Behaviour – a call to action from an expert; an SEMH Headteacher

by | Jul 5, 2021 | Behaviour, Classroom Practice, Leadership, SEMH | 4 comments

In light of the Department of Education’s recent announcements regarding behaviour, I have had several Headteachers and Leaders contact me despairing about the public and media rhetoric around behaviour, in comparison with what-they-know-works from their collective innumerable years of working with young people with some of the most challenging behaviour in the country.

In this blog post, I invited one of these Headteachers, Ann-Marie Oliver @AnnMW14, to share her experiences of leading a specialist SEMH school (Social, Emotional, Mental Health).

Her hard hitting stories about her pupils, and the detrimental affects of ‘more discipline’ behaviour approaches are stark.

The call to action is clear.

I am one of the luckiest people on this earth, because I am a principal of an SEMH (Social, Emotional and Mental Health) special school and I get to work with these awe-inspiring pupils day in, day out and make a huge difference.

Whilst some school leaders are being asked to focus on trying to ‘eliminate low-level disruption in the classroom’ and ‘maintain quiet corridors’ I work within an academy trust that understands all behaviour is communication and I will continue to focus on the power and transformational nature of relationships.

I do not want my corridors to be silent, I want them to be a place where the magic of interactions are present, where I hear laughter and communication. I won’t be putting all my energy into these ‘low level disruptions’ that I know are often children’s coping mechanisms and special educational needs presenting. Those chair rockers, those fidgeters are likely to be the pupils with SEMH needs, the hypervigilant, the stressed and the sensory seekers. I want the adults in my school to be curious, to be stress detectives and to look beyond the presenting behaviour in order to support them to regulate.

Creating a sense of felt safety is our number one goal.

When children arrive at my school they have often been shamed for not meeting their previous mainstream schools’ expectations, they have often been re-traumatized with isolation and exclusion.

When children arrive at my school they have often been shamed for not meeting their previous mainstream schools’ expectations, they have often been re-traumatized with isolation and exclusion.

In fact, I often get asked by new pupils when they have had a crisis and lost self control: “Aren’t you going to kick me out?” My answer is absolutely not, we love having you in our school.

We are here to help.

So I say to my staff, let us not reject a child in times of need, when they are really struggling and testing our resilience as adults, let us pull them in closer and wrap them in unconditional positive regard. I often say SEMH schools are like marmite. You either love it or hate it and so hand on heart I know that every adult in my school is a lover, a difference maker.

Having led SEMH schools, Pupil Referral Units and Alternative Provision for the last decade and having kept up to date with research around behaviour and trauma, I find it shocking that deep in the middle of a global pandemic the government chooses this time to announce just what we need (eye roll sarcastically)… drum roll…. Behaviour Hubs. Behaviour hubs that have no mention of trauma or Adverse Childhood Experiences, no mention of Relational Practice being the key to intervention, no mention of what we know about childhood development, the brain, toxic stress and the impact on the body. Why, oh why, would they not consult with the expert practitioners in all fields, like psychologists, neuroscientists and those with lived experience?

I would encourage all these government ‘specialists’ to study their field of behaviour. I would love them to come and spend a day immersed in an SEMH school.

I would encourage all these government ‘specialists’ to study their field of behaviour. I would love them to come and spend a day immersed in an SEMH school. 

They might then see that Stephen, being very noisy down the corridor, lives in a chaotic household where domestic violence is prevalent and the norm is to shout at each other; the mere thought of silence feels alien, fills them with dread and makes them feel unsafe.

They might then see that Ebonie who is struggling to relinquish her mobile phone, could have had 15 different care placements in the last few years, has zero trust of adults and doesn’t believe you will keep one of her only personal possessions safe.

They might then see that Ebonie who is struggling to relinquish her mobile phone, could have had 15 different care placements in the last few years, has zero trust of adults and doesn’t believe you will keep one of her only personal possessions safe.

