Behaviour Matters

A friend of mine recently suggested that I write a blog about a typical working day at the Pupil Referral Unit I teach at; I decided to give it a go. At the very least, I thought, it might provide some comfort to my mainstream counterparts – we really do encounter some very extreme behaviour. However, when I sat down to write it, it made me think: I began to think about why we may have these extremes of behaviour, and what might need to change.

I teach English at a centre which forms part of a much larger PRU. Our original cohort was KS3 and 4, although this year we have gradually morphed into what is predominantly a Y6 centre  (although we do have a few older children). This is because of the huge ‘bulge’ in the system, caused by the sheer number of Y6 permanent exclusions. Next year we are to revert to being a secondary centre.

200168451-001

Our pupils are all permanently excluded from their previous education provider, and our remit is to provide short-term education while an alternative school is sought. Several pupils have ‘Special Needs Statements’ for behaviour, and some do exhibit other specific learning and/or emotional needs. Our centre is charged with providing education for the most ‘complex’ of these pupils from across the city. This description is shorthand for children who demonstrate the most extreme behaviours.

As a result of this we cater for groups of no more than 6 pupils, and a teaching assistant is almost always present. We operate a ‘secondary model’, with pupils moving classes for different subjects.

Last Tuesday evening I began writing notes about the events of the day:

8.20am
The first taxi arrives. I position myself by the door as a gaggle of four excitable boys lurch and scrabble noisily across the car park. “Good morning!” I shout, and then, “Please walk!” as the boys barge in. Accompanying them to the reception area, I try to ensure that they hand all personal belongings in.

8.30-9.00am
The half an hour-or-so of social time until lessons start passes quietly. More pupils arrive; some of the kids play cards and some make Lego models.

Then…

9.00am
Time now for 15 minutes silent reading time (at least in theory).
“I can’t find my reading book!” yells one boy. “Yeah, nor me!” pipes another, without even looking for it. Another boy begins bouncing a ping-pong ball up to the ceiling and chasing it around the hall.
“I ain’t doing another audio book, you get me?” shouts Ryan – a level 1 non-reader – to no-one in particular. After several minutes of this, most pupils are rounded up by staff and ushered to their allotted rooms.

At 9.07am I’m anxious to get my small group to read for at least a few minutes before beginning my English lesson at 9.15.

Darren has sat compliantly in his allocated seat and he is (at least appearing to be) reading his book. Another pupil , Mark, arrives in the room triumphantly brandishing a copy of a ‘Harry Potter’ book. Both boys are, however, distracted by Luke who has managed to grab another pupil’s record sheet and is refusing to hand it in. As my allocated teaching assistant is assisting with a noisy incident I can hear escalating next door, and mindful that incidents can quickly lead to physical conflict with this particular pupil, I call for back up from one of our deputy heads. After much to-ing and fro-ing and wandering around the room, Luke eventually relents and allows me to take the sheet from him.

9.15am
I begin the planned lesson – a continuation of the SATs revision work that we had begun last week. Mark begins working, but it is clear that Luke has other ideas, and his relentless comments are having a catastrophic effect on Darren, in particular. “I can’t do this, I can’t do SATs, and I don’t get why I have to?” he says. I explain that almost all pupils are entered for SATs, and outline the reasons. I also add that no pupil would be entered unless we knew they were capable. Darren goes into a sulky, ‘silent mode’ and props his reading book up, shield-style. In the meantime, Luke is refusing to even look at the work that is set.

…at this point the TA that is scheduled to support my lesson appears, looking suitably flustered.

“Sorry, some trouble next door” he mouths, out of vision of the pupils.

“Be wherever you are most needed”, I mouth back.

“Luke”, I say, “Please open your booklet, follow it with me and I’ll read the text”

“No,” he says.

“I ain’t doing it either,” mumbles Darren from behind his reading book…

…”you can’t make us,” adds Luke, with annoying astuteness…

…And that is the whole, entire crux of the issue.

