Why quick-fire behaviour solutions are doomed to fail

Seeking speedy resolutions to behaviour issues is understandable but won't work in the long-term, writes Jarlath O’Brien

Jarlath O'Brien

behaviour: why it's a mistake to look for quick solutions

Behaviour is one of the most emotive of topics among teachers and it is always one of the highest priorities for leaders (or it should be). 

This is because of its significant potential for disruption to the learning of students, its potential to damage morale among staff and the ways in which it can test our relationship with parents.

This creates pressure for class teachers and school leaders to act instantly in order to resolve issues. 

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The desire for a speedy resolution is entirely understandable, but I have seen many times how this quest for speed can actually act against the long-term best interests of everyone involved.

Indeed, it is the single biggest issue I am currently grappling with. 

My experience informs me that the handful of children I am working with who are regularly exhibiting very concerning behaviours require specific support over a period of time in order to bring about lasting behaviour change, in the same way that losing weight takes time. 

And yet, I am forced to admit to making decisions that appear to deal with situations – by applying a particularly punitive sanction, for example – while the real issue remains untouched. And it is probably only a matter of time before concerning behaviours will arise once more.

Long-term interests

It was easier to act in everyone’s best long-term interests when I was headteacher of a special school because promoting independence was the main aim of all our work. 

It wasn’t a given that our students would grow up to be fully independent, so developing that independence became an explicit focus of much of what we did.

With regards to behaviour, independence meant our students would have the ability to self-regulate or, if that became difficult, would know how to seek support to help regulate their behaviour (as we all hopefully do). 

I often used to say to staff and parents that the real test of the success of our school was what our students were doing when they were 25, and I still like to think that way now.

Best intentions

Sadly, though, I have worked with too many children who were managed (a horrible word) on a sometimes minute-by-minute basis with the noblest of intentions from adults of doing everything they could to keep hold of that child. I have been that adult, I’m sorry to say, on many occasions. 

At those times, I haven’t taken the time to plan carefully what would be required to get from where the child was then to where we needed them to be. This is an approach that helps no one, especially the child, as a dependency culture can develop.

A sense of comfort can set in, but everyone is in for a shock sooner or later as the child or young adult will leave that school for a secondary school or a college and, all of a sudden, everything changes.

Rather than lurching from incident to incident, as I sometimes have, it is far better to make a long-term plan and then break it up into manageable chunks (steps to success as an educational psychologist colleague of mine calls it). 

The issue doesn’t get resolved by the end of the week, but everyone involved, including the child’s parents – who are often forgotten and left relying on third-hand information – can feel more reassured that there is a road map to success for the child. 

Success is not guaranteed, but regular reviewing and refining provides opportunities to recognise what is working and do more of it, and recognise what is not working and do less of that.

Jarlath O’Brien works in mainstream and special education and his latest book Leading Better Behaviour: a guide for school leaders is published by Corwin in March 2020. He tweets @JarlathOBrien

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