Dear young person,
Please could you regulate the following, through the school day:
1. The time you arrive to school. There is no point blaming the bus or your baby brother, you are responsible for this so take the detention and leave earlier next time.
2. The equipment you have brought. Go through your timetable and pack it all the night before, then you can just pick it up and go! If you lost it yesterday, then you should have replaced it by this morning.
3. The homework you are set. This is why you have a homework planner and record the deadlines in it. If you have any problems doing the homework, then contact other students / the librarian / the teacher for help. If you didn't leave enough time to do this, then you need to start sooner next time.
4. What you eat and drink. Junk food is not allowed, so spend the £2 cash your family have given you on something healthy in Poundland and make sure they have topped up ParentPay for your lunch card.
5. When you need the toilet.
6. Your output level. This should not be affected by boredom, fatigue, stress or low self-confidence as you should be practicing the important life skills of resilience, focus and determination.
7. What you say and do to others. No matter what they say or do to you.
8. What you feel. When you are angry... calm down. When you are worried... put it to the back of your mind. Avoid these feelings "spilling over" into your interactions with others.
9. Your special educational need. We accept that this is not something you can regulate, but it needs to be contained within whatever extra support or strategies we can provide.
10. Your behaviour. The only thing you can control is yourself. If you are behind your peers in terms of brain development of the structures needed to self-regulate, you had better catch up fast... (see https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-49150993 "Disadvantaged pupils stuck 18 months behind)
Pause for thought: Educationalists, if you could rank these in order of importance, (discounting number 10), how would you do it? If you were leading a school, are there any of these "battles" you would choose first?
There has been a lot of discussion about a behaviour curriculum that sits alongside an academic one, but maybe less evidence of what that might look like.
Maslow's hierarchy of needs seems like a reasonable starting point in terms of regulation. Level 1 "Physiological" - from here the particularly relevant needs would be food, water, sleep and excretion. I wonder how many of us chose 4 and 5 from the list as priorities? There are definitely students who struggle with food and sleep due to welfare issues and mental health difficulties; however it is usually the school itself that tries to control excretion! Plenty of good advice is given around going to bed earlier, switching off mobiles etc., but actual sleep can be very difficult to regulate. As can getting through an hour and a half lesson after lunch without your body digesting and needing to excrete whatever you ingested. Some suggestions for how to help students regulate level 1:
- Co-create some strategies for tiredness with them that they can use during the day - getting up and stretching their muscles, opening the window, splashing cold water on their face, checking each other, going outside during breaks, getting some exercise where possible, setting small work progress targets in lesson, etc. Flag up the persistently tired or sudden "zombies" to pastoral/health teams in school. Remember sleeping problems are associated with depression and anxiety; two of the most common mental health issues. And that tiredness happens to all of us (particularly I find when I sit still and listen for a while); it is not the fault of the teacher, lesson or child. Teach and remind them of strategies to wind down before bed, but also those to try when they cannot sleep.
- Be proactive and prevent issues with your schools' food, water and toilet plans. How do students who don't have enough to eat subtly remedy that? Educate all students and staff about the effects of low blood sugar or dehydration on their performance and mood. How do you move forward with parents/carers who don't put enough money on their card? How many water fountains and toilets are there? How would you react if someone told you that you couldn't go to the toilet? Is your system for going for water / to the toilet, something that meets their needs or simply something you believe you can cope with? Review whether your Free School Meal and food provision for internally excluded students is enough to meet their calorific need.
On to Level 2 "Safety", and some questions from Maslow to reflect on: "Do you feel physically safe right now? Do you have enough money to feel financially secure? Are your family and the people you care about safe? Are you concerned about your health? Are your belongings secure from damage or theft? Are you under any kind of attack, whether emotional or moral? Are there people around you, who care enough to try and keep you safe?
My most memorable teaching quote was from a primary headteacher collecting a lifetime service Teaching Award, who turned to the camera and said "They cannot learn until they feel safe". Do not fool yourself that because you are a safe human being that the brain of the young person is telling them they are safe in your classroom. You are not the person who might steal their mobile phone, insult their mother in front of a crowd of people, lie about them to the rest of the class, bully them, post on social media about them, take away their best friend, push in front of them in line, point out their bad hair, shit trainers or funky smell... and that is well before we consider what more important things might be on their minds from their lives outside school. (At some point I will do an additional blog about the brain of someone who has experienced trauma or who has been raised in a chaotic and unstable environment, whose amygdala is firing all the time meaning they cannot feel safe and pretty much cannot learn in your classroom, regardless of how safe you are, the other students or the situation around them).
