In a world that is increasingly better connected and where information can travel across the globe in the blink of an eye, the connections we form in school in passing can seem almost insignificant. However the basis on which we form connections with our young people is incredibly important in understanding their needs.
I am a firm believer in the “all behaviour is communication” mantra of the nurture group network (amongst many others). I also believe that the students we work with form attachments with us to get their needs met. I believe that you can offer these attachments to a student willingly or they can be taken via challenging and damaging behaviour. The end result will be the same – the child will be heard eventually but with a degree of shame and regret attached. Whilst tactical ignorance of behaviour is a useful tool to have, to completely ignore the function behind the behaviour is setting yourself on a path to repeated, sanction immune challenging behaviour. This is both stressful (and, again for the YP, shame inducing) to the young person and the teacher.
To explore the child’s needs can take time and the will to empathise and listen non-judgementally is required. This exploration can only be done within a supportive relationship. Whether we like it or not, we have a relationship with all our students, supportive or otherwise. This begs the question – what is the foundation of the connection? What are the conditions of this connection? How was this connection formed and how is it maintained?
In certain types of connections the relationship is formed to solve a “problem”. The problem may be the child’s behaviour or possibly a school defined goal.
Setting goals for (not with) students in itself can present problems as they may not share the same commitment to achieving it as the staff member. Other types of connections are reinforced by bad behaviour e.g. if you get a bad report you will have to come and see me/talk to me after school (attachment/discussion time). Sometimes connections can be formed that can prove dangerous if, for example, the connection is formed on the basis of a discussion of a child’s self harm and the staff member’s desire for the child to stop. The child may need to continue or escalate the self harm to get the same time and emotional response (to be cared for) from the adult. This can prove extremely harmful. [Note in this case the best advice is to remove the device used to cause self harm, provide appropriate medical attention, follow school/organisation safeguarding policy around self harm and discuss thoughts/feelings that young person had around the self harm (but not the self harm itself), e.g. what are you worrying about? What are you feeling?]
In order to avoid these types of connections, we need to be willing to offer our time in structured slots without condition. The attachment time should not be available on the condition that behaviour targets have been met- it should be truly unconditional. The child needs to know that if they need support with classwork, emotional issues, home life or any other issue that they can access this with their trusted adult without having to engage the adult in noticing them through bad behaviour. Some children will only know disruption and the subsequent detention time with the adult as a communication method to get their needs met. When a child knows an adult values them enough to give them time to be heard, their self-esteem will inevitably improve. When a child doesn’t have to go through the shame of being disciplined before they can heard, their self-esteem will inevitably improve further.
It is our responsibility to take a positive behaviour approach to our classrooms and our connections. If you have connections with students that were created by the need to challenge, punish and reinforce, consider how you can change that to understanding, pre-empting and regulating. By this I mean knowing your students situation and the functions of their behaviour, planning for good behaviour by ensuring that the functions can be met without poor behaviour and providing time unconditionally to let the students communicate their needs. You may have not had a say in how the connection was formed, but you can change the purpose, how it is maintained and the goals of it.
Is this relevant to me?
Some teachers with an academic focus may not believe it is within their role to maintain these connections but, as stated previously, these connections are formed regardless of whether the intention is there to do so. Imagine a student who regularly misbehaves – there will be a cycle of poor behaviour and punishment, usually detention time. Now consider asking your student to come and see you once a week at a set time with the intention of discussing your subject and how you can help them, ensuring they know this is not a punishment. It is clear this is time consuming but where time is already being spent reinforcing behaviour approaches, this can be time neutral. This time will have effect of building the child’s confidence in being able to tell you how they are getting on and if they need help but to also humanise you as a teacher, building a relationship that will make them want to work hard for you. It also serves as a point of reflection for the child to consider why they are acting in a certain way, if the function is not immediately clear.
For most students we work with, the connections we form will be instantly positive. These students will largely have their needs met through many other relationships and positive experiences. They will know what to do when things don’t feel right and have a range of ways of navigating challenging circumstances. However for the small percentage that do need a supportive relationship, your time and attunement is incredibly valuable to help them to achieve shared goals. Through modelling and understanding you can subtly teach them the skills to get what they need in life without having to use behaviours of concern. Remember – we invest a lot of time into reactive behaviour strategies, consider how you might invest pre-emptively to avoid challenging behaviour later on (and maybe saving some time along the way!).