He was correct: I couldn’t make him. What I could do is remove his break-time, talk to his mother (who says all the right things – but has heard it all before). The reality is, that most of these pupils -even at their young age – believe they have the system sussed. In fact, I could continue in this vein for several thousand words, citing several similar incidences just from that one day. On Tuesday, a lot of our pupils struggled with the simplest of instructions and many rules were flouted. It all reached something of a crescendo for me when I found myself encouraging a boy not to crawl around the floor screaming while one of our deputies showed another pupil (and his parents!) around the centre.

But what conclusions can be reached from all this?

Bad kids

I must stress here that a number of our pupils do have specific underlying reasons for their conduct and actions. However, the more time I spend in this role, the more I’m becoming convinced that a proportion of the behaviour we see is as a result of a perceived shift in power. This academic year, in particular, I have felt that certain pupils really believe that they are more powerful than the teachers and other staff that they are, ostensibly, in the charge of. These pupils are, after all, at the more extreme end of the market. They are excluded from school, know most of the tricks, and the threat of exclusion no longer applies. Also, – sometimes usefully for them – they have often had a label such as ADHD, Dyslexia or Autism applied. This they can then wield, like a shrunken head, whenever an authority figure challenges their conduct (“I can’t help it, I’ve got ADHD and I forgot my medication, right?!” etc).

Even in mainstream school, whilst the vast majority of pupils do behave, there are still a sizeable number that don’t – not to mention the inevitable assorted hangers-on that they attract.

In fact, as we know, this number doesn’t even have to be sizeable to cause the complete destruction of lessons and create havoc in corridors and dining-halls. It’s a bit like saying that it was only a small match that caused the fire, or only a tiny leak that led to the flood. It really doesn’t take many pupils to destroy the atmosphere and ethos of an entire school.
That’s why it’s so important that schools exert every effort possible to make watertight their behaviour management procedures and fireproof their systems and rules.

I strongly believe that it is in everyone’s interest that schools never lose sight of the fact that adults (teachers, lunchtime supervisors, teaching assistants – whoever it may be) are in charge.

classroom

Yes, of course we want to encourage independent-thinkers who know their own mind and can see what’s fair and unfair. Absolutely, we like individuality and self-expression. But when you are a minor, in a classroom, corridor, dining hall, or anywhere on school grounds, you must be compliant and obedient. Only then can you and your fellow students learn without risk of anything causing irreparable damage to that opportunity.

I worry that obedience and compliance are sometimes viewed as the unsavoury characteristics of a school environment; an over-stringent means of controlling the minds and behaviour of young people and the fostering of an oppressive regime.

Students reading

I think the opposite is actually the case: In well-ordered and disciplined environs, disorder, bullying, fear and ‘hard work is uncool’ attitudes are much less likely to dominate. Therefore, pupils are far more likely to develop positive attitudes to learning and fulfil their potential, both personally and academically. This is especially vital if children don’t have appropriate boundaries outside of school. It is not our place to be an extension of pupils’ home lives.

I accept that my views may be somewhat skewed by my PRU background, but I see and hear enough to know that we certainly do have some problems at the moment. The first step to dealing with them may just be to consistently remind ourselves, and our pupils, who’s in charge.

(*All names changed)

Please follow me on Twitter: @cazzypot

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16 Responses to Behaviour Matters

  1. bottomsbray says:

    Tough day (after day after day). I assume that massive rewards for the compliant is all you can really do to shift the recalcitrants comfort in their defiance? I’m glad I only have to deal with two or three of these at once even if they have a much larger group of spectators. Best wishes.

  2. Billie S says:

    Totally agree with this. In my school behaviour has deteriorated hideously in a very short time. When did it become acceptable, when a teacher tells a child off, to be told “it works both ways”. No. It doesn’t. When did it become acceptable for students to swear at teachers and argue and object to being told what to do? And Ofsted criticised us for our students being “too compliant”!

