‘Very few children, if any, actually want to misbehave. They want to know that we care, that we provide consistency, clarity and security. Some just need more convincing than others.’
Dan Storey who works in a SEMH school shares his 4 top tips for improving behaviour that can be used in any class.
My name is Daniel Storey and I have many stories to tell. I am sorry for starting like this but teaching for so long has turned me into a dad joke addict. I use them all day long, in school and even at home. Some of the boys in my class laugh at my jokes but, to be honest, not many.
A little bit about me: I work as a primary SEMH teacher and have done this for over 10 years. My school has had 2 outstanding OFSTEDs in that time. Before I worked in an SEMH school, I was a mainstream teacher in Cheetham Hill, Manchester and Childwall, Liverpool. Prior to that, I lived in the USA for a year where I was a football coach. I have also been a care worker supporting both verbal and non-verbal autistic children and adults around the North West. I have a degree in journalism, a PGCE in primary education, a PGCE in SEN, a Diploma in Education and a Masters in SEN. I also have had extensive training in and out of school on Attachment Disorder, ASD and ADHD (I get embarrassed listing my qualifications because I feel I am boasting, but you would not listen if I was unqualified).
During my time in an SEMH school, I have witnessed behaviours you would not even believe were possible. I have encountered many incidents ranging from bizarre to shocking to frightening. These have included a child tipping water over my head whilst I was teaching, one stealing my bank card to use on his X-box, another spitting in my mouth and even one attempting to urinate on me. The list goes on…
I have had many threats on my family and been called the vilest things imaginable. The level of violence against me and other staff at my school is off the scale. We are trained to use physical intervention to stop a child hurting us, other pupils or themselves. I have lost count of the number of kicks, punches, bites and stamps I have had. A child bit my chest so hard once that it bled, I needed a tetanus and I am now scarred for life!
Even though I work in a special school, we all share the same aim as teachers – to have a lovely class with well-behaved children who want to learn.
This is my target for my class each year. In spite of the fact I have experienced extremely challenging behaviours like those listed above, I still have extremely high standards. I am proud of the number of children who have left my class in year 6 and gone on to become well-rounded individuals, whose attitudes and behaviours have completely transformed. Two boys out of my class even went back into mainstream this year. Most of the time they come to school and have been labelled ‘trouble,’ ‘naughty’ and even ‘horrible.’ Don’t get me wrong, they do show challenging behaviours at first but soon enough their behaviour patterns change, and that ‘naughty child’ is no more.
In my school, every class has 10 boys with a plethora of different disorders ranging from ASD, ADHD, Conduct Disorder and Attachment Disorder. Even though this is a high number, most mainstream classes in the UK can have at least one challenging child in that class. Whether you are an NQT or experienced teacher, there is always that one ‘celebrity’ in each cohort who is often disengaged and therefore would rather misbehave.
I have so many strategies and intervention that I have used to improve behaviour. It was a struggle narrowing them down. However, I have reduced them to my top 4.
1. High standards.
This starts with you. You need to be punctual, committed, dress appropriately and treat everybody with respect. If children know you have high standards, then they will mirror this. In terms of the pupils, they need to come into school in the correct uniform, show respect and put a good amount of effort into their work. When it comes to children’s work, if they do not complete this to the best of their ability, I will rub it out or make them complete it again. They need to know that you will not accept poor effort. If you must stay in every break time, dinner time until they complete the work to the expected standard, then so be it. It may be a battle of wills but it’s important to stand firm. In the end, the children will recognise and understand the high expectations you have for them.
2. Consistency through school.
Ensure a whole school approach. Your school should have a behaviour policy that all children should be aware of. At the start of the year, each class in my school will work on the school behaviour policy and if they have any good ideas to adapt and improve the policy then this will be added to it. If children take ownership of the behaviour policy, then they will respect it, understand it and follow it more successfully. It then needs to be applied consistently through out the school. If I give a child a consequence, it will all fall apart if I go on my break and come back to find that my LSA has let them off without completing their work. Children can become experts at manipulating situations especially if they know the response is not always the same. You all need to be working as a team and singing from the same hymn sheet.
3. Consistency in response.
If child A and child B have been disrupting the first lesson, then both need to miss the same amount of their break. Whether it’s the same day, different day, different lesson, both should be aware of and receive the same consequence (referring to behaviour policy). You cannot reprimand child A more harshly because they’re ‘always disrupting and playing up’ and let child B off earlier because ‘this isn’t how they normally behave’. This inconsistency will cause anger and frustration, confusion and uncertainty (which is never a good recipe for a well-behaved class). In addition, these consequences must always be followed through, otherwise you will be setting yourself up for some gentle manipulation, attempts to sway your earlier decision. You many have told a child they owe you 10 minutes of their afternoon break to complete work. However, for the rest of the lesson they listen to you and behaviour impeccably. You cannot then rub off the 10 minutes owed because of this. You gave them that consequence for the original behaviour and you need to show them you will follow through with what you say.
4. Building strong and positive relationships with your pupils.
People used to say you are not there to be the child’s friend. I do agree. However, a classroom doesn’t thrive on hate or fear. Yes, we all want respect but not by scaring children. I have seen teachers bully and shame pupils. I have seen teachers belittle the child in front of his peers. I have seen teachers scream and shout. This does not work. You will get more out of children if they like and respect you. I use a lot of humour in my class. I think I am funny, but the kids do tell me off for the constant “dad jokes” which, in itself, is an ongoing joke! On a serious note, if there is a child whose behaviour is particularly problematic, I ask them about their weekend. I find out their interests, do a bit of background on it and there we have some common ground. One boy in my class was causing major problems in school. I found out he loved drawing and motorbikes. Not only did we develop a mutual respect for one another, we also shared some great chats about motorbikes and I bought some motorbike magazines, colouring books and mindfulness activities. When he completed his work, he could research motorbikes, make PowerPoint presentations and draw motorbikes. Those major problems quickly reduced in severity and frequency and the respect he showed for my authority as a teacher was much improved. In addition to their current interest, I also find out everything I can about a child’s background. Do they have an EHC plan? Has there been any history of abuse? Have they been in and are still in care? Do they come from a deprived area? Finding these things out can really help you in supporting them. If a child looks upset in the morning, then give them time out to speak to somebody. This could be yourself or a chosen adult they have a strong relationship with. If a child regularly arrives at school having had no breakfast, allowing time for them to have some breakfast would mean a lot to that child. It would show that you cared.
We all want a happy life. We all crave good relationships with parents, friends, loved ones and family. This is all children want. They want to be listened to, given praise and given confidence. I, for one, love it when I am praised by my fiancée for putting the bins out or when my Headteacher tells me he has seen a huge turnaround in a child’s behaviour. I also understand the feeling of having a child or two in class who make you want to tear your hair out, after all we are only human. But it is important to remember that our pupils are only children.
Very few children, if any, actually want to misbehave. They want to know that we care, that we provide consistency, clarity and security. Some just need more convincing than others.
Small steps at a steady pace will lead to long term success. Give it time. It’s our job to try and try again and show children that persistence and resilience will lead to achievement and success.