Behaviour Review: A Primary School Case Study

The Head Teacher of a primary school in the West of England reported that the she was spending too much time responding to a handful of pupils presenting challenging behaviour. Daniel Sobel reflects on his time at the school.

When I visited the school I found that the climate for learning was very positive. Staff relationships with the pupils presenting challenging behaviours were strong, with the warmth they displayed towards them being tangible. The staff are well aware of the needs of the pupils and successful approaches to help them (e.g. the SENCO talked about providing choices to get to a desired outcome for pupils who need to have some sense of control). On the day of the review teachers participated positively in training on Attachment Disorders.

Two of the five pupils who presented the biggest challenges showed me around and were brilliant ambassadors for the school as they spoke so highly about the support they received.

The key question for the school then was this: How to create greater capacity within the staff team to support pupils during crisis (so that the Head Teacher could spend more time focused on raising the attainment of pupils in the school)?

Whilst the school budget was not healthy, the key agreed task for the school was to review the roles and responsibilities of support staff in order to consider developing a pastoral support team approach. This would enable the school to ‘play to strengths’ in the current team and ‘protect’ an element of the Head Teacher’s time.

Our approach to leading behaviour reviews is largely a supportive and positive one because we recognise the demands on teaches and school leaders.

Here’s what we focus on when leading Behaviour Reviews

  • What the school is currently doing well;
  • Whole school developments, what is happening in classrooms and the extent to which  individual pupils’ needs, interests, aspirations and motivations are accommodated; and
  • Devising with the school simple support plans and ways to record the impact of interventions.


Some tips on what to look for

What follows cannot be a definitive list as every school is unique and faces a range of challenges. However, after doing lots of these there are some fairly common themes.

There is often a pattern of behaviour for cohorts and individual pupils. It is a good idea to look for it. Are there times during the week or the day when negative behaviour incidents peak? Are there particular subjects where the difficulties are greatest? Do some teachers find a cohort easier than other teachers? If we can spot this we can learn and share. A little while ago I was in a secondary school speaking to a large number of ‘challenging’ students. I asked them what their favourite subject was. Remarkably most of them said Geography. When I explored further it was the teacher they were talking about. They said he was respectful towards them and never shouted. Incidentally, his results were pretty good too – dispelling the myth that teachers have to be harsh to get the best results.

This leads nicely to the next question: What are the attitudes of the teachers like towards pupils who face the greatest challenges? How do they speak to the pupils? What is their tone? Do they aim to create a positive climate in their classroom? Is the starting point developing and maintaining good relationships with the pupils? The Geography teacher cited above was brilliant at this!

Positive language and tone is so important. I have heard different teachers asking students to remove a cap or take their coat off and get dramatically different results. They use the same words but it is the manner in which it is said and how it is received that is vital. I have seen a simple request escalate into a major incident in seconds because of a negative tone of voice.

Do staff in the school really listen to students about the roots and triggers for their behaviours?

Working on the premise that all behaviour is a form of communication it is important to find out more about it. Crudely, students misbehave for two broad reasons: to get away from something or seek attention. If we can find out more about this the easier it is to help them devise their own coping strategies. It is impossible here to cover all reasons and strategies but take the pupil who is finding the work difficult. Their esteem may be rock bottom and they might feel highly embarrassed about being seen to be not getting it in front of their peers. They will do all they can to get away from the classroom. So, the thing to do here is pitch the learning activity to match their need and level of ability. Another pupil who might have attachment difficulties, and finds the world a frightening and unpredictable place, may try to exert some control of a situation. In this case try to provide some choices for them – not whether to complete the task or not but perhaps where they sit or how they complete the task. For some pupils being offered to write with a pen or a pencil can make a huge difference!

Are there some environmental or organisational aspects that are contributing towards negative behaviour?

How do pupils move around the school? Are there some ‘road blocks’ in places? Are there sight-lines in all social spaces? How ‘kind’ is the environment for pupils who may suffer from ‘sensory overload’ at times due to lots of noise?  Can some pupils leave a lesson a few minutes early in order to avoid situations to help them? I have found a good way of identifying these issues is to take a walk around the school with a pupil and provide them with a rating score system or similar.

Are there plans for the most challenging pupils that set small steps of success for them?

