Behaviour - Celebrating the work of the outsiders

11th October 2013 at 01:00
Teachers at pupil referral units handle difficult students with skill and care - and they've got plenty of lessons for the mainstream, too

When a student tells a teacher to "fuck off", you would assume that a pretty universal response of sanctions and reports to senior management would follow.

In one place, however, this situation occurs regularly and yet does not trigger that response. Indeed, a lot of the punishments that are assumed to be best practice in mainstream behaviour management are not handed out here. And, rather than being a disadvantage, this approach enables teachers to cope with children whom others claim are unteachable.

You're probably thinking that your school could learn a lot from this mysterious place. Unfortunately, that would require a big shift in how excluded children are viewed. It would require schools to follow the students that fall through the cracks in mainstream education and then trek with them through a bureaucratic minefield until at last they reach that distant and ignored outpost of education: the pupil referral unit (PRU).

It's a journey few schools make. When a child is excluded, they are generally forgotten, left to be someone else's problem. Many schools do not follow up to see how PRUs deal with their former students, nor do they think to look at the strategies employed or consider whether these could be of benefit to them.

This should change. PRUs are a hotbed of excellent behaviour management that should be learned from. Here are five areas in particular where mainstream schools should pay attention.

1. Teacher behaviour

Teachers in PRUs play the long game. They realise that when a child is swearing at them or having a tantrum, it is not personal; it is nothing to do with them as a teacher. Instead, it is simply the fallout from something going on in the life of the student.

This means not reacting to every incident with shock and awe. The teacher may well punish sometimes, but they are as likely to take the child aside for a chat or to tell them calmly to get on with their work, or any number of other non-sanction responses - it all depends on what the student's behaviour has been like at other times (is this a one-off outburst or a consistent issue that week?) or what the teacher knows is happening in that child's personal life.

For this to work, it is crucial for the PRU to have a full picture of the child's behaviour and personal life, so communication is key. Admittedly, in some situations it is difficult to keep calm and try something different, but once you realise that the student's rage is directed at life in general rather than you personally, you'll be surprised at how calm and understanding you can be and at the shift in the student's behaviour that occurs as a consequence.

2. Staff development

PRUs don't just want you to be a maths teacher who can do a spot of physical education to ease a timetable headache: they expect more. The idea is that PRU teachers provide skills that go beyond pedagogy and enter the realm of psychology, trauma management, social work and other support professions.

These skills can be brought in via recruitment - employing people as teachers who have a background in the support professions - and they can be developed by giving teachers the training they need to broaden their skill sets.

This is about empowering teachers, not drowning them in extra work. PRUs don't expect every member of staff to have every support skill, but instead want each teacher to offer elements of those skills - perhaps they can be trained in anger management or have a background in supporting children from broken homes, for example.

In this way, PRUs have a complete patchwork of behaviour management skills to call on 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It means that teachers don't have to wait until Inset training days to find answers to questions or to improve their practice; instead, they can call on each other, or their own newly acquired skill sets, whenever they need to. There is no reason why this would not work in mainstream schools, too.

3. Consistency

In a PRU, consistency is paramount. Every student knows that, regardless of which teacher is taking the class, the standards and consequences will be exactly the same.

This does not happen in mainstream schools. Teachers can be screamers or talkers, jokers or those who favour the silent treatment. Some will let a little high jinks pass and others will punish any semblance of a smile. Is it any wonder a student's behaviour may be inconsistent given such inconsistencies from staff?

In a PRU, the strategy is set from the leader down. An approach is agreed upon and everyone sticks to it, regardless of whether they have issues with parts of it or not. It is strictly enforced and rigorously monitored. It is not a set of rules but a set of expectations, a sense of what is trying to be achieved and guidance as to how to get there.

4. Flexibility

In a PRU, teachers put a high value on being able to read the class. They make an effort to get to know the children quickly so that they can begin to recognise the class dynamic and mood and then react to that in terms of lesson content.

This can sometimes mean taking the lead and forcing the class in a certain direction: if the students need distraction, giving them an involved task; if they are overstimulated and tired, giving them lighter tasks or fun activities. It can also mean letting the students lead, allowing them to choose how to engage with a topic rather than dictating the methodology.

In the world of the PRU, therefore, a strict lesson plan can often find itself amended or ditched altogether. It does not mean the objectives are lost, just that the route to those objectives may be different from the one planned.

This sort of ad hoc change strikes fear into mainstream education professionals, yet failing to consider how the class is feeling and what they need at that particular moment can lead to misbehaviour. You cannot force a class to learn, so you have to change your approach until they want to learn.

5. Adaptation to home life

Staff in mainstream schools can have low expectations of students with feckless parents. In PRUs, adults learn to work with a child's situation even when it is not how it is "supposed to be".

When it is clear there is an issue with the parents, PRUs tighten the mentoring programme, lay down a different set of reference points for behaviour management and place a more solid focus on the relationships that child forms within the school. They respond positively to a situation that could be a negative one for the child. In a mainstream environment, however, too often the opposite occurs.

Many would argue that the number of children in larger schools and the budget restraints many schools are working under make these lessons impossible to replicate. That argument holds up only until you visit the few mainstream schools that have learned from the PRUs and made it happen already.

Paul Dix is lead trainer at Pivotal Education and a director for the TBAP (Tri-Borough Alternative Provision) Trust in London, England. For more information, see

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