Nearly 15 years ago, long before the "better behaviour, better learning" principles had taken root in Scottish schools, Joan Mowat - then a depute headteacher - embarked on a radical approach to improving behaviour in her school.
Day after day, she would find children standing outside her door - sent there by class teachers because of discipline problems - at Vale of Leven Academy in Alexandria, West Dunbartonshire.
"I wanted to do something proactive rather than reactive," she says.
So, for the next seven years, she developed a new methodology - support groups - based on the educational theories of David Perkins' Teaching for Understanding, Howard Gardner's Multiple Intelligences and Alan McLean's Motivated School.
In all, she worked with 150 children with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties - or deemed at risk of acquiring them - over that period. Not all were nominated by class teachers because they were causing trouble; in some cases it was a preventative move, often with pupils who appeared to be struggling to make the transition from primary to secondary.
The support group aimed to give pupils a better understanding of themselves and their relationships with other people. As a result, it was hoped they would develop:
- greater self-control and self-responsibility - being able to apply what they had learned in different situations;
- better relationships with other people;
- greater confidence and self-esteem;
- more positive attitudes towards learning and school.
- set their own behaviour targets for the coming week in consultation with their support group leader;
- complete a pupil diary describing an incident which has happened to them during the week; and
- do a group-based activity which encourages them to reflect upon their behaviour and learning.
- there was little consistency between schools in the approaches that they used to promote positive behaviour and the sanctions that they adopted;
- there was little consistency in how schools recorded such data;
- there were reliability issues - for example, one teacher's "excellent" is another teacher's "OK"; and
- there were gaps in the data for a range of reasons, such as staff leaving.
- While children and their parents were initially anxious about the invitation to take part in a support group, most pupils responded positively, participated in activities and enjoyed their participation in the group;
- Initial concerns about potential stigmatisation and labelling were not experienced by the majority of pupils;
- A minority did feel uncomfortable about being "singled out" to attend; this was particularly the case for one of the transition groups in which the pupils responded positively in primary school and during the first few weeks of secondary, but then did not want to be seen to be different from other pupils;
- It was felt important for all staff to have some basic training in the approach and to reach out to and involve parents;
- The ethos of the support group was also crucial - it had to be a safe, non-threatening, non-judgemental environment in which pupils could speak out in confidence, without fear of reprisals;
- The right climate enabled pupils to explore difficulties and share experiences; they felt able to disclose issues of personal importance to them, with the group acting as a "safety valve";
- Positive relationships and empathy were fostered between the support group leader and pupils, and between pupils within the group; it also fostered pro-social attitudes;
- The focus was not on wrongdoing but fostering understanding of self and others;
- The support group acted as a catalyst for discussion of issues which would not normally be raised;
- The approach fostered higher-order thinking skills, criticality and deeper thinking; it also fostered the transfer of learning to real contexts; it mirrored those promoted under Curriculum for Excellence and Assessment (is) for Learning;
- It promotes health and well-being;
- It is attuned with other familiar "better behaviour" approaches - restorative practices, nurture groups and Feuerstein Instrumental Enrichment;
- It allowed the pupil to realise that change was necessary - arising from the development of intrapersonal intelligence - and that change was also possible. Change is recognised as being incremental, and setbacks will happen, but can be overcome. It also recognises that some children seem to move in the opposite direction before improvement takes place.
- Framework for interventionstaged intervention - a peer-support approach;
- Nurture groups - intended to offset negative environmental factors for young children who find it hard to fit in at the early stages, although this approach is being adopted increasingly at secondary as well;
- Restorative approaches - based on restorative justice principles;
- The Motivated School - a theoretical framework to sharpen thinking on learner motivation;
- The Solution Oriented approach - flexible, co-operative and consistent solution-finding.
- Being Cool in School - a programme for delivering emotional literacy and teaching pro-social behaviour to young people.
Original headline: Collaborative steps on the road to better behaviour
THE ABERDEENSHIRE EXPERIENCE
Pauline Buchan, depute head at Fraserburgh Academy, was the support group leader for her cluster - one of four in her authority. She is not running the programme now because of staffing restrictions but plans to do so again next year.
The school became involved after its support for learning teachers attended a course run by Joan Mowat. They were so excited by it that before the day's CPD was finished, they phoned the school to say: "We've got to get involved with this."
Fraserburgh ran two S2 groups and Mrs Buchan coordinated with its associated primary, which ran a P6-7 group. She feels the support group was particularly beneficial to one pupil who was posing problems in primary but has made a successful move into secondary and forged good relationships with other pupils.
Dr Mowat's advice had been that when starting something like this, it was better not to focus on those who were "top-of-the-tree challenging". Pupils in the first S2 group were exhibiting low-level disruptive behaviour, but Mrs Buchan felt able to run a second group with more challenging children, as the school had some experienced behaviour support staff.
Mrs Buchan's data show that behaviour sanctions have gone down. Children are calmer and more focused; they have a better understanding of teachers' feelings.
Pupils realise now that teachers are "getting at them because they care", she says.
"This programme was not just looking at a child and their behaviour, but their learning too, and the behaviour seems to improve as a result of this deep metacognition about how they learn, what works with them and their relationships with teachers. It's very restorative in its approach," she says.
Ideally, she would like to have more staff available to run this kind of programme - and to run it for longer than 16-18 weeks.
"I felt it could go much longer in all of the activities," she said.
SMALL STEPS TOWARDS ACCEPTABLE BEHAVIOUR
Jane*, P6, is one of seven children in a family which has had a number of difficulties, including police involvement. She had been disruptive in class, albeit at a low level, and was not achieving her potential. Her teacher had found her opinionated and insensitive to the feelings of others and she had been placed on detention on a number of occasions.
