Dr. Geoffrey D James: Reimagining behaviour support - strengths based practice for emotional and mental wellbeing

This independent article from Dr. Geoffrey D James, teacher, coach and director of Solution Focused Education Ltd, is part of the LGA children and young people's mental health think piece series. The piece explores reimagining behaviour support using strengths-based practice for emotional and mental wellbeing.

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Not all children are flourishing in school, evidenced by high rates of distress, anxiety, non-attendance and exclusion. 

School staff try to address the related disengaged, disruptive, self-harming, depressed behaviour using their behaviour management tools and finding that a majority of those children getting caught up in punishment routines have special educational needs and/or poor mental health. The school system is dominated by the disciplinarian approach, behaviour modification by punishment as the consequence. While it may be acknowledged that some children might be unable to respond positively for individual reasons, support is often only available as a second thought after punishment have been applied.

Strategies which interrupt the use of punishment and offer early help to children in need are in place in some schools, but there is no strategic plan for introducing such alternative practice, in contrast to the wide promotion of punishment in schools. 

What can be done to support all children in school?

The first step is to take a glance at school practices over the last century. This will tell us what’s working and what needs to change.

The second step is to see what’s already working to better include all children in a safe, healthy school environment and what might be promoted. 

Step one

Over the last hundred years the theory and practice of behaviour management in schools has been dominated by the idea that behaviour is best shaped by ‘consequences’, rewards and punishments.

At the turn of the 20th century psychologists, wanting to be recognised as experimental  scientists, adopted the objective scientific method, carrying out laboratory experiments. However processes like learning take place out of sight within the brain, beyond measurement. What could be measured was outward behaviour so psychologists focused on exhibited behaviour, ignoring the internal workings. Igor Pavlov (1849 -1936) described Classical Conditioning, linking a reflex response with a novel stimulus. He observed his pet dogs salivating in response to food and then to the sound of a bell. He was followed by J B Watson(1878-1958) who named the field Behaviourism, and denying the existence of the mind. B F Skinner (1904-1990) introduced Operant Conditioning, a learning theory claiming that all behaviour is shaped by its consequences; reinforced by reward it will occur more often, punished it will fade away. In the 1930s Skinner stated that Behaviourism should not be applied to children in school because they are not directly comparable to lab rats.

In the UK physical punishment for errant behaviour remained legal in state schools until 1986, until 1969 in private schools and until 2003 in Northern Ireland.

Regardless of Skinner’s warning, Behaviourism was becoming established in schools, with punishment as the consequence for unwanted behaviour. In 1976 Lee and Marlene Canter published “Assertive Discipline: A Take-Charge Approach for Today’s Educator” This was taken up by schools across the USA schools and spread to the UK. Teacher controlled classrooms with specific behaviour rules reinforced by punishment, all children required to comply, with no allowances for individual needs. In 2010 Doug Lemov, published his “Teach like a Champion” model. Like Canter it was heavily criticised for creating passive, robotic students and deskilled teachers using numbered, oversimplified teaching techniques. 

Adopting Lemov, in 2020 Tom Bennett, UK Department for Education (DfE) 'behaviour tsar’ published “Running the room” as the guide to school behaviour management. The title refers to Bennett’s experience managing a Soho night club. In 2021 the DfE financed Bennett’s £10 million Behaviour Hubs program, aimed at spreading the message of rigid consistency and the application of ‘consequences’ for errors. 

What can we do for children and young people who don’t flourish within this framework? 

Step 2 

A case study:

In common with other schools, a Salford secondary school had a significant number of anxious children missing school, opting out of class time and underachieving. The school is building a strength-based practice as early help for these children. A new staff member was trained over the summer term.

Mid-teens student C was attending irregularly, frequently missing classes, anxious in school with additional difficulties at home. Specialist mental health services had been contacted but had not engaged. The SF Coach started work with C at the start of the Autumn term as their first client.

An opening question; “Suppose something changed a little bit for you, for things to go better in school…. What’s your best hope?”

From there the journey ahead was framed as C’s own best hope for their better future, engaging their own strengths and sense of agency. Things began to change with C making steady progress. By the end of term C was in school and class regularly, confidence building and home relationships improved.

Schools need guidelines for the community to operate safely and successfully, but relying principally on Behaviourist ‘consequences’ is questionable. Carl Rogers 20th century humanist approach, Martin Seligman’s Positive Psychology** and 21st century neuroscientific understanding of trauma and emotions provided an alternative path which engages the learner as an active agent. It’s person-centred Inquiry pedagogy, complementing knowledge-based Directive pedagogy. Strengthening C’s emotional and mental wellbeing enabled them to cope with external demands.

The Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition report “Behaviour and mental health in schools” by Charlotte Rainer and others* supports this. None of the school punishments improved children’s emotional and mental wellbeing. The mildest forms, a spoken reprimand or a phone call home, are relatively harmless. Whole class punishment, isolation and exclusion are positively harmful. Focusing on strengths and resources rather than deficits makes the difference.

To flourish, children must experience autonomy, meaning and purpose in their learning. Strength-based practices such as Solution Focused Coaching and others deliver these in strengthening emotional and mental wellbeing. Early intervention is essential to sustained recovery and good health and strength based practices in schools can offer this, with specialist services managing high level needs. Schools have a combined workforce of over one million, potentially offering strength-based school pastoral staff providing early intervention, supporting children at the earliest point where it’s most effective, relieving the pressure on specialist services. 

This is an independent article. The content and views reflected within it were provided and written by Dr. Geoffrey D James. If you wish to know more about solution focused coaching please contact Dr. Geoffrey D James [email protected]