If you are thinking of a behaviour upgrade in your school over the coming year and want to take an approach that places value on the relationships that exist within your school’s community, then the work of Paul Dix will be of interest. The author of two highly respected books on behaviour – When the Adults Change Everything Changes: Seismic Shifts in School Behaviour, and After the Adults Change: Achievable Behaviour Nirvana – Dix is a behaviour specialist and expert in relational practice, a model of working where establishing and maintaining a helpful interpersonal relationship is the priority.
Dix points to some of the collective experiences over the pandemic as a trigger for a stronger interest in relational practice. He explained, “Things have changed considerably over the pandemic. There are real mental health issues across age groups and a universal understanding of the trauma caused by the pandemic. We have a collective experience to draw on.”
This wider interest in relational practice in schools is a positive development. Many consider that the Government is off beat when it comes to behaviour support and doesn’t respond to the needs of children today with the agility that schools need. Dix said, “We’re spending £10m on behaviour but keeping the blinkers on. Maybe they think if they ignore Paul Dix for long enough, he will go away! But when you look at what teachers choose, they are relational people. The profession understands that. Teachers are coming at behaviour from the right perspective.”
It is right that teachers are skeptical about being sold “one approach” to behaviour. “That’s a tabloid approach that speaks in terms of vote winning tropes,” Dix said. “It has been like this for years, but the reality is that behaviour is tricky, nuanced and contextual.”
The politicization of education has not helped behaviour management in schools. It is frustrating for people like me because we can identify good practice and contribute to the debate. But after years of attachment to one view of behaviour people don’t like being told they haven’t got it right.
While there is no single model that can solve all behaviour issues, The Glasgow Model, developed on the premise that violent behaviour is a disease that will spread from person to person if allowed to, just might offer some valuable insights for schools everywhere. “This could be a working model for the whole country,” Dix explained. The model points to the need for systematic establishment approaches, restorative approaches, confidence building, motivation-based approaches, and building positive relationships, among others. It also points to belittling, demeaning and sarcastic responses to poor behaviour, losing control, losing your temper, showing fear, becoming the victim, and getting involved in an argument as undermining a positive behaviour ethos.
What will work in all schools is difficult to isolate. Resourcing schools is a real issue, as well as poverty. But Dix believes that when you have well-trained teachers they can manage more “wobbly” children. “The training of teachers is a big issue at the moment,” he said. “Everyone is fighting to get a piece of the teacher training market. I fear this is more politics. The ideological drive will lead to a crash. Politics demands speed in five-year parliaments, but education needs longer term stability.”
Coaching is gaining popularity now, with positive results. Some schools have moved right away from punitive exclusion and isolation, and they triage children who are removed from classrooms. Speaking about these schools, Dix said, “Children are asked: What has happened? How can we help? Genuine triage in this way offers three spaces, a room to scream and shout and get it all out, space for coaching and mentoring, and a space for getting ready to go back into class.”
Dix feels that it is important to change the language around behaviour and instead of talking about exclusion and removal, start talking about support for a distressed child. “Let’s not make a drama out of it. Let’s allow that support to happen.”
While not all schools have space to create triage rooms, we can think about our use of the space we have. Dix advocates using corridors. “These don’t just have to be spaces for transition. We can use them as support spaces outside the classrooms. Not everything has to be about discipline. Offering support to distressed children is not unresearched – we have plenty of evidence to use and build on. We don’t have to operate as if a riot is about to happen.”
When it comes to relational practice, play is an important dimension. In Dix’s experience, finding joint activities that will build connection between teachers and children is worth every minute. “I know a school that has a dodgeball game between staff and students on a Friday. They love the connection it encourages.” Schools might like to consider doing their residential trips at the start of the academic year rather than at the end. Harnessing the benefits that come from shared play can greatly help what follows back in the classroom. “As soon as you have those relationships in progress,” Dix said, “everything is easier.”
It seems that many are feeling that the apparent rush for authoritarianism in schools is wrong. Dix agrees with this sentiment. “None of it is responsible. There is nowhere for excluded children to go and the link between crime and exclusion is clear.”
While the picture of behaviour management in schools remains mixed, the successes in any approach are almost certainly worth exploring.
Five points to take away
- There is no one size fits all when it comes to behaviour management and there never will be.
- Try front loading the fun in your school. Use it to build relationships that can help you through teaching later in the academic year.
- Setting up support strategies that focus on getting the child back into the classroom can be very effective. Would a triage system work in your school if you haven’t already set one up?
- Explore the ways in which coaching can be enhanced in your school.
- Play! The long-term benefits to be derived from the relationships that are built can have a beneficial impact when it comes to more formal learning back in the classroom.
About the author
After graduating with a degree in Politics and International Relations from the University of Reading, Elizabeth Holmes completed her PGCE at the Institute of Education, University of London. She then taught humanities and social sciences in schools in London, Oxfordshire and West Sussex, where she ran the history department in a challenging comprehensive. Elizabeth specialises in education but also writes on many other issues and themes. As well as her regular blogs for Eteach and FEjobs, her books have been published by a variety of publishers and translated around the world.