That quote runs as follows, “There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find why they are falling in.”
This is an incredibly simple, yet powerful message; find the source of the problem rather than always dealing with the outcomes.
Jarlath tells the stories of his early days in teaching, openly admitting to making mistakes, but thinking about them and learning from them. He reflects on much early advice that any bad behaviour was always the “choice” of the child, that there were “simple” ways to ensure good behaviour, such as seating plans, for the class to devise their own rules, don’t smile until Christmas.
The evolution of Jarlath’s thinking, through many described episodes of having to question why some children were causing problems, working patiently with his team when a Head Teacher, building professional in colleagues and personal capacity in children. He quotes the title of Paul Dix’ book; When the adults change, everything changes and Linda J Graham’s Queensland study that found that self-regulation has a great bearing on a child’s educational outcome; it’s the learning to self-regulate that can cause additional social problems.
His introduction ends with a short series of things that he has learned over his almost twenty years of experience: -
· Some children regard schools as risky, unsafe places to be, where failure is inevitable and painful and must be avoided at all costs.
· Lasting behaviour change takes time.
· Learning needs to be an intrinsically rewarding experience.
· Negative behaviour communicates an unmet need.
· Behavioural difficulties can be regarded as demonstrations of skills gaps that are getting in the way of a child being successful.
· Sometimes we choose actions, sanctions and punishments that only meet the neds of the adults. We do this in order to say that we dealt with a situation, but, in reality, the situation remains, at best unchanged. At worst, damaged.
· Time invested in children is never wasted.
Getting to know the children for whom you are responsible as a class teacher is fundamental to making appropriate decisions at the right time. Early Years and Primary teachers get to know their children very well, very quickly, simply because within a week, they will have worked with their class for almost 25 hours. At most, a Secondary specialist might see a class for 5 hours, some will be an hour or less a week. This will inevitably create a different dynamic in relationships.
The social demands of school will put some children into an anxious state. For adults to be aware of this and to be able to offer support can be the difference between sinking or swimming. Recognising that “they” are not a homogenous group is a first step. “Spotting and dealing” is an important element of teacher awareness. Personally, I have used the term “behaviour whisperer”; getting to a child in time to offer advice and guidance to head off a developing issue. Too often we are just too late and have to deal with the outcomes before the child need.
Some children need help in articulating their feelings; having someone who will actually listen can be slightly threatening if it is a novel situation. Jarlath uses anecdotes to amplify situations that he had faced and his behaviour within and after the situation. Teasing out the reality can be time consuming, something that can be a luxury in a busy school and we have to be aware that behaviour issues cause teacher stress. For that reason, it is essential that whole school systems are very clear, communicated at every opportunity and followed through by every member of the school staff, office, caretaking and lunchtime staff included. Civilised social situations are a team effort.
Some children may need a form of mentoring; someone who is interested in and has time for them. Jarlath quotes Carl Rogers; Show children unconditional positive regard. Our personal manner can determine how some children will behave for us.
Jarlath’s book is an excellent review of the multiple factors that make up a complex school environment including rules and expectations, motivation and rewards, sanctions and punishments, restorative approaches, partnerships with parents, and a chapter on SEN and behaviour.
His last chapter is a reflective challenge to one’s own style, with a refocusing on behaviour as a social interaction, environmental factors in the school’s control including the behaviour policy, ability to adapt to the needs of children in certain situations. He also challenges potential misuse of behaviour policies, with a focus on SEN children and the impact of involving senior staff purely for punishment purposes.
Schools need to be purposeful places if children are to succeed. Internal systems should enable the highest level of success for each child. A “we’re all in this together” approach, including parents, shares the load and offers hope to some vulnerable children. And it’s worth having in mind that we all get things wrong some of the time; no-one is perfect.
Jarlath offers insights, but also, throughout each chapter, points for further reflection on a personal as well as an institutional level. This is a book that would benefit all schools, to be read in conjunction with Paul Dix.
Jarlath finishes with a quote from Dr Kevin Maxwell; Our job is to teach the children we have. Not the ones we would like to have. Not the ones we used to have. Those we have right now. All of them.