Simple targets and regular rewards can be highly effective especially if they are shared widely and all staff that support the pupil know what the plan is. This is an opportunity to find out from the pupil what their motivations and interests are. Rewards do not need to be big or expensive. I know a pupil who was really keen on his local football team. His reward was not a match day ticket but 10 minutes each day talking with a school administrator (who he had a great relationship with!) who also followed the team.

Is communication with the families of the most challenging pupils positive?

In my experience the last thing families need is a daily call to say their child has been misbehaving. They need to be kept informed of course but try to share the successes rather than the failures. This builds a positive relationship and engages families in the process. Families want to help and they can be key to success.

When pupils have been excluded is there a reduced timetable in place and a clear re-integration plan?

Success is often greatest when pupils can return (even for a single lesson) and experience success. This can breed further success as it can motivate the pupil, the staff and the pupils’ family. Lessons can be built up over time. Listening to the pupil is key here to involve them in the return-to-school process. I wonder if they would like to attend a Geography lesson?

A Framework

Below is a suggested framework to guide your conversations with pupils, staff, leaders and parents. We cover all aspects of a school that influence the behaviour of pupils and create the right ‘conditions for learning’. 

Aspect Sorts of questions …
Whole School Approach
  • Is the curriculum matched to the needs, interests and aspirations of the pupils?
  • Is the quality of teaching high so that it engages and motivates all pupils?
  • Is there a strong base of positive universal work that promotes well-being for everyone that prevents potential problems?
  • Is there a supportive and positive climate in classrooms where relationships are fostered, where there is an acceptance of difference and where diversity is recognised and celebrated?
  • To what extent are difficulties for pupils identified early?
  • Is staff well-being a strong focus for the school?
  • Do pupils really have a voice in school? Do they have a say in how they are taught? Are there lots of opportunities pupil-led learning?
  • Does the school look for innovative and creative ways to engage with the ‘hardest to reach’ families?
Staff Professional Development
  • Do staff understand the root causes of challenging behaviour (e.g. attachment difficulties, mental health difficulties, etc.)?
  • Are staff supported in developing a range of strategies to help pupils overcome barriers to learning?
  • Are staff skilled in de-escalating crisis situations?
  • Are routines and support for transitions a strong feature of classroom practice?
Targeted Interventions
  • Are intervention programmes carefully planned and reviewed regularly to ascertain impact?
  • Do they include the teaching of specific skills required for success in the classroom (social and emotional skills, developing positive attitudes, etc.)?
Clear pathways
  • Is there a clear pathway for those pupils with the most complex needs (e.g. one-to-one sessions, role of specialist staff, etc.)?
  • Are pathways for additional help and referrals known to all (including referrals to outside agencies and specialist provision)?
  • Does the school evidence the actions it has taken (making reasonable adjustments) before exclusion is considered?

What do we know about schools where they get it right more often than they get it wrong?

  1. First and foremost they ‘get’ troubled young people. They appreciate that such young people “are distinguished by their regrettable ability to elicit from others exactly the opposite of what they really need”. (L Tobin)
  2. They work hard at working WITH parents and families!
  3. Teachers reinforce consequences for the things young people get right as well as when they get it wrong. They help young people understand their responsibilities, make the right decisions and not blame others.
  4. Their feedback is specific (e.g. you made the right choice there by walking away from that situation, I like the way you asked me for help with that first task in the lesson earlier, etc.). This also helps decision making.
  5. Staff don’t let troubled young people push their buttons – they maintain control and don’t ‘lose it’. They maintain professional responses rather than emotional ones.
  6. Teachers use ‘time in’ rather than ‘time out’. Banishing young people may only compound any sense of worthlessness. Imagine how being sent away might affect someone who has already been rejected and abandoned numerous times in their life. The message of keeping them close is that whilst their action is unacceptable they are not.
  7. During a crisis time staff remind them of when things went well to give them a broader perspective of the situation.
  8. Staff help young people express their emotions so they don’t have to rely on negative ‘acting out’ behaviour.
  9. Staff carefully watch and listen to the young people. By doing this schools can predict ‘flash points’ and prevent them.
  10. Young people are prepared for change and transitions. This reduces stress and anxiety.
  11. Lessons are suitably differentiated so that learning is matched to needs, interests and aspirations.
  12. Teachers provide choices to young people. This is not of course whether to complete the task or not but to offer a choice of tasks or ways of doing it.
  13. Teachers develop and use peer support networks. This benefits all young people with regard to personal development.
  14. Above all, schools that are successful with the most troubled young people are great at building relationships with them. Students are treated respectfully and are championed.

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