  3. Thanks for writing this. Reminds me how lucky I am to work with PRU students online – the ability to turn off undesirable behaviour if it starts and relentlessly model better ways of doing things till students get the idea and start engaging and learning with the class is such a huge benefit. But – it couldn’t happen without lots of people who do your job getting the students to sit down and log in for long enough to catch the bug. And people like you who know your students well enough to choose the right sort of educational intervention and make sure the ones I see online are the ones for whom it will really click (even if not on day 1!) An awesome job – thank you, because I suspect your students often forget to say thanks at the end of an average day!

  4. Ian Lynch says:

    This shows why context is so important. The snag with generalised education philosophies is that they are generally made ignoring the context. Education is to an extent hierarchical so if you haven’t got basic behaviour, getting it is the highest priority because without it nothing else is going to work. If you can’t read you have very limited access to information. If you don’t understand basic scientific procedures you are not going to be successful in a research lab. I think often a lot of debates are at cross purposes because the two adversaries are looking at it from entirely different contextual perspectives. Different versions of reality.

  5. Ian Lynch says:

    To be pedantic :-) there will be learning but probably not the stuff we really value or indeed stuff that is dangerous. eg they learn that they think they can get away with non-conformity which they will find later is not true and end up in prison.

  6. I’m not surprised you have behavioural problems in this centre.

    First, labels. Contrary to popular opinion, in the UK a formal diagnosis of ADHD or ASD is not given lightly, and it would need to be a formal diagnosis to be included on a Statement of SEN. It doesn’t surprise me that some kids exploit their labels, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a real problem. Whether that problem is a medical one, or whether the label denotes a behaviour pattern that is outside the normal range is beside the point; there’s a behavioural issue that hasn’t responded to the standard approaches, so it’s unlikely that the standard approaches will help if they continue to be used.

    Second, Statements of SEN. I assume that the centre does provide the support specified in the statements, but you don’t mention it. It was clear that you don’t always have TA support, so even with only six pupils, providing support for a range of specific learning difficulties and/or emotional needs would be challenging for you.

    Third, the class were revising for KS2 SATs. Think about it. You’re a level 1 non-reader, and you are supposed to be revising for a test that is simply going to reinforce your sense of failure. Why would there be Y6 ‘bulge’ in exclusions, I wonder?

    Lastly, you say the centre operates a ‘secondary model’ with pupils moving classes for different subjects. That’s probably the worst model that could have been chosen for pupils with attentional problems. For those with the ADHD label who are easily distracted (hence the ‘attention deficit’ bit of the label), it provides plenty of movement and noise, just the thing to get them hyped up and off task. For those with ASD, generally speaking, it’s the opposite issue; they find it difficult to shift attention from one task to another, one subject to another. Added to which, many of these kids are hypersensitive to noise and visual movement, which makes moving from one place to another in a school a nightmare and means they take ages to calm down again.

    The crux of the issue isn’t who’s in charge, but that whoever’s in charge of the way this centre is organised has done so in a way that it’s pretty well guaranteed to make existing problems worse. So sad.

    • cazzypot2013 says:

      Thank you for your comment. I am going to write something to better explain my position on labels. I understand that they may not be handed out lightly, however I query the usefulness of them sometimes.
      There is usually a TA present, as I do say in my blog.
      The L1 non-reader is dis-applied from SATs and was not in the group that I was teaching that first lesson on a Tue morning. In fact, he is currently on a 1:1 program…for a variety of reasons.
      We operate a secondary model because we are/were a secondary centre. Next year we are re-opening a large primary centre to deal with this ‘bulge’.
      We are all very specialised and experienced staff, but the young people that we are seeing at the moment are some of the most challenging I have ever worked with in 18 years of teaching.
      Why there are such a number of Y6 permanent exclusions, I really have no idea.
      Thank you again for your comment.

  7. Pingback: Labels, are they always the answer? | cazzypotsblog

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