'No' is not enough: why we changed our approach to behaviour

Consistency, clear boundaries and 'tactical ignoring' are key if pupils are to learn how to behave, argues Craig Clarke

Craig Clarke


Addressing behaviour in your school is a fruitless endeavour unless you have two things firmly embedded. This was made clear when we recently sought to reshape our approach to behaviour management at our school.

The first thing is to have strong relationships with your students that are built on mutual trust and respect for one another.

This begins by ensuring students are valued and feel valued. At a basic level, this means never using behaviour-specific labels. Reductive labels, as well as being offensive, do nothing to raise people’s expectations of our students and in no way reflect the many qualities and strengths of them as individuals.

A mutual respect among colleagues is also crucial, as we seek to support one another when managing challenging behaviour.

Quick read: Should we use humour to manage behaviour?

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The second thing is that you have to be absolutely certain that your curriculum and the learning that is being pitched to your children is developmentally appropriate and challenging for each of your students.

I appreciate that these are two enormous caveats, and ones that I can’t possibly begin to offer guidance on given the diversity of school communities and the scope of this article. However, my recent article might give you some effective starting points for those students working at some of the earlier stages of their development and learning.

Behaviour focus

So once these things are in place, what did we do next to tackle behaviour in our school? Our emphasis was to consistently communicate boundaries to our students in a considered, proactive and thoughtful manner.

We began with the goal of creating a "climate for success": an environment in which positive contributions and effort were celebrated.

Through this, we wanted any attention-seeking behaviour to manifest itself in positive actions and deeds, as students began to understand these were the most effective route to achieving feedback from those around them.

Tactical ignoring is a key part of this approach where time, effort and energy is placed on giving those students who are contributing positively to class life descriptive feedback on the choices they are making, while inappropriate behaviours are ignored.

Explaining the process

Obviously, depending on the nature of the behaviour, it may be unsafe or inappropriate to ignore it completely. However, each response to a negative behaviour should be accompanied with careful consideration about how an adult can provide the least amount of reinforcement to the pupil and, when reflecting on the incident, considering what proactive steps they can take to stop this happening again.

Often, the answers to these questions will be rooted in the student’s ability to communicate their thoughts and feelings, and the adults’ ability to interpret and respond to these messages.

Together with this, we recognised that a child would only be able to begin to moderate their behaviour if they were able to understand where the boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable behaviour lay. When we communicate a boundary to a student, we are letting them know the kinds of behaviours that are permissible in certain situations; effectively, we're communicating to them "yes" and "no".

This begins with a basic ability to remain safe in a given environment before exploring rights (how we expect to be treated) and then responsibilities (how we should treat others).

Way forward

Headteacher Simon Knight has written before about the importance of being "consistently consistent" with students. Humans aren’t automatons, and we can’t possibly expect everyone across a school team to respond in an identical way in every situation.

Furthermore, if staff are worried about mismanaging behaviour within a framework that is too narrow or prescriptive, it can be suffocating for them and impede their professional development.

However, what is absolutely achievable through study, CPD, reflection and lived experience, is to have a staff team who are able to use a clear set of principles to consistently manage pupils’ behaviour in a calm, thoughtful and proactive way.

A starting point is achieving staff clarity: does everyone know the guiding principles of our approach, and can they employ them in their varied roles and responsibilities?

Domino effect

Once staff have clarity, they are better able to achieve consistency in their role. Our pupils, as they continue to encounter ever-more consistent responses from adults, will begin to have greater clarity around the behaviours that are acceptable.

With this clarity, pupils then have a much better opportunity to be consistent when moderating their own behaviour – having a clear understanding about the routes that their decisions will take them down.

All this is an ongoing process. It is important that all professionals who work with children know that we cannot expect transformations overnight. We should view behaviour as social learning and, in the same way that it may take a child some time to learn a simple mathematical process, we should also anticipate that it may take a child a similar amount of time to adjust their behaviour.

'No' is not the answer

Ultimately, all of the above boils down to having high expectations of students. By expecting the very best of them and setting them realistic, developmentally appropriate and challenging targets regarding their conduct, all students can be supported to improve their behaviour.

For a number of children, simply saying "no" is unlikely to be helpful and will produce further misbehaviour. However, consistency, boundaries and planned responses, underpinned by strong relationships with children and an ambitious curriculum, will provide a platform for students to succeed and begin to moderate their behaviour.

What’s more, a consistent model gives the whole school team the tools to communicate, if not say, "no" to their students in a way that supports them to understand the acceptable boundaries of their behaviour.

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Craig Clarke

Craig Clarke is assistant headteacher at Bardwell School in Oxfordshire

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