Behaviour - When a head departs, the masses will agitate

A change in leadership can unsettle a school. And without a plan for succession, behaviour can deteriorate, as one headteacher found.
22nd May 2015, 1:00am


Behaviour - When a head departs, the masses will agitate

It's a matter of public record that the school I now serve went from being rated "outstanding" before I joined to being graded "requires improvement" within a year of my arrival. This was primarily because the behaviour of some of our students was not good enough.

I'm not proud of this fact. The school was downgraded on my watch and that makes me accountable. But my experience is a warning to all that a failure to plan leadership succession can impact on behaviour management in a very negative way.

The previous headteacher had been in the job for more than 20 years, employing a top-down style of leadership. It obviously worked for him, but it meant that, when he moved on, a clear succession plan was needed to ensure that the school continued to thrive under new leadership. Unfortunately, such a plan did not exist.

This was particularly problematic for behaviour management. The former headteacher's decision-making structure meant that few things in the field of discipline worked without him - and most ceased to function. To quote the school's superb site manager, "Our behaviour policy was `go and see the headteacher'." No decisions were devolved down the chain and no individual had the tools, support or guidance to deal with issues themselves.

Coming into this situation as a new headteacher was difficult. I didn't want to impose my own thinking too early, yet there was a void I had to fill.

One option would have been to mimic what the old headteacher had done. But I did not yet have the respect of students and my own views on behaviour were the opposite of the previous head's.

The other option was to make changes right from the start. In hindsight, some of these were made too quickly - two changes were implemented on my very first day. Before school, I was handed a rota for students to clean the staffroom. That went straight in the bin. Then, at the end of the day, I was asked if I would dismiss the students. Eh? It was explained to me that they were in the hall waiting for me. I entered to see them sat in rows on their bottoms, some of them strapping 16-year-olds. That never happened again.

Such swift changes to school customs unsettled staff and students. But, beyond this, further changes were necessary as behaviour rapidly deteriorated and we struggled to fill the gap left by the old headteacher.

We needed to rebuild behaviour management from the ground up. Key to this - and ensuring that I didn't repeat the top-down approach, but instead devolved leadership and developed a behaviour policy - was to decide, jointly as a staff, the best way to proceed.

Clouded crystal ball

It became immediately obvious that we had an institutional bias towards what psychiatrist Aaron Beck calls cognitive distortion: ignoring positives, focusing on negatives and, our biggest problem, predicting failure. Or, as Dr Beck calls it, the "fortune-teller error".

I'll bet you've heard something like this before: "Oh, great. Sean is in today, so my lesson is going to be destroyed."

Changing that attitude was central to how behaviour management was going to work in our school. We had to go from a system of discipline under which the head was the sole enforcer to one where every member of staff recognised that they could influence the behaviour of students.

For this to work, we had to focus on building the quality of our relationships with students and developing an unconditional, positive regard for them. Viewing negative behaviour as a form of communication was the first step. Our well-trained staff were able to interpret that negative behaviour; they then had the power to act and find the best solution, with the full support of the school's senior leaders.

This approach to behaviour management attracts strong views and I've been labelled an apologist for poor behaviour - even "soft". In reality, it simply means that we take the blindingly obvious approach of trying to understand root causes and then working to change them.

An example of this would be the transition work we did with James, who joined us in Year 10 from a mainstream secondary school. Adopted at an early age and with significant anxiety about being separated from his mother, James was unable to leave her without struggling to control himself. Conflict with others was commonplace, and James is a classic fortune-teller-error person. To overcome this, we arranged for James' mother to spend four months in lessons with him, gradually reducing contact over time.

Another student, who also joined us from a mainstream secondary, fought against our system for a long time because he was convinced that we would eventually give up on him. He sought to control events by ending things on his own terms, often badly. We maintained our expectations of how he should act, with consequences for poor behaviour, but it was crucial that he knew we weren't going to walk away.

Whether you agree with this approach or not, it has worked for us. Both these students have since been very successful. The inspectors returned 14 months after our negative rating and agreed with us that the behaviour of our students is outstanding. Not perfect, but outstanding.

Clearly, what works for one does not work for all. Behaviour management is a crucial part of school leadership and it needs to be at the forefront of planning, both before and after a transition in leadership occurs.

The writer is a headteacher at a special school in the South of England

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