They might then see that firm stances on discipline don’t take into account the body’s natural reactions to perceived threats and they cannot control their actions quickly going into fight, flight or freeze.

I remember one child who out of the blue punched a teacher in the face, I was struggling to identify his trigger until a psychologist explained that we may never know and it was likely to be a sound, smell or change in temperature that took him back to being a toddler locked in the cupboard under the stairs. He explained that in that moment he was back with his abusive parents, scared and his body went into fight mode.

They might see that Lydia who is not conforming and arriving late every day, has been caring for her siblings and getting them to school because her mum is still in bed heavily under the influence of drugs, that Ben is tired and has more important things on his mind than Algebra lesson 1.

Those blanket approaches of our government won’t wash with Stephen, Ebonie, Lydia and Ben.

Every day I have nothing but admiration for the barriers some of my children are overcoming, of the lived experience of trauma they have had or are currently dealing with. The resilience they demonstrate is nothing short of miraculous and I will continue to be a voice of those children.

In the last academic year, as a school community we have had to support each other as we lost one of our pupils in tragic circumstances linked to their mental health. Alongside this, we were there to support another child who had moved house 12 times in 3 years to different foster homes and care homes and was eventually sent to live halfway across the country. We have had another child lose their mother to cancer, we also have a number of pupils on child protection plans who are at significant risk of harm within their families.

What I do know, is that these pupils exist in your schools whether mainstream or special and what they need is love and flexible consistency not discipline and rigidity.

What I do know, is that these pupils exist in your schools whether mainstream or special and what they need is love and flexible consistency not discipline and rigidity.

As my CEO of the inclusive academy trust I work for often says: we can be ‘system influencers’ and I hope if you are reading this you will join me? As they said in the Resilience film (Made by KPJR films) ‘ if you can put the science into the hands of the people, that will create very wise actions’ that science might not have reached our government but it’s firmly in our hands, you can make a difference by providing life changing moments of positive interactions, that smile in the morning could be all it takes to help someone feel loved.

We can be ‘system influencers’ and I hope if you are reading this you will join me?

You can demonstrate unconditional positive regard my starting each day or even each lesson a fresh with pupils.

You can take time to listen, and I mean really listen, to children after incidents (be warned their version of the events may differ from yours) but if you can repair and connect you will be building a stronger relationship and demonstrating that adults can be safe.

You can understand that nothing pupils do or say when dysregulated is personal.

You can separate the behaviour from the pupil.

You can be curious and seek to look beyond the behaviour to the why (remember this why could be linked to early childhood trauma) You can’t see inside their brains, but you can read about toxic stress and seek to understand the brain and body’s threat responses

And most importantly we can shout about it (not literally and not in a silent corridor ha!) but reframe things for your colleagues so when they say “ he really kicked off today totally unprovoked” maybe respond with a “ yes he was in real crisis, had lost all self control and we don’t know what the trigger was, maybe we can try and find out?”

As a thank you for her Ann-Marie’s contribution, a donation has been made to her forthcoming sponsored 26 mile walk for Macmillan! You can donate yourself here.

4 Comments

  1. Wendy Martineau

    This is such a brilliant blog post, thank you. It made me cry in parts but equally it made me feel wonderfully hopeful that there are teachers and schools that ‘get it’. Let’s hope this ethos continues to spread despite the government’s invested agenda to keep schools fostering conformity rather than flourishing.

    Reply
    • Adele Bates

      Yes! When I was working on it with Ann-Marie, it made me cry too!

      And hence why I wanted to share – there IS fantastic practice going on, and the more we share and the more we talk about it, the more we can offer a positive alternative to what the ‘general public rhetoric’ or media shows us…

      Reply
  2. Carol@carolmccarthy.co.uk

    As a retired Head of a special school we spent our time being curious,being kind and above all being there.
    Keep following your path,steer your course and continue to radiate

    Reply
    • Adele Bates

      Thank you for the cheerleading Carol!

      Reply

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