Supporting, not ‘Fixing’ Behaviour

Published On: 22 January 2024

No matter where we are in the world, or what kind of school we work in, student behaviour can present us with a number of challenges on a daily basis.

One of the areas we focused on in our recent think piece Creating Consistency: Developing a shared understanding of behaviour in international schools is our overall approach to behaviour. Quite understandably, given the myriad of pressures we face as leaders, teachers, and classroom support assistants, the temptation can sometimes be to try and manage, or ‘fix’ behaviour, rather than explore ways to understand and support it.

The limited impact of short-term ‘fixes’

Of course, in certain scenarios, short-term ‘fixes’ are entirely appropriate, especially if behaviour is preventing other students from learning or there is a risk of harm to the individual or others. At times like this, responses might include removing students from the immediate learning environment, applying a range of rewards and sanctions in line with school policy, or sometimes ‘parachuting in’ pastoral staff to intervene in escalating situations, as and when they arise.

There’s little doubt that measures such as these can be effective in the short-term, insofar as they solve the immediate issue. However, if our ultimate aim is to empower students to have agency over their own behaviour, and make positive, lasting changes, while feeling supported and guided by us, we may need a mindset shift from ‘fixing’ behaviour, to supporting and understanding behaviour as communication.

In short, we need to move from a perspective of only correction and compliance, to one that is built on connection, compassion, and curiosity.

Barriers to building a culture of behaviour support

Often, we are aware that our organisation’s approach to behaviour needs to be reviewed and refreshed to meet the needs of all of our students. However, despite our best intentions, there are sometimes obstacles blocking us from engaging in the process of change. These barriers can impede our ability to evolve from a behaviour management approach to one of behaviour support.

It’s no surprise, perhaps, that the most common barrier is often time; we are all busy professionals, and it can feel impossible to carve out opportunities to reflect on and evaluate current practice. Our approach to behaviour is one aspect of school life that can slip to the bottom of the to-do list, as we focus on preparing students for exams, planning engaging, purposeful lessons, carrying out assessments, and collating and analysing data. We’re really busy, so we keep doing what we’ve always done.

A lack of resources – both human and material – may also limit our ability to address the area of behaviour in school. Many of us are juggling multiple and competing responsibilities and may not have the capacity to focus on behaviour in our day-to-day lives.

For many educators, internal and external pressures mean that they simply need to ‘get the job done’, so it can feel easier to rely on established behaviour management strategies, rather than shifting the focus onto better understanding students’ behaviour and addressing the underlying causes. And even when there is a desire to do things differently, a lack of timely and appropriate training can make this tricky.

Successfully moving from ‘fixing’ to supporting behaviour

Despite the numerous challenges, there are a number of steps we can take as leaders and teachers to move away from managing behaviour and move towards supporting students. We can help them to develop the tools they need to be successful, both within and beyond the classroom.

Here are four ideas to consider:

1: Fostering a compassionate approach

When we understand that all behaviour is communication – an attempt to articulate an unmet need – it allows us to approach situations with increased kindness, curiosity and understanding.

With this approach, we become less focused on what the behaviour is and instead concentrate on why we are seeing it. We are better able to separate the behaviour from the child or young person, consider the function of the behaviour, and address the feelings and experiences that are driving that behaviour.

2: Building strong relationships

For leaders, who, due to their roles and responsibilities, may be somewhat removed from daily interactions with children and staff, regular drop-ins into classrooms or shared areas, and being more visible around the school premises, can help to forge strong relationships built on mutual trust and respect.

Indeed, for all staff, no matter what their role, interacting regularly with students, and getting to know them on an individual level facilitates a relational approach to behaviour where we can adopt a strengths-based perspective that taps into our students’ interests, likes and dislikes, and personal attributes. We can acknowledge their different backgrounds, showing an interest in, and celebration of, diversity to foster a sense of belonging and strengthen relationships.

3: Developing a joined-up approach

Central to any behaviour support strategy is a sustained commitment to developing a coherent approach that all members of a school community buy into, and are fully trained in.

Thankfully, this does not necessarily require a root and branch overhaul. Rather than starting from scratch, we can review existing policies and procedures, making sure they are fit-for-purpose, and that all members of our school communities understand them, and are embedding them in their daily practice.

4: Prioritising staff recruitment and training

Great behaviour support relies on the recruitment, retention, and ongoing training of high-quality, dedicated staff. This is particularly important in international school settings, which are often characterised by a comparatively transient staff and student body.

Through ensuring that all staff are quickly assimilated with a school’s approach, ethos, and values, we can equip them with the skills and knowledge they need to lead the way in positive behaviour support and share preferred practice with others.

While this does require financial investment and an unwavering commitment to ongoing professional development, it undoubtedly gives us the best chance of understanding and supporting behaviour, inside classrooms and beyond.

Working systematically to create change

For true, transformative and lasting change to take place, teams at every level of the school ecosystem – from leaders, teachers and support staff, to parents, carers and the students themselves – need to be on board with the view that, in order for pupils to thrive and flourish, we need to better understand why behaviour happens.

While fixing behaviour is often about what we need as practitioners, supporting behaviour shifts the emphasis onto the needs of the individuals in our care, and how we can best support them to feel valued, seen and listened to. It undoubtedly takes time to look beyond behaviours to understand why we are seeing them, but, ultimately, it’s time well spent if it results in students who feel better supported and a reduction of behaviours that express their unmet needs and can interrupt learning for everyone.

If you’d like to talk to us about your requirements when it comes to supporting behaviour in your setting, please get in touch any time.