This is a guest piece from Rachel Tomlinson, headteacher of Barrowford Primary School. Rachel is passionate about inclusion, equity and kindness.
When I show prospective parents, carers and visitors around our school, I am always really clear with them that we have an unusual (for schools) approach to managing behaviour.
We don’t have a Behaviour Management Policy because the only person able to manage your behaviour is you. I believe to imply otherwise is harmful.
Rather, we have a Relationships Management Policy.
I used to get ready to launch into a full explanation, but often the wind was taken out of my sails as the parents and carers just nodded and said, ‘Well, that’s how I do it at home too!’. For most parents, actually, the approach we take isn’t unusual, it’s common sense and blindingly obvious. It’s how most of us parent.
So that’s what I say now; we ‘just’ parent in our school– and I can enlarge upon it if they want to know more.
We are teachers. We teach. We teach children how to do ‘maths’. We teach them how to do ‘writing’. We teach them how to do art and geography and history and sport.
We also teach them how to be; How to be understanding and compassionate and empathic and kind and respectful – to themselves and others; How to be changemakers and leaders and challengers and supporters and creators; How to be themselves and by themselves and with other people.
Children are learners. It’s their job, their role, their key task.
They do it constantly. They do it because of and sometimes despite the circumstances they are in.
When children are learning to count, they often make errors and assumptions and try out their own ideas about how it happens. We guide and coach and support and acknowledge and praise. We teach the names of numbers up to about thirteen, but then, because children can see patterns and are confident to experiment, they try out the rest – ‘…fourteen, fifteen’ and so on. How many times have we heard children say ‘nineteen, tenteen!’? We intervene here, give them the right words so they can carry on and be successful until they get to twenty-nine, often they will stop and wait for us to do our bit. We give them the knowledge we teach them about the number 30. We don’t shout, we don’t get cross and we don’t punish them, instead we celebrate the courage to give it a go, to get it wrong and to keep trying and trusting the adults to help.
Why then would we do the opposite when it comes to behaviour?
Just like a child isn’t born knowing how to count, neither are they born knowing how to ‘behave’. They learn by watching people around them and by trying out patterns and experimenting with actions. It can be hard to learn appropriate behaviours for different contexts – what is ok when you are three suddenly becomes not ok when you are four and start school.
How do you know unless you get it wrong and support is there to give you the knowledge and skills to help you to put it right?
So just like learning to count, when a child gets a behaviour ‘wrong’, we teach, give them the knowledge, model and allow them to practice. We guide and coach and support and acknowledge and praise. We don’t punish.
When it goes wrong, as it does, as it should, we concentrate on the relationship and repair and what we can learn from it, what it teaches us about how to behave more appropriately. We talk about the consequences and taking responsibility for our actions. We have a relational, restorative approach.
We have lots of children – as does every school – who have an insecure sense of self and a heightened response to threat or rejection because of their individual circumstances and situations.
So we concentrate on our relationships with and between children and staff and we use the high levels of attunement we have with our children to enable us to structure learning and experiences, teach skills to prevent, and, when necessary, challenge harmful behaviours in a supportive and calm manner with a focus on the reparation of the harm caused.
We use a restorative approach and support the children to take responsibility for their own actions.
This bit is essential. We acknowledge the conditions, the emotions, the contributing factors through discussion but ultimately, our behaviour and our actions are our responsibility.
Therefore, it is our responsibility to repair the harm and restore the relationship. Children are coached and guided and supported in this, but they are made very clear about where the responsibility lies – with them, not the teacher, not the lesson plan.
There is an absolutely consistent approach to this – there is zero tolerance of harmful behaviours and attitudes but unconditional regard for all children (people) and their stage of learning and emotional maturity. Each time harm has been caused; discussion is facilitated sensitively and with understanding but without judgement. It is responsive, and all involved are given the space and time to become regulated enough for it to happen successfully.
It is not an easy or a soft option; it is difficult, time-consuming, emotionally challenging and exhausting but it is worthwhile, creates trusting relationships, makes for a safe affirming and kind space for children and adults, supports positive mental health and ensures that every person feels of value. And it works – our community is empathic, self-aware and celebrates each individual.
And each time, everyone involved grows. Because ultimately, we all learn from our experiences.