Why we ditched ‘consistency’ when managing behaviour

A flexible, case-by-case approach has improved behaviour, argue Ollie Ward and Leanne Forde-Nassey

Leanne Forde-Nassey and Ollie Ward

how to manage behaviour

In our school, we have recently moved away from any fixed notions of zero tolerance or rigid behaviour policies. We found that the more we used black-and-white measures of expectations and associated consequences, the more some pupils deliberately targeted the rule – it was making things worse, not better.

So what do we do instead? We have adopted a notion of "flexible consistency" – we take each significant case on its merits and problem solve as a team to identify a plan. That can be a sanction, it can be an exclusion, or it can be something different. What it is not is one rule and one consequence for any given action.

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What guides us is a single central question: "What will change after we do this?" So if we use an exclusion, will that stop the behaviour in future, will it resolve a given situation? If it doesn't, why are you using it?

Working this way is challenging. It is a very intricate and delicate balancing act. And it goes against what most claim to be the best way of managing behaviour: consistent rules and boundaries enforced the same way in any given situation.

But we think it works.

Trust in each other

Staff have had to become much better at communicating with each other, in terms of what is going on with the pupils. Tutors have a significant role to play in this, liaising back to staff regarding any updates on their tutees.

We need to have complete trust in those tutors as we have empowered them to act on behalf of their pupils: they make decisions regarding an almost inexhaustible list of actions including timetable, behaviour and welfare. We need to remain assured that they are using their professionalism and skill to make the best possible decision for the benefit of the welfare and outcomes of their tutee and to recognise that they are privy to much more information than we might be, and they deserve that professional courtesy and respect.

Fine, you might think, but this would not work in a mainstream school. We can only do it because we are a PRU.

Broad appeal

But although mainstream schools, by necessity, run in a different manner to referral units, the principle will remain the same. All staff need to trust that their team, department or SLT is making the best judgements they can, based on the greatest range of information available.

We may not necessarily agree with the decision at the time, but we need to trust that it is the best one in the circumstances.

I can think of a number of examples where it was only much later in my career, as I have progressed, that I am able to recognise the rationale behind certain choices that I witnessed – it turns out that everyone is beholden to someone, or something. Thinking positively, we have to believe that no one enters the profession without wanting the absolute best for the pupils in their care.

Workable solution?

However, trust isn’t always an easy thing to develop. As a team we have worked really hard about being open with each other, accepting questions regarding our decisions and acknowledging any areas to improve. At the same time, we are willing to listen to others’ rationale for their actions and have a discussion regarding potential alternative actions.

This sounds like it might be a lot of effort, but after a short period of time we found that staff don’t need the extra information, the trust becomes implicit.

Not only has employing this relational approach improved our trust in each other, it has reaped huge rewards for our pupils, too. 

Leanne Forde-Nassey is headteacher at The Key Education Centre, Hampshire, where Ollie Ward is outreach lead

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