So my argument would follow that the greatest stressor in the mind of a student is not you; but in terms of how they react, you are very much having to deal with the fallout and then it is often "socially safer" for them to focus on blaming you than the real instigator. Some start-up suggestions for how to help students regulate Level 2 (basically become safer with each other...):
- Co-create strategies for as many situations as possible, e.g. What COULD you do if someone pushes in front of you in line? Avoid over-reliance on "tell the teacher"; get them to think through the potential consequences of each action and help them practice empathy ("What if the teacher didn't see it happen? What do you expect them to do then? Is that a reasonable expectation?)
- Get them to reflect on the "why" of each others' behaviour. Start with themselves; how does their mind and body change when they are angry/frustrated/sad/bored/tired/happy/excited? Then onto the thinking behind someone else's behaviour - why might someone insult your mum in front of a crowd of people / deliberately knock your work off your table / start a rumour about you? Go through options for their responses again.
- Teach them about differences between them; why it is easy for some to ignore an insult and feels nearly impossible for others. Get them to think about how little they might know about someone's life if they only know what shows up at school.
Most importantly: get them to plan their own strategies for when their emotions are "feeling too big" and support them in using them. Then get the class to plan group strategies for when someone is out-of-line and help them be consistent with them. Review regularly.
Structure, particularly for lesson starts; routines and consistency (although it doesn't need to be obsessive - look at the level of distress of the child in front of you and be flexible accordingly). If you have varied from these, briefly explain your reason why.
TBC in future blog on trauma-informed education as the overlap is massive.
In summary: As you can see these are early thoughts and I do not assume that they will meet the needs of all staff or contexts. I am a fan of discussion and of reaching for complexity; with that in mind, please be gentle with your disagreement!
Yesterday, I used some of the questions in the previous post when getting a report at the end of the lesson from a student who had struggled to engage in any way and was clearly "locked up" in their own emotions. The report itself was good enough, basically 2s with the occasional 1. The first question went brilliantly... "What was your best lesson of the day?", "(kissed teeth) NONE, they were all jarring man". Huh, evidently I'm a behaviour guru... but perseverance pays off. Second question: "OK, what was your worst lesson of the day?", "Dunno man, no wait English, that was just JARRING". "So how did you cope?" (long pause and then...) "I just shut down man, just aired the teacher when she tried to speak to me. I mean if you don't leave me alone then you get what's coming to you right, me and her would have had problems..."
Tactically ignoring the veiled threat, I empathised instead. "I know that feeling. It's like... I just want my own space, everyone needs to leave me alone and mind their own business". Suddenly everything shifted and the student just opened up in her own difficult way about having a wall and not wanting anyone ever to try and get inside it.
The next day, I picked her up and put her in a room by herself with some reading. Poems, written by an ex-student and used with her permission; raw, angry, sad, blunt, "front", loneliness and vulnerability. By herself, she sat and read every one of them and then stared into space for a long while. She then wandered round the room, collected a piece of paper and began to write (reproduced with permission):
"I'm never going to open up fully. So people shouldn't expect to much from me. I don't care what nobody says but trouble always starts with family. It went from arguments every week to arguments everyday. I went weeks without talking to my parents or brother for that fact. People dont understand people like me. Ive got a increasing number of exclusions to my name and it feels shit. teachers think there doing the right thing by telling you your not gonna make it no where but realisticly there digging you your own hole that your going to struggle getting out off in the future.
I grew up in south east london where you cant walk down a street without finding a bag of green. Kids below the age of 13 standing round a street corner screaming "who wants weed". Just so they could get some money to eat. So it agrivates me when teachers start talking shit about how "when they were younger they listend". The worst thing someone could do to me is compare me to other people my age when they haven't been through my experiences. They havent had to stand in my position and make decisions based on the situation there in at a young age. So excuse me if I dont want to talk about it and the way I act. But Im never going to break my mental wall down so the sooner people realize that the better".
Kids like this want to be found. I didn't push her to read what she had written, she gave it to me. The power of reflection and writing is incredible and the space and time enabled her to think more clearly and say things that she wouldn't have expressed verbally. It was triggered by the honesty of another young person who showed the sadness, frustration, anger and loneliness that she needed to relate to. And the following conversation started the process of changing that perspective.
Some "starters for ten"... Why do we put students on report? On what basis are teachers expected to judge them? Are there consequences for high or low scores? And how many of us are using a four-number system to tick off the four horsemen of the classroom apocalypse: BEHAVIOUR, ATTITUDE, EFFORT, HOMEWORK? It's like the Top Gun Academy designed the process based on feeling the need.... the need for speed (AHA - in high-pitched voice)… Honestly, I've done exactly the same for years and the bit that takes the longest is signing my name.
