have leadership roles

Julie has even reflected on how the pupils can become involved in leadership, reflecting on the roles that the children play in decision-making that affects them. The school culture and systems enable children to share their views in a safe and supported way. Research suggests that encouraging pupils to participate and engage with pupil leadership in a school, enables them to have a positive impact on their capacity for learning increases.

4. Including staff in person-centred planning meetings

Another focus for the school is supporting staff to feel involved in planning and supporting the needs of vulnerable children and those with additional needs. Julie feels passionate about ensuring teachers and TAs working closely with a child are invited to review meetings or meetings with external professionals. One of the biggest barriers to staff being able to attend these meetings in my experience as an EP is owing to challenges around cover. However, Julie will endeavour to enable staff to be a part of the meeting, covering lessons for staff if she needs to. This led me to reflect on the use of person-centred planning and how important it is to ensure those adults are directly involved in supporting a child and part of the decision-making process. Largely owing to their relationship with the child, but also being able to actively engage in problem-solving, recognising the child’s strengths and difficulties. Another reason for the importance of supporting a team around the child and working collaboratively is also establishing relationships with the child’s family and further developing community links. Staff are regularly invited to meet in school to check-in and review children’s progress, particularly those with additional needs, ensuring teachers and TAs are actively involved in the SEND Code of Practice, ‘assess, plan, review’ cycle with supporting SEND being part of everyone’s responsibility in relation to the provision offered in school not only the SENDCo.

5. Helping staff to reflect on behaviour as communication

Staff continue to develop their application of relational approaches in school, with Julie sharing the idea of behaviour as communication. For this to be most effective we discussed the need to genuinely empathise and connect with staff who are being harmed due to a child’s behaviour. Mini risk assessments have been implemented with children’s behaviours being rated using a particular scale reflecting the impact of potential emotional and physical harm towards staff. Whilst adults reflect on the children’s behaviour as communication, it is key that staff feel supported and taken care of by senior leaders with a focus on repairing relationships, and limiting potential feelings of shame for the child. I wondered about how this approach could be further strengthened by introducing more formal restorative approaches within the school. Reflecting on separating the behaviour from the child’s emotion is likely to be key here. For example, empathising and validating that it’s ok to feel angry but it’s not ok to hurt your teacher. Modelling relational approaches between staff is likely to lead to this filtering down to adults utilising this approach more effectively with children once their own wellbeing needs are being considered with care and compassion, ‘modelling the model’. As Dr Karen Treisman would say, “if the behaviour could talk, what would it say.”

6. Creating high expectations for all

Whilst there is a key focus on supporting the social and emotional needs of the children in school, Julie and her staff team continue to foster high expectations when it comes to children’s learning and development. One child joined the school sharing his aspirations to become a ‘gangster’ and take illegal substances, acknowledging he could get hurt he has since reflected as part of a review. Following a year in school, they would now like to be a chef. This child has had the opportunity to develop his interest in cooking as part of the provision offered in school, allowing him to consider alternative aspirations and possible directions for his future.

7. Keeping it going

One of the many challenges in schools is often how to keep these approaches going given the considerable level of demands placed on staff. Julie suggests that her leadership style, collaborative approaches to working with staff and encouraging all to be involved in the school development plan help with this implementation. It appears that as part of the school culture, there is an incredibly inclusive and relational approach to supporting children. Staff connect weekly through staff meetings and Julie’s bottom-up leadership approach enables staff to feel a sense of autonomy. However, the top-down approach is also necessary at times when it comes to safeguarding and the need for honest conversations.

8. Next steps and future developments

Leading from the heart and digging deep, reflecting on core values in education, is an approach Julie feels anyone can adopt with the right mindset. She is keen to support schools in sharing good practice and learning from others.

Moving forward, Mosaic Psychology look forward to further supporting the school in the following ways:

  • Providing staff with opportunities for professional coaching/supervision.
  • Developing a whole-school evidence-based approach to training e.g. through delivering.
  • Emotion Coaching training and reflecting on key psychological theories underpinning the approaches being implemented such as attachment theory children’s brain/nervous system development.
  • Working with staff to develop an Emotion Coaching leadership role to support the implementation of this work across the school.
  • Developing a team of peer mentors working with a group of children in school who could develop their roles as ‘Emotion Coaching Ambassadors’. Mosaic Psychology will work alongside school staff to teach the children about the brain, empathy importance of co-regulating and helping their peers.
  • Further collecting staff and pupil views as part of a small-scale research project in school.
  • Working with senior leaders to ensure the school, behaviour policy is reflective of the work undertaken and relational approaches being utilised in school.

    I look forward to working in collaboration with our Mosaic Psychology team and Vernon Terrace Primary School to deliver effective EP services to offer systemic support as part of the school development plan.

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