Behaviour: Are we putting the pupils' needs first?

In reacting to challenging behaviour, we need to question if we are prioritising the adults' needs, says Jarlath O'Brien

Behaviour: Are we putting pupils' needs first?

I drove past the school recently where I was deputy headteacher a few years back and I got an instant flashback.

It was a wet afternoon, and the phone in my office rang – it was the office summoning me to support some colleagues with a child.

"Regan* is sat on top of the wall at the front of the school. They need you. Now!" came the clipped message.

"I’m the reason Regan is there," I replied. "I had words with him at the end of lunchtime. I’ll get someone else from SLT to help."

'Do no harm'

In that lunchtime incident, I had managed to inflame the situation and so  it was likely I would do so again. Unless it was an emergency, it was better for Regan if I stayed away. This is consistent with our first duty when dealing with a situation – to de-escalate (a form of the Hippocratic "do no harm" principle). 

Of course, colleagues did not agree. It was my job as SLT to come to these incidents. 

But if I had turned up, I would have been meeting the needs of the adults, not the child. And that leads to trouble. 

Who benefits from exclusions?

Sometimes, in situations of stress or where we're unsure of what to do, we can make decisions that meet the needs of the adults, not the pupils.

I was often guilty of it. I came to the sickening realisation after a time in my first headship that I was using fixed-term exclusion in precisely this way. 

I was forced to face this head-on because my efforts to turn around poor behaviour in the school were failing despite the use of fixed-term exclusions. 

I realised that it was not working because the fixed-term exclusions were not really for the child, they were being used to meet my own needs, to show the teachers and parents how decisive, tough and uncompromising I was on behaviour.

You may say that exclusion protects everyone else and their needs, but behaviour wasn't improving, so it only worked as respite. The same issues, or worse, were recurring. 

Was it any surprise it wasn't working?

Putting the child first

Much of the time, putting the adults first is about speed: we want quick resolutions to behaviour issues.

But think about your school: does it really work?

I have found that when I put the child's interests first – as I did with Regan – things may take longer, but you are on track to reach the goal of behaviour improvement and become less reactive. By putting the adults first, you rarely get there. 

So next time you come across a behaviour issue, stop a moment. Ask yourself: am I about to do something for the adults, particularly my own need to appear decisive and uncompromising, or for the child in this situation? 

As hard as it can be sometimes – for ourselves and for our colleagues –  if we want to improve behaviour, we must make sure our responses are truly putting the needs of the children first.

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Jarlath O'Brien
Jarlath O’Brien
Jarlath O’Brien is a headteacher and the author of ‘Better Behaviour – a guide for teachers’ and works in special education in London.
Find me on Twitter @JarlathOBrien

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