“Educators, please gather round as I present this case study, and at the end you will each propose your diagnosis or treatment plan. This child is persistently confrontational and has been involved in several fights. He has a short attention span and his mum says he has been causing trouble on the estate. We are concerned about the impact he is having on the other children and also that his academic attainment appears to be suffering. Your thoughts please?” A variety of suggestions are now made; talk of tighter boundaries both at home and school, suggestions of a mentoring program and school report, a screening tool for SEND is emailed around, all whilst Mr Gammon the Art teacher silently contemplates the thought that the little sod probably just needs a good slap.
“Well, in order to support your thinking, I’ve brought along some extra help. Mrs. Geneticist thinks it might be epigenetic influences triggered by his environment, perhaps specifically in the expression of the MAOA, DAT1 or DRS2 genes. Mr. Evolutionary Biologist wants to point out how common it is to see aggressive competition over mating opportunities within mammals, especially at this stage of development. Sir Child Psychiatrist is collecting information that may indicate a pattern of disorganised attachment, whereas Dame Endocrinologist wonders if it is connected to his cortisol levels, and if that is linked to a dysregulated stress-response system. Dr Systemic Therapist thinks that the family dynamics may be influencing his behaviour and Lady Psychologist is wondering whether there is an element of transgenerational trauma compounded by structural and systemic racism. It appears Mr Gammon has left the room.”
Absurd as this example is (other than a totally random choice of Art teacher, I hope I have not misrepresented or undermined any of the professions above), it serves to illustrate an error in our collective thinking, essentially to over-emphasise the importance of the “bucket” (professional milieu) you happen to live inside of. To fall for categorical thinking, as if behaviour can be explained by the actions of one parent, of one neurotransmitter, by one childhood trauma or one failure to apply a consistent behaviour policy. Within education, this thinking error would manifest as the belief that what we do in our schools explains the behaviour in them, or that the expertise that will improve the behaviour within our nation’s schools will come from within its schools.
In 2008/09, the rate of permanent exclusion was 0.09% and there were 307,000 fixed term exclusions. Nearly a decade later, the rate of permanent exclusion in 2017/18 was 0.10% and there were 410,000 fixed term exclusions (1). “The evidence on changes in pupil behaviour over time is mixed, with no conclusive perceptions of behaviour improving or worsening” said a government summary (2). We have failed to change the long-standing disproportionate exclusion of students with special educational needs, those living in poverty, those in care and those from specific ethnic groups. Teacher surveys on school behaviour in 2018 showed that 57% believe it has deteriorated in the last 5 years and 32% believe there has been no change (3). It is time for us to stop pootling around in our own bucket.
In a wonderful introduction to Human Behavioural Biology, available on YouTube (4), Professor Robert Sapolsky highlights three problems with categorical thinking, where we focus solely on our own professional platform to try and explain things:
1. “When you think in categories, you underestimate how different two facts are within the same category”
In the most recent initiative to improve behaviour, the DfE revealed a new behaviour taskforce (5); one lead and six advisors whose role is to “support 20 lead schools with “exemplary behaviour” to help others tackle classroom disruption”. Two quotes sum up the “same bucket” thinking of this initiative: “Give all schools the tools they need to improve behaviour by making sure that they can learn from the best (schools)” (Gavin Williamson), and “Behaviour hubs will support these schools with the schools who know how to turn things around” (Tom Bennett). If I have understood the process correctly, it involves selecting a small number of schools who are perceived to have predominantly excellent behaviour and getting them to support / advise a larger number of schools who are perceived to have problems in managing behaviour. There is unlikely to be “new information” regarding improving behaviour in schools, as we can assume that this would have been disseminated to all. I don’t think anyone can argue against the sharing of advice that has been effective in one setting, which may have the potential to help another setting. But recall point #1 and remember we may be overestimating the similarity of schools and the transferability of interventions within the contexts in which they operate.
A large variety of factors have been found to influence behaviour in schools. Example 1: comparative wealth. We know that there is a strong correlation in the UK between the level of comparative economic deprivation of an area and the amount of negative behaviour within school that is serious enough to trigger an exclusion (6). Example 2: size of school. Evidence from the USA found that serious violent crime in schools occurred at different rates depending on the size of the student body with large schools having a higher rate of incidents (7). Think of all the other things that could affect behaviour within a specific, local student body… a rise in gang-related activity in the area, civil unrest or protest, access to mental health services, budgeting from the local authority, health epidemics, disintegration of a local industry causing unemployment, homogeneity of local culture, racial and/or religious tensions between groups, structural racism within the community, access to green outdoor spaces… the point being, to assume something that appears to be effective in one context is going to be effective in another might be one hell of a huge assumption.
