It takes brains, not brawn, to manage challenging pupils

29th June 2018 at 00:00
Behaviour management should not be viewed as the preserve of burly men with a military background , says Jarlath O’Brien

“We need some more burly men round here!” was the memorable opening comment from a colleague to a debrief that I undertook as a deputy headteacher a few years ago following a serious incident at our school.

I had been a deputy for a matter of weeks but was acting up with a fellow deputy as our headteacher was recuperating from hip replacement surgery.

On this particular afternoon, Josh had kicked in a glass door pane, set off the fire alarm and ended up on the roof of the headteacher’s flat (it was a residential school) just as we were finishing for the day. I was called to assist while simultaneously managing the evacuation of the buildings.

As I tried to remain composed, Stephen came charging out of the primary department towards the car park. It was his last day in our school as he was being taken into foster care. He has foetal alcohol syndrome, had recently set fire to his mattress a couple of times in his bedroom at home and had an obsession with fire engines. We had been unable to let the fire brigade know it was a false alarm, so two engines turned up, much to Stephen’s delight.

It was not my finest hour as a school leader and managing it did not look pretty. Colleagues were brilliant in sorting the headcount and getting children into their minibuses and taxis.

We helped Stephen to cope with the double dose of adrenaline brought on by the presence of the fire engines and the stress of leaving our school for the last time. We helped Josh down from the roof and ensured he got home safely.

Does size matter?

Afterwards, I was slow in calling for a post-incident review and colleagues, shaken by the incident, had to prompt me. The initial “we need some more burly men round here!” comment immediately summoned the egocentric question in my head about whether what was needed was more burly men like me or – more likely – that I wasn’t burly enough. But it did highlight a key point – the view held by a number of colleagues that physical size and strength were the necessary characteristics for managing behaviour effectively.

Such characteristics are almost inevitably associated with being male, leading to the stereotype in schools of The Behaviour Guy. This contributes significantly to the ill-thought-through idea that former soldier-types would make good school disciplinarians. This is singularly unhelpful as we know, deep down, that fostering good behaviour is not a matter physical domination.

The review focused on ensuring that Josh repaired the situation and on the support he would need to prevent it happening again. It required teamwork, brain power and resolve, not brawn.

Jarlath O’Brien works in special education in London. His book, Better Behaviour – a guide for teachers, is out now, published by SAGE


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