Why you need to take the lead on behaviour

22nd July 2016 at 00:00
Neglecting to lead by example when it comes to behaviour is a recipe for trouble

Teaching is a profession of broad opinions and highly passionate individuals. As such, you get some pretty lively debates. Whether it is in the staffroom, over a drink (or two…), or on social media, we are more than willing to go to battle and give our opinion.

And no topic makes us answer a call to arms quicker than the incredibly combustible issue of behaviour. It’s because we care so much. How our students conduct themselves impacts on their learning and on that of others and it clearly takes a toll on teachers – behaviour touches every element of our working, and sometimes our personal, lives.

The leadership of behaviour cannot be improved by a head who operates from behind a desk

Debate is a good thing, of course, but we do need to realise that because this is an emotional topic – because it leads to stress and adrenaline and all sorts of knock on effects – our judgements about behaviour can often become clouded. Views can be entrenched, facts missed, perceptions misguided.

This is why a head needs to lead behaviour in a school. And they need to do so properly.

I joined our school in 2011 and behaviour was outstanding. In record time, I led a catastrophic decline in behaviour that destabilised the whole organisation for a period. It took some serious, serious work to sort out. The biggest and hardest job by far, though, was to convince staff that things were improving.

So how do school leaders ensure that they manage behaviour properly and rationally and that they enable teams to recognise when behaviour has improved, as well as how and why that improvement has occurred?

Below is the benefit of my experience of trying to get the leadership of behaviour right.

Building institutional confidence

The leadership of behaviour of an entire school cannot be improved by a head who operates behind a desk. Visibility is everything and the only way you get that is by getting through a lot of shoe leather.

You need to be involved and model best practice. In the early days of my headship, we did not believe as a group of adults that we could manage situations successfully – that was a scary place to be. The leadership team had to breed confidence in colleagues by being readily available, and being willing to demonstrate how to manage individual situations successfully.

You also need to encourage your most confident members of staff to coach their less self-assured colleagues through situations until they’re ready to fly solo.

I liken this to making my first arrest as a special constable. I was wracked with nerves, despite the fact that I was arresting a child. Over time, my confidence grew rapidly and I felt far more self-assured. All aspects of my work as a police officer then improved as a result of that growing inner composure.

Challenge cognitive distortion

A key problem when behaviour management suffered at our school was that we became infected with cognitive distortion – ignoring positives, focusing on negatives and, by far the worst of all, predicting failure. Teachers working in their own rooms can’t, unfortunately, always see how the school as a whole performs day-to-day, so a rough lesson with one class can become “it was anarchy here today”. You need to recognise when this is occurring and you need to then tackle it with evidence. Which leads me to…

Follow the evidence (if you have any)

Whatever system you have for logging incidents of negative behaviour (you DO have one, right?) be clear about what you want logged and recorded and what you want referred. Kids breaking wind in your lessons, while incredibly irritating, is not a capital offence, so don’t add to your workload unnecessarily.

We initially had no recording system, so it became impossible to confirm or challenge views about changes in behaviour over time. Relying on remembering what last week/month/year was like is doomed to failure.

Our school invested in a superb system for logging both positive and negative incidents that was tailored for us and that had agreed thresholds for logging and referring.

Only then can you have sensible conversations about trends over time and spend time on working out why behaviour has changed for good or ill. And then you can get properly stuck in to the discussion as to why behaviour is better or worse.

Don’t forget the positives

Our exceptional vice-chair of governors once asked me if we had a downer on our most challenging students. It was a brilliant question, but I was unable to answer it. If we had a truly positive behaviour system, she argued, the log of positive and negative incidents would show a positive profile. Nervously, I took a look at our system and, to my relief, this has always been the case in our school, bar one term for one student.

Jarlath O’Brien is headteacher at Carwarden House Community School, Surrey and tweets at @JarlathOBrien

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