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Low level disruption – it’s a relational thing

We need a more sophisticated understanding of behaviour than that seen in OFSTED’s latest behaviour report, ‘Low-level disruption – Under the radar’

Published by Steve Russell on

The latest pronouncement from OFSTED in relation to behaviour has whipped up, not surprisingly, something of a frenzy in schools. Headline statements such as, ‘low level disruptive behaviour in classrooms across the country is damaging (children’s) life chances’ and ’38 days of teaching lost per year’ have certainly focused the minds of staff in the schools I’ve been working with over the past weeks.

Whilst the report gives staff the impetus to debate something which is clearly an important aspect of many teachers’ professional practice, I’m disheartened to read such a simplistic approach to behaviour. In particular, I fear the report risks perpetuating a still commonly-held myth – namely that behaviour is something that is to be ‘sorted out’ through a few rather unsophisticated approaches, such as ensuring a ‘strong senior leadership presence’ and ‘consistency of approach by all staff’. Yes, these are important elements within schools, but taken in and of themselves, discount the complex nature of classroom behaviour.

All human behaviour occurs in context. Behaviours that disrupt learning occur within the complex ecosystem that is the classroom, containing as it does a myriad of interconnections – teacher to pupil, pupil to teacher and pupil to pupil. We then need to add to this a further relational dimension – that of each pupil’s relationship with the subject/curriculum and means by which it is assessed. Some pupils approach Mathematics with enthusiasm and confidence, others with a sense of dread and fear of failure. The presence of a senior leader in the classroom and corridors, or my determination as a teacher to be ‘consistent’ in my application of the school policy will do little if anything to help the latter group choose to behave in line with expectations, other than through inducing fear of stepping out of line. And fear has no place in learning.

Let us take one of the most common examples of low level disruption – the calling out which is often termed ‘attention-seeking’. If we reframe attention-seeking as attention-needing behaviour we are invited to shift our perspective to one that takes account of the fact a core human need we all have is to be in relationship (we can’t be human all by ourselves) – and yes, for some pupils this need is particularly prominent. But it will not be met by a rigorous reinforcement of expectations. It will be met through connection, between the teacher/teaching assistant and the pupil, connection which reassures the youngster that the adult is aware of them and will do their best to meet their needs.

Similarly with task avoidance behaviour, once again, the most helpful approach is to see it as a means of communication – and therefore my job as the teacher is to try and decode this. From what I know of the pupil, based on my relationship with him/her, why might they feel the need to avoid doing the task – fear of failure?; lack of belief in their ability? How will knowing that senior leaders are dropping in and out of lessons to ensure high standards of behaviour help here?

By all means, let’s keep talking about classroom behaviour – but my plea would be that we do so in ways that a) take full account of the complex nature of such behaviour and b) that focuses more strongly upon the fantastic relational skills that so many teachers possess, with an encouragement for them to look to these as their tools rather than simplistic ‘behaviour management’ techniques. And finally, let us resist the pull (and in terms of OFSTED’s report, push) to blame specific parties when behaviour isn’t how we want it to be – whether it’s blaming the pupils and seeing them as “perpetrators”, teachers who might be struggling with specific pupils or classes or senior leaders. Learning is a collaborative activity and as such there is no place for blame and scapegoating. Instead let us create staffrooms and classrooms where we are supporting all with the necessary interpersonal skills and self-awareness that leads to thriving learning communities.