As with any educational provision, pupil-referral units (PRU) require a wide-ranging and efficacious programme of CPD to achieve the best possible outcomes for pupils.
This year, at our centre, we have decided for the first time to split up and assign a different focus for each half-term. These include pedagogy; special educational needs and disability; attachment and trauma-informed practice; and positive behaviour management and regulation strategies.
We have recently completed the behaviour topic.
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Given the number of new staff this year, we felt it was important to refresh our knowledge and understanding of the unproductive behaviours our pupils can exhibit, in order to effectively co-regulate and provide tools with which they could self-regulate in future.
One of the many benefits of working in alternative provision is that we are able to do this with relative ease, involving all of our 30 or so staff in an open forum, free of hierarchy.
We made a conscious decision to strip back the process of “behaviour management” to the fundamental element underpinning everything we do with our pupils: building and maintaining positive relationships.
We started by discussing specific ways to build these relationships. We opened the floor up to staff members to nominate specific examples of positive rapport with pupils so that others could use this knowledge to develop it themselves.
In the same forum, we discussed the role of our actions and the need to be aware of our non-verbal cues, even down to as basic a level as remembering to look pleased to see the pupil.
Tone and volume
We have recently taken over the running of a second site and one of the factors that we noticed was affecting pupils was not what was said, but the volume at which it was said.
Within the classroom, intonation and variation of speech has a significant effect on the message you are trying to convey.
Perhaps most crucially, we were reminded of the importance of being assertive. Not aggressive, but insistently confident in our message.
Working in a PRU, you can perhaps face a higher incidence and severity of unproductive behaviour than you would in a mainstream school.
It can sometimes be a challenge to maintain equanimity, but if the outward confidence and clarity of an instruction starts to falter and the pupil picks up on it, they will act like any young person and keep picking away at the metaphorical edges until it disintegrates.
Whatever a pupil says or does can be discussed at a later juncture, if necessary, but in that moment, we can’t show any deviation from the calm composure we need to use to deliver our instructions.
Scripts and speaking
This leads on to the last piece of work we covered: what we say. It was agreed in our forum that instructions must be clear, explicit, concise, and with no room for misinterpretation.
What was more difficult was the attempt to consider the possibility of a script for more effective problem-solving of unproductive behaviour.
What seemed like such an excellent idea initially led to an array of issues: for every positive predicted script win came four other pupils for whom its use would likely exacerbate the situation.
In mainstream schooling, behaviour strategies are rigid, and justifiably so: with so many pupils, the effectiveness of operating a positive classroom is made easier with such clear behavioural success criteria.
But there is a huge variance in the language we use with certain pupils if we want the best possible outcomes. This is certainly true for all pupils, but particularly in a PRU, where students can lack the self-regulation to not react negatively, or will not tolerate what they feel is unwarranted and unfair aggression from teaching staff.
This exercise was fascinating, as it reminded us once again that for our pupils, relationships are so very important – we can demand consistency by outcome, but it is the quality of our relationships with individual pupils that determines how easily we can get there.