Is it reasonable to ask subject teachers to spend time unpicking the lesson with every student in the class who is on report? I think not. The realities of teaching a full timetable are that you are generally rushing off to get to the next lesson yourself, or just to get to one of those valuable moments of time that is supposed to be YOURS, e.g. the toilet. When a student hands me a report (hopefully at the start of the lesson, but usually part-way through when it accidentally falls out of something), it gives me a valuable piece of information - they are struggling. Whether it is in one lesson or across the board, something is going wrong and despite how their indifferent or rude behaviour may present, they are probably finding lessons, or even school, a miserable experience.
So within the multitude of competing demands and pressures within my lesson, I might choose to actively pick out a bit more positive, notice when they are just doing the right thing and guide them with as much compassion as I can muster when things go wrong, but mostly this post is more of a discussion about how you as a form tutor, mentor, pastoral lead, etc. can use a terrible and basic system to a greater level of depth. (A note here about using reports to threaten students: I have seen, on more than one occasion, a teacher repeatedly and publicly refer to what they are going to write on a student's report as a tool to manipulate their behaviour - all this does is put more pressure on a student who is already feeling under pressure and probably struggles to self-regulate, HENCE THE REPORT!! You will, of course, be "proven right" about their terrible behaviour when the child explodes; just remember that 99% of the time you will still be getting them back in your classroom, so some empathy may serve you better in the long run).
At the end of the school day, the procedure for the person who the student is "on report to", frequently goes as follows: a) receive tattered, folded square, unfold and peel open pages b) scan down looking for a vague pattern of numbers and any negative outliers c) briefly check if teachers' signatures look as if they have been constructed by an adult's hand, given allowance for being in a rush and not having anything to lean on whilst writing d) All 1s and 2s - praise, any 3s or 4s - berate and ask why they failed, which leads to... e) listen to complicated version of what happened in the lesson to explain the 3s or 4s that you cannot possible judge or comment on (but will try anyway as it feels like a professional duty), because YOU WEREN'T THERE! f) apply detention or merit/praise accordingly.
Wouldn't it be easier if it was just a two-comment system: 1. Good stuff...…. 2. Things to work on.....? Fighter jet pilots would still keep it brief (e.g. 1. No issues and 2. Keep it up) but even "stayed in seat" or "too distracted" gives the pastoral staff something easier to work with ("Why did the teacher choose stayed in seat? Is that something that gets you in trouble in lessons?"...)
But let's assume we are just numbering our horsemen. Here are some suggestions about how to unpick it to something that might be useful, with students who struggle to articulate their experience:
* What was your best lesson of the day? Can you think of three things that made the lesson work well for you?
* Which lesson did you feel like you learned the most? Can you teach me something you learned?
* Did you get any merits? What did you do that made the teacher feel so good about you that they wanted to give you merits?
* This lesson has got some low scores. What did you find hardest in the lesson? How did you cope with that? Now we are outside of that moment, can you figure out why the other student(s)/teacher reacted in that way?
* This subject seems to be a consistently low score. Can you rate the behaviour of the class out of 10? Why would you give it that score? Where do you fit into that picture? If we asked the teacher, where would they rate you compared to the rest of the class? If other students are "getting it wrong", does that change your behaviour? Is that under your control?
* Do you know when you are starting to get into trouble? What does it feel like / what happens? What would help you get back on track? Can we come up with a plan?
Next time you have a student in a 30 minute detention who is on report, try as many of these questions as you can. Help them unpick their thoughts first (no matter how delusional you suspect they may be) and then use a coaching approach. Remember the words they use are just a cover for the emotions, and that they have no earthly idea what it feels like to be a teacher, so getting them to empathise will be a long-term journey, but one you can definitely move them forward on today!
A final post-script - when reports are consistently poor across multiple subjects, please trigger a SEND referral, team around the child (TAC) meeting or whatever your internal processes are. For the many students who arrive in school with undiagnosed ADHD, ASC, dyslexia, PTSD, anxiety, etc. the effects of persistent sanction, removal, isolation and exclusion can be life-changing for them, not only in terms of their mental health, but as the group most likely to be permanently excluded from school and often society. Those with welfare issues, who may live in chaotic and unstable home environments have other more important things on their minds than following our lesson plan and their cognition, attachments and behaviour may be significantly impaired due to developmental trauma and Adverse Childhood Experiences (I am not ready to hand back my primary school Grammar certificate - ACEs are the current trendy acronym, hence the capital letters). Berating these students every day for their poor reports will not improve their behaviour and will cause more harm.
Any topics you would like my rambling thoughts on, (even if it's just to disagree or question who in their right mind gave me a grammar certificate), please post a request in the comments.