by Steve Russell

The latest pronouncement from OFSTED in relation to behaviour has whipped up, not surprisingly, something of a frenzy in schools. Headline statements such as, ‘low level disruptive behaviour in classrooms across the country is damaging (children’s) life chances’ and ’38 days of teaching lost per year’ have certainly focused the minds of staff in the schools I’ve been working with over the past weeks.

Whilst the report (Below the radar: low-level disruption in the country’s classrooms) gives staff the impetus to debate something which is clearly an important aspect of many teachers’ professional practice, I’m disheartened to read such a simplistic approach to behaviour. In particular, I fear the report risks perpetuating a still commonly-held myth – namely that behaviour is something that is to be ‘sorted out’ through a few rather unsophisticated approaches, such as ensuring a ‘strong senior leadership presence’ or ‘consistency of approach by all staff’. Yes, these are important elements within schools, but taken in and of themselves, discount the complex nature of classroom behaviour.

All human behaviour occurs in context. Behaviours that disrupt learning occur within the complex ecosystem that is the classroom, containing as it does a myriad of interconnections – teacher to pupil, pupil to teacher and pupil to pupil.

We then need to add to this a further relational dimension – that of each pupil’s relationship with the subject/curriculum and means by which it is assessed. Some pupils approach Mathematics with enthusiasm and confidence, others with a sense of dread and fear of failure. The presence of a senior leader in the classroom and corridors, or my determination as a teacher to be ‘consistent’ in my application of the school policy will do little, if anything, to help the latter group choose to behave in line with expectations, other than through inducing fear of stepping out of line. And fear has no place in learning.

Let us take one of the most common examples of low level disruption – the ‘calling out’ which is often termed ‘attention-seeking’. If we re-frame attention-seeking as attention-needing behaviour we are invited to shift our perspective to one that takes account of the fact that a core human need we all have is to be in relationship (we can’t be human all by ourselves) – and yes, for some pupils this need is particularly prominent. But it will not be met by a rigorous reinforcement of expectations. It will be met through connection, between the teacher/teaching assistant and the pupil, connection which reassures the youngster that the adult is aware of them and will do their best to meet their needs.

Similarly with task avoidance behaviour, once again, the most helpful approach is to see it as a means of communication – and therefore my job as the teacher is to try and decode this. From what I know of the pupil, based on my relationship with him/her, why might they feel the need to avoid doing the task – fear of failure; lack of belief in their ability? How will knowing that senior leaders are dropping in and out of lessons help here?

By all means, let’s keep talking about classroom behaviour – but my plea would be that we do so in ways that a) takes full account of the complex nature of such behaviour and b) focuses more strongly upon the fantastic relational skills that so many teachers possess. We must encourage them to look to these as their tools rather than simplistic ‘behaviour management’ techniques.

And finally, let us resist the pull (and in terms of Ofsted’s report, push) to blame specific parties when behaviour isn’t how we want it to be – whether it’s blaming the pupils and seeing them as “perpetrators”, teachers who might be struggling with specific pupils or classes or senior leaders. Learning is a collaborative activity and as such has no place for blame and scapegoating.

Instead let us create staffrooms and classrooms where it is ok to ask for help and support and where we are supporting all with the necessary interpersonal skills and self-awareness that leads to thriving learning communities.




Steve Russell is from ‘Beyond Behaviour’, a consultancy company that seeks to support, challenge and empower people to effect change, be it in others or themselves.Drawing in particular on insights from Transactional Analysis, and using solution-focused and person-centred approaches, Steve seeks to help people to look beyond the behaviour causing concern to consider what is actually driving it. This can be on an individual level right through to supporting organisations, especially schools. His research into behaviour culminated in creating, a resource for problem-solving troubling behaviour which has been used by over 200 schools, as well as support services.



    • Steve Russell

      Would appreciate any thoughts on my blog. It’s a hot topic and it would be good to hear what people think.

    • sAM cOY

      A REALLY GOOD bLOG STEVE, I COULDNT AGREE MORE AND CURRENTLY WORKING THROUGH THESE COMPLEXITIES, IT IS CLEAR THAT MANAGING BEHAVIOUR TAKES ALOT MORE THAN LEADING WITH AN IRON ROD. Ofsted SEEM TO BE FORGETTING THE IMPORTANCE OF DEVELOPING CORE RELATIONSHIPS WITHIN THE SCHOOL AS WELL AS THOSE VITAL TOOLS THAT HELP US TO MANGE FRUSTRATION THAT OFTEN LEADS TO BEHAVIOURAL DIFFICULTIES. its not about being seen, it is about knowing our pupils and staff and fostering good core relationships to create a trusting and nurturing environment with high expectations and levels of support. (sorry about the lack of capitals, computer is playing up)

    • steve Russell

      Sam. Thanks for taking the time to read and respond to the blog. You put it so well when you say it’s not about being seen but about knowing your pupils and staff. Irvin Yalom, a psychotherapist, talks of his mantra being ‘it’s the relationship that heals, it’s the relationship that heals, it’s the relationship that heals.’ Whilst he is talking specifically about therapy I see a strong relevance to education and educators.

      another factor missed is the relationship between teaching and behaviour. Ironically I’ve just read an OFSTED report that, rightly, refers to the importance of the quality of teaching in relation to sometimes being a key factor re: low level disruption – yet their very own ‘Under the radar’ document makes no reference.

      Keep working through the complexities is what I say Sam – hold to what you know to be true – and please, don’t go down the route I’ve heard of in one school where, in response to the Ofsted behaviour report they are now issuing 3 day exclusions to any student engaging in low level disruptive behaviour. my sense is that this reflects something of the power and fear that ofsted can instil.

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