Follow-up is the way to break through

22nd June 2012 at 01:00
Make the buck stop with you instead of passing problems up the line and you'll work wonders, says Paul Dix

When Robert kicked off, everyone knew about it. The cycle was utterly predictable. Polite requests from teachers to remove an item of clothing were met with casual yet targeted personal abuse, followed by chair-throwing, door-slamming flourishes and finally (and inevitably) time spent on the roof throwing tiles into the unused swimming pool, shouting "I ain't fucking coming down. Call the fire brigade, I don't care."

Robert loved to accelerate from 0 to 100mph quicker than you can draw a breath. It was rarely with malicious intent. It was a well-planned pantomime of attention-seeking. You see, Robert had learned that if you accelerate through increasing stages of poor behaviour fast enough then people give up trying to deal with you and pass you on.

Late one Thursday evening, I found myself standing outside a governors' meeting that had been convened (again) to decide if Robert would remain at the school and under what circumstances. I had worked out Robert's game and was determined not to play it. I knocked on the door to be greeted by an incredulous headteacher. "Er, Mr Dix, what are you doing here?"

I explained that I wanted to speak to Robert: it was me who had to teach him tomorrow morning; it was me he needed to account for his behaviour to; and it was me with whom he needed to build a worthwhile relationship. I said that Robert needed to apologise, to take responsibility, and that I needed him to take back the behaviour that had started the latest crescendo. The head looked at me strangely and allowed me in.

How many children have learned what Robert learned? That if you ramp up your misbehaviour fast enough you get dealt with by the senior staff, which means you no longer have to answer to classroom teachers and get closer to the centre of power. How many teachers are fed up with passing pupils up the line and then having them returned unchanged and without apology?

So follow up every time. It worked with Robert.

Schools that systematically pass behaviour up the line deny classroom teachers the opportunity to follow up effectively. They buy into the idea that for the most troubled children the heaviest hitters should take control. Targets are set and agreed in closed meetings, action plans are created and delivered, and we end up routinely undermining the authority of classroom teachers by pretending that higher up the management structure there is a magic bullet.

In the management and improvement of behaviour, follow-up is everything. If you want to establish true consistency over time, how and when you follow up is the critical element. Children are wary of teachers who persistently follow up, never let it lie and ensure that every pupil, regardless of their reputation, is dealt with personally. They are wary of teachers who are ready to go from pulling pupils out of their form period ("Can we talk about what you said to me when you walked away yesterday?") to confronting them with evidence ("We need to go through the 'unintentional' hairdressing yesterday, can we look at the tape together?") to sitting in the parents' living room, waiting for the errant child to return from school.

Follow-up works. It ensures that consequences are faced, mirrors held up and agreements re-chalked for the next lesson. You establish that it is your classroom, your responsibility, your consistency.

If someone else is trying to talk through the incident, administering the punishment and resetting the boundaries then you cannot expect the change in behaviour that you so desperately need in your classroom. And, of course, if you allow other members of staff to whisk away pupils you can also undermine your own position in their hierarchy of importance.

Part of the reputation I seek is to be that teacher who "always gets you". Once you have that, children stop trying to run away; they even change their behaviour as you approach. Some apologise, confess and turn Queen's evidence before you have opened your mouth. They stop telling you to fuck off, stop threatening you with their dad and start to make different decisions. Your consequences become real, not just hopeful threats. And yet through all this seemingly negative intervention they sense that you are there for them, in the bad times as well as the good.

As the actor Will Smith said, "If you're absent during my struggle, don't expect to be present during my success."

It is follow-up that cements the relationships that really matter. It is your persistence and determination that eventually wears the edges off their appalling behaviour and bad attitude and unpicks the layers of defence they have rehearsed for so long. You can wear a teenager down quickly with persistent follow-up. They do not like it when you are really on their case. Hefty detention is a blunt and soggy instrument of last resort. Calm, relentless, restorative follow-up addresses behaviour so much better.

I work with further education teachers who look at their students rather like the mechanic looks at my car, with a "What joker has worked on this? Didn't they teach you how to behave at school?" expression. Similarly, secondary teachers blame their primary colleagues ("Just what have they been teaching you for the past seven years?"), primary teachers blame nurseries and, at the end of the line, parents are conveniently positioned to be blamed for anything that has not stuck to teachers.

Children behave in context, towards individuals and with due reference to past experiences and current relationships. Children do not "learn how to behave" once. They learn and relearn behaviours with everyone they meet. They learn who passes responsibility on too fast, who leans too much on processes, who forgets about consequences, who will give a sanction then let you off. They also learn very quickly who doesn't.

Paul Dix is touring UK schools with his behaviour Inset, keynotes and one-man show, The Behaviour Show. His showreel is online at www.pivotaleducation.comkeynotes-2 Twitter: @PivotalPaul.

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