Despite her support group leader's concerns that Jane would not engage, she proved to be an active participant. There were some issues, however, with timetabling, as attendance at the group meant Jane could not take part in assembly. Her support group leader observed that Jane could see that someone was trying to help her - and not in a negative way. It was, "How we can we help one another to sort this?"
Although her class teacher didn't feel that Jane took target-setting seriously, her support group leader could see "chinks of light". She still experienced some difficulties in modifying her behaviour, but fewer sanctions were being applied.
Significantly, she showed a willingness to address her problems - "a huge first step", says her support group leader. She also showed a greater understanding of her relationships with friends and family.
She is now less insolent and talkative in class and less likely to fight with other children. Her class teacher still finds her immature and self- absorbed but feels that, with further intervention, improvement will come.
* Not her real name
THE FALKIRK EXPERIENCE
Nick Balchin, principal educational psychologist at Falkirk Council, reports a marked improvement in pupil attendance as one of the main outcomes of the support group project, which ran in two school clusters.
Non-attendance on 10-plus days dropped from 31 per cent before participation in the programme to 18 per cent afterwards.
"They have been able to engage more positively in school and the staff involved have enjoyed it," he told TESS.
He sees parallels between Joan Mowat's work and "the big six" approaches for promoting positive behaviour identified and recommended by Education Scotland:
Even so, the trend was positive for nine of the 12 support groups for which comparisons were possible.
"One of the most important aspects of the approach is the opportunity it provides for pupils to talk about things from their own point of view in a `safe' environment but, more importantly, to begin to develop an understanding of other people's points of view and of how their behaviour affects not just themselves but others," Dr Mowat says.
Each pupil is issued with a target card or booklet in which they, with the help of their support group leader, choose a weekly target to improve upon their behaviour. Targets generally start small - for example, "bring a pencil to school" and progress to being more ambitious.
The support group leader (or another nominated person, such as a registration teacher) meets the pupil each day to check progress and each class teacher who has contact with the pupil is expected to write a short comment in the target card or booklet. It is then sent home either every day or every week for parents to write a comment.
"It is very important that parents become involved in this process. However, it is also important that the school adopts a flexible and responsive approach, as not all pupils respond positively to target- setting and many lack the organisational skills to be able to cope with it," adds Dr Mowat, her comments on parental involvement echoing the latest Scottish government behaviour guidelines published last week, Better Relationships, Better Learning, Better Behaviour.
Where a pupil does struggle with a target-setting approach, the support group leader should work in consultation with the parent, pupil and class teachers to find an approach that meets the needs of the child but still enables it to take responsibility for the process, Dr Mowat advises.
These were the ground rules for Dr Mowat's action research with the school clusters in Aberdeenshire and Falkirk. Each cluster comprised a secondary and one or two of its associated primaries. In all, 36 school-based staff and five educational psychologists took part in the project, along with 73 pupils who were matched with comparator pupils of the same age and gender.
The project was managed via a steering group of representatives from the local authorities, schools and university research team, and supported by regular newsletters, a website and four days of continuing professional development.
The research has now been evaluated and Dr Mowat hopes that both authorities have been convinced of its worth - and can find the funding to carry the work forward.
She describes the enthusiasm for support groups by staff in both authorities as "tremendous".
"What emerged was that support group leaders, parents and teachers were beginning to see change in pupils - `chinks of light' were emerging," she reports, though for some pupils the intervention period was considered too short.
Although pupils and parents were initially anxious about participation, these fears soon dissipated and they participated actively. A few pupils, however, felt uncomfortable about being singled out and some concerns were expressed about how to avoid the stigma of belonging to "the bad boys' club".
But a year after the intervention had ceased, positive outcomes for the case-study pupils were still in evidence.
"What emerged as crucial for success was the support of the senior management team of the schools concerned and the adoption of a whole- school approach - where there was a will, there was a way," Dr Mowat says.
Support group leaders wanted to see the approach continued and extended beyond their schools and developed in the mid- and lower-primary stages.
Parents also reported positive changes in their children's behaviour, including acting with greater consideration around the home.
The analysis looked at three measures: attendance; how the participants rated themselves; and discipline.
The programme was found to have had a significant impact on attendance, probably because pupils felt a greater affinity with the school - a sense of belonging. The qualitative data also showed that many of the support group pupils developed more positive dispositions towards learning.
Support group pupils showed an increase in self-esteem and were more more likely to say, post-intervention: "I think of myself as being a good learner."
It proved very difficult to ascertain trends in discipline for a range of reasons:
And many did. The results were overwhelmingly positive - so much so that she decided to leave the school environment, following a stint with the Scottish Executive's Better Behaviour, Better Learning team, and do a PhD in her specialism, behaviour support groups.
Dr Mowat has been working for the past two years on an extension of this work, supported by the Esmee Fairburn Foundation, with four school clusters in Aberdeenshire and two in Falkirk Council. Her purpose was to ascertain whether an approach that had been developed within the context of a single secondary school could be rolled out successfully to both secondary and primary schools - and what the facilitators and barriers to success were, in order to guide future implementation.
The approach has been extended into the primary sector in two ways - through a Primary 6 project and a transition project which spanned the summer term of P7 and autumn term of S1.
The results have been positive, with the teachers involved becoming enthusiastic supporters of the method. When a support group is being set up, pupils and their parents are approached to give permission for participation. Groups of four pupils meet weekly for about an hour with a support group leader for a minimum of 16 weeks in the school year.
Every effort is made to minimise disruption to learning and the timetabling of the group is carefully negotiated with senior management, principal teachers, class teachers, parents and pupils. Timetabling can nevertheless be problematic, with pupils conscious of being taken out of assemblyclasslunch break and missing out on lessons, important information or opportunities to socialise.
Once in the group, pupils embark on a series of activities - most based on discussion rather than writing. They: