Case study: A non-confrontational approach to behaviour

Written by: Emma Lee-Potter | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The outstanding Gilbrook School caters for pupils with social, emotional and mental health difficulties. Among its many strategies is a non-confrontational approach to behaviour management with minimal sanctions.
Emma Lee-Potter paid a visit to find out more

No two days are ever the same at Gilbrook School. When pupils are not in lessons they might be in the garden planting saplings or looking after the school’s three chickens, Tikka, Madras and Korma. They might be trekking up Moel Famau mountain in North Wales or taking part in team-building exercises with the RAF.

Gilbrook School is a special primary school in the heart of the Wirral, five miles from Liverpool. The 55-place school is over-subscribed and currently has 60 girls and boys aged five to 11 on its roll, all of whom have social, emotional and mental health difficulties. The children have a wide range of complex needs – including autism, foetal alcohol syndrome, ADHD and moderate learning difficulties – but thanks to Gilbrook’s nurturing and therapeutic approach many of them are enjoying school for the first time in their young lives.

Ofsted has judged Gilbrook to be outstanding, saying that the school makes “an enormously positive difference to the lives of its pupils”. Many of the children come from disadvantaged backgrounds and until they started at Gilbrook, usually in year 4 and 5, some had never been to the beach, visited the countryside or climbed a mountain.

Gilbrook has also been praised for its non-confrontational approach to managing pupils’ behaviour.

The school is linked to Kilgarth School in nearby Birkenhead, a secondary school for boys aged 11 to 16 who experience social, emotional and mental health difficulties. In 2015 Kilgarth made the bold decision to abolish punishment completely, deciding that sanctioning pupils was not helping them to modify challenging behaviour or tackle its root cause.

Kirsten Brown, a former deputy head at Kilgarth, became head of school at Gilbrook nearly two years ago. She brought Kilgarth’s non-confrontational approach with her but decided that younger pupils needed more of a structure and that some sanctions should be kept.

“Our pupils are at the start of their educational journey and don’t have the same emotional literacy so we felt we still had to have some sanctions in place here,” said Ms Brown. “The important thing was that the sanctions should be very small and very specific and relate to what the pupil has done.”

When Ms Brown and SENCO Sarah Long first arrived at Gilbrook a child who experienced a volatile patch on a Monday would sometimes have to wait till the end of the week to reflect on their behaviour with a teacher.

“That was one of the first things that went,” said Ms Brown. “By the time they got to Friday they couldn’t remember what had happened. They were asking things like: ‘I did that on a Monday lunchtime, so why am I missing my options period on a Friday?’

“Now they come and talk it through with a teacher at playtime the same day. We work on getting them to recognise how they could have coped with something better and then we try to move on as quickly as possible with them.

“It’s about giving them options and choices to look at things in a different way – and it really works. Even the little ones can be quite reflective. If it’s done when they are nice and calm you can simplify it down to their level. We ask: ‘What do you think you should have done differently?’ We keep the questions very simple and uncomplicated. We have got a lot of autistic pupils so it’s important not to be too literal either.”

Ms Brown works closely with Steven Baker, who is executive headteacher of Kilgarth and Gilbrook. Mr Baker, who oversaw the abolition of sanctions at Kilgarth, worked as a forensic anthropologist at the start of his career. The United Nations asked him to work with them in Bosnia and he spent two months exhuming war graves and examining human remains for the International Criminal Court investigation into the massacre at Srebrenica.

He is now a member of Remembering Srebrenica’s North West regional board, helping to develop social cohesion and raise awareness of the Srebrenica genocide. The experience brought him face-to-face with the very worst of humanity and when he returned to the UK he decided to train as a teacher, determined to work with disadvantaged children and make a difference.

“We wanted to focus on a non-confrontational approach,” said Mr Baker. “In terms of behaviour, if you shout at a child you can get a child to stop behaving in that way but for me it doesn’t sit comfortably. It’s not right. You’ve got to educate them to make better choices, so it’s more of a humanistic approach.

“It’s been great at Kilgarth and really supportive for the boys and while we still have sanctions at Gilbrook we have adopted a non-confrontational approach there too and have focused on developing social skills and relationships, helping the children to model good behaviour and ensuring they are engaged with their learning.”

At Gilbrook, Ms Brown and her team of seven teachers and 20 teaching assistants have focused on getting to know the children and their parents very well. They screen the children very promptly when they start, look at their learning profiles and styles of learning and consult parents and staff.

“We say to the parents: ‘You are the expert on your child,’” explained Ms Brown. “We build a strong relationship with the parents very quickly and have an open door policy. We’ll always see them and talk to them and we do home visits to support them in the home too.”

The Gilbrook pupils are taught in classes of between eight and 12. The school runs a creative curriculum, with children encouraged to be as hands-on as possible. In recent months the school has organised a Viking village display, a longboat, a Tardis, an Anderson shelter and a Christmas grotto. As well as the chickens, there are turtles, frogs, fish and guinea pigs – and there are plans afoot to bring in a pig. Every child has a gardening lesson once a fortnight and at lunchtime the pupils can play football, go to a chill-out room or even play bingo.

Gilbrook also runs an outreach service, supporting youngsters in mainstream schools with social, emotional and mental health needs. Ms Brown helps to train teachers at mainstream schools and often invites them to visit Gilbrook.

Ms Brown attributes the school’s success to the staff. “They are very creative, patient and non-confrontational, but really excellent teachers,” she said. “They work together, get on with each other and gel together. At the end of the day, even if it’s been a really tough day, they are still able to have a meeting and reflect back on it properly.”

The school has introduced coaching, devoting an entire staff meeting to it every four or five weeks. “It’s a support structure,” said Ms Brown. “You can go to someone with a problem and they will coach you to come up with a solution to that problem. They won’t give you the solution but they will ask you questions and work with you to get to the point where you need to be.

“If particular behaviour management techniques aren’t working with a child, coaching will help you come up with a range of different strategies, such as the best way to talk to them, key phrases to use or the idea of restructuring the school day for them.”

Other training includes working on strategies to introduce a mindset culture into the school, 45-minute “snapshot” talks at staff meetings on subjects like foetal alcohol syndrome or attachment, and sharing ideas about what works for individual children.

Gilbrook and Kilgarth are also doing some training with the local Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), looking at self-harming behaviours. “We are seeing a rise in self-harming, even in year 4,” said Ms Brown. “We have children who will frequently say that when they are in crisis they want to harm themselves – so we have asked CAMHS to do some bespoke training for us around some specific issues that we have seen.”

The school has a strong research culture. A teaching assistant wrote a report about the role of open spaces in mediating mental health problems for a House of Commons select committee, while a psychology student is looking at how breathing techniques can calm children down.

The team puts a huge amount of time and effort into helping the children move on to their next school. A third move to Kilgarth, a third to The Observatory School and a third to Clare Mount Specialist Sports College, with one or two heading to mainstream schools each year.

Each day at Gilbrook is “exceedingly challenging” but rewarding too, especially as the children clearly thrive at the school. “They love it here,” said Ms Brown. “When we do pupil voice with them they say that we listen to them and they feel understood. They like their teachers, they like the work we do and they think that we keep them safe.

“The key thing for us is that they do very well academically because their social and emotional wellbeing is looked after. We want happy children who engage with us and like coming to school – and the academic follows on from that.”

One of her favourite parts of the week is Friday afternoon when she gives stickers to children who have had an “okay” week. “I say okay because if they’ve done something wrong or had a tough time it’s about telling them they’ve got past it. I was late going round one week and two of the toughest kids came down and said: ‘Where are you? It’s sticker time.’ I hadn’t placed that much importance on it till that point, but now I won’t do anything else on Friday afternoon between one and two because I need to go round school and give out the stickers.”

Guidance on managing behaviour from the Gilbrook team:

  • If children are presenting with real difficulties make sure you have looked at every aspect of what is going on in their life – from their learning to their family history. “Behaviour is not a special need,” said Kirsten Brown. “Behaviour is a result of needs not being met.”
  • The outdoor curriculum is key. “We have just sent two staff on a hill leadership course so they can take the children on outdoor activities,” said Ms Brown. “We are really into the outdoor curriculum and how it can help with the mental health problems of young people. Gardening has made a massive difference to our pupils. We see them out there carrying their spades around and working in the garden and they just love it. It calms them down and makes them more resilient.”
  • Make it clear to children that you might not like a particular behaviour but you like the child. “Some of the children think they are not very likeable,” said Ms Brown. “I once found a key message that I use a lot in the training I do. I don’t know whose quote it was, but it says: ‘Remember the young person can often be acting from a place of fear and a true belief of worthlessness and being unlovable. Each time they are successful in driving people away their personal view of themselves is only further entrenched.’”

  • Emma Lee-Potter is a freelance education writer and journalist.

Further information

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