2. “When you think in categories, you overestimate how different they are when there happens to be a boundary between them”
“Teachers are NOT therapists” is a frequent phrase used whenever mental health is mentioned in the context of education. Knowing the boundaries between categories like this help to keep us all safe and hopefully stop the local publican performing an emergency tracheotomy because he has seen it done on “24 hours in A&E”. Teacher and therapist are obviously in two completely separate buckets, unless you happen to have qualifications in both! Except, controversially perhaps, this didn’t really square with my personal experiences in teaching. With absolutely no intention of acting as a therapist, I have spent hours listening to children who feel suicidal, children who have been sexually assaulted and children with undiagnosed and diagnosed mental health conditions such as PTSD, anxiety and depression. Whilst running a unit for students at risk of exclusion, I have spent day after day directly supporting children who self-harm, children who have sexually abused others, and children who have witnessed unspeakable violence. So thank goodness I have a PGCE in Secondary Physical Education. And for anyone who mis-interpreted that as flippancy, it was my sarcastic expression of bitter resentment. I resented my lack of training and absence of clinical supervision. I was envious of those who could “end a session” after an hour because I spent almost the whole school day with my “non-clients”. And despite my self-imposed, arbitrary boundaries, that in my own mind kept the gap between what I was doing and therapy, I wondered how different I really was. (Interesting activity for you = Google “skills of a therapist”)
3. “When you pay attention to categorical boundaries, you don’t see big pictures”
BIG QUESTION: What would it take to bring about a sustainable improvement in school behaviour in the UK?
If there are achievable answers to this question, how likely is it that WE (educators) will find them? We must have some advantages, surely! WE understand behaviour because we have taught thousands of children, of different ages, and across a range of school systems. WE understand behaviour because we have been on leadership teams charged with the responsibility for planning and implementing different behaviour strategies and been directly affected by the impact of their results. ONLY WE should be able to comment on behaviour in schools (even though WE often hold completely contradictory views!) WE accept we have a boundary to our “expertise”; it gives us confidence and WE can use it to “other” those who challenge it. If that was painful to read, or felt particularly insulting, I am happy to hurl myself onto this conceptual sword, because I am currently a behaviour consultant within education. This requires no qualifications; “behaviour specialist” is a title which anyone is free to bestow upon themselves. My work is neither systemically regulated, nor could it be described as objectively rated. No-one, yet, has ever asked me what research or experience I rely on that comes from outside of the realm of education. My job, thus far, has been reliant on me “selling” my experience within the bucket, yet the biggest shift in behavioural thinking within schools over the last couple of years has come from outside the bucket.
Trauma-informed (or Trauma-responsive) education is a developing, sometimes messy and ill-defined, shift in thinking that has come from outside the education bucket. Decades of clinical research across child psychiatry, neuroscience, endocrinology, genetics and epigenetics, to name just a few areas, which repeatedly point to the impact of nurturing relationships and the importance of the individual’s stress-response system in directing behaviour. Many educators may have felt that they “instinctively” knew this, many others may still be actively resisting it. Either way, we did not earn the evidence base for it. The “gold standard” of clinical research is the Randomised Controlled Trial (RCT) and these are notoriously difficult to implement in schools, particularly in relation to large-scale behavioural intervention. A review of RCTs in education spanning 36 years found 1017 studies, the majority of which were done in North America (8) (in comparison, there are over 1.5 million studies of this type in the Cochrane Library, which informs healthcare decision-making). This led the CEO of the Campbell Collaboration to conclude “the scorecard shows that education is badly and sadly lagging health in the production of evidence and evidence-based products (9).” If we are to rely on our own bucket-specific evidence for change, we will clearly be waiting a long time to do it. When I consider how I learned to survive in the classroom, I don’t recall being aware of research-led evidence; I remember putting together my own instincts with the modelling of other teachers (cherry-picked of course!) And making a lot of mistakes along the way, because behaviour management is not simple.
Seeing as he provided the framework for my rambling thoughts, let’s return to the words of Professor Sapolsky from the talk mentioned earlier: “There’s no buckets. All there are, are temporary platforms, and each platform is simply the easiest, most convenient way of describing the outcome of everything that came beforehand, starting with millenia back in evolution”. (Professor Robert Sapolsky). Educators, I think if we impose the boundaries of a bucket upon ourselves, we might not even SEE the big picture, let alone be well-placed to make our mark upon it.