Effective learning environments for EAL pupils

Written by: Caroline Bruce | Published:
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What are the tenets of a good and safe learning environment for learners who use English as an additional language? Drawing upon the Teachers’ Standards and latest research evidence, Caroline Bruce offers some pointers for primary schools

There is no escaping it, standard 7 of the Teachers’ Standards – manage behaviour – is pivotal for both staff and students. The standards (DfE, 2011) and the Early Career Framework (DfE, 2019) identify behaviour management as a core area for teachers’ development. It is encompassed within both High Expectations and Managing Behaviour (standards 1 and 7).

Despite this prominence, behaviour management remains a source of stress for many teachers, and in particular for those new to the profession. Ofsted reports that “managing poor behaviour in the classroom is one of the main causes of low morale” (Ofsted, 2019). Burge et al (2021) identified behaviour as having the greatest impact of any single attribute on teacher retention.

Important too is the impact on students. Guidance published by the Department for Education (DfE, 2022), opens with the acknowledgement that with “calm, orderly, safe and supportive environments”, learners are better placed to achieve their potential.

Time is spent learning, not wasted while teachers deal with low-level disruption, or worse. The same guidance lists the impact on children of poor behaviour: “Lost learning time, child-on-child abuse, anxiety, bullying, violence, and distress. It can cause some children to stay away from school, missing vital learning time.”

With the clear link between behaviour and learning, interrogating standard 7 with an English as an additional language (EAL) lens is a useful activity, particularly thinking of the needs of newly arrived refugee and asylum-seeking learners.

This will lead to exploring why a “no excuses” policy with its zero-tolerance approach to all learners might be inappropriate for those adjusting to the expectations of not only a new school and new peers, but also a new country, its language and its social mores.

This article suggests ways that schools might promote positive behaviours for learners who use EAL, with a focus on preventative actions rather than reactive punishments.

It follows the structure of the six recommendations made by the 2019 Education Endowment Foundation report Improving behaviour in school (EEF, 2019).

1, Know/understand pupils and their influences

Getting the start right: Examine the school’s induction process to ensure that it meets the distinct needs of learners who might be new to the country and new to English, particularly mid-term arrivals. This could include an expectation to find out about the culture(s) and education system(s) most familiar to the new learner, to anticipate aspects of school life which might be more challenging and facilitate a proactive approach to supporting them to navigate so many new experiences.

Investing time in families: Ensure that the appropriate staff can spend some time with new families to welcome them into your school community. Where families feel valued and have positive relationships with staff, they will be more likely to be engaged in school life, including in supporting the school in implementing the behaviour policy.

Making necessary adjustments: The DfE (2022) advises: “Every pupil should be supported to achieve the behaviour standards, including an induction process that familiarises them with the school behaviour culture.” Where learners and their families are in the early stages of English language acquisition, schools will need to adapt the induction process to take into account their proficiency in English.

Providing translated copies of the behaviour policy and using an interpreter, wherever possible and appropriate, will facilitate a more nuanced discussion around the school’s expectations. It is also worth considering the need to address any cultural differences in approaches to behaviour management in school as these could lead to further confusion. A professional interpreter who is familiar with the cultural expectations and beliefs will be able to support with cultural mediation where appropriate.

Gathering and sharing information: The induction process should include systems to gather the most useful information about new learners. This might include languages spoken and literacy levels, and the learner’s previous experience of education. Since this information will affect lesson planning and the support provided for the learner, it should be shared with relevant staff. The Bell Foundation’s guidance and pro forma for writing a learner profile (2022) provides suggestions on how to gather and use this information.

Exercising discretion: A learner’s behaviour in the classroom is likely to be influenced by their cultural upbringing and their previous experience of education. For example, where learners arrive from teacher-centred education systems which prioritise reading and writing activities over speaking, the learner may find it difficult to engage in collaborative oracy activities.

The new learning behaviours would need to be taught in a safe environment where learners feel valued and understood. Where learners exhibit behaviours that do not align with the school’s expectations, this could be a genuine misunderstanding, cultural nuance, or something more specific.

In considering children who have witnessed serious violence or experienced trauma, Catherine Gladwell from Refugee Education UK notes that these traumatic experiences can manifest in the classroom as fight or flight responses and extreme behaviour (such as anger, hitting and pushing), and complaints of physical pains, triggered by seemingly relatively insignificant stressors. Flight responses may include distance, withdrawal and disconnection – for example learners unwilling to interact with others.

Another frequent visible reaction is reduced concentration and focus in the classroom, with pupils being easily startled or distracted. Where behaviours do not align with the school’s expectations, considering what the behaviour is communicating – for example frustration – might point towards how to support the learner appropriately.

Recognising individuals: Although a learner’s culture and background are often at the core of their identity, it is important to also look beyond their identity as a migrant to see the learner as an individual. The BBC’s How to be a better ally to your students collection of videos (see further information), provides useful examples of the importance of seeing beyond cultural stereotypes and challenging our own biases. Cultural expectations and previous experience of education may result in some south Asian learners presenting as reserved in school, for example, but this is not necessarily the whole picture.

2, Teaching learning behaviours alongside managing misbehaviour

Encouraging resilience and useful learning strategies: Some learners who are new to English may feel frustrated at being unable to access learning as readily as they may have done previously. This may manifest in low-level disruption.

Recognise the size of the task facing the learner; they are learning English and learning through English. The cognitive demand is significant. Support learners in developing resilience together with effective learning strategies.

Since a learner’s greatest asset is likely to be the languages they can already use, teachers could plan opportunities for a learner to make good use of them, for example by asking them to discuss in their home language(s) what they already know about a new topic.

Ensuring learners can access the curriculum: Ensure that staff have the time and expertise to allow them to pitch the work appropriately for the learner’s age group and provide the correct level of support so that the language is accessible. Learners are more likely to be motivated and focused if they are completing the same work as their peers rather than work intended for much younger learners. The Bell Foundation’s Great Ideas webpages have suggestions for how to adapt teaching to support learners who use EAL in order to keep the academic challenge high but provide support with the language.

Using peers or buddies as positive models: Buddies not only provide practical language, social and emotional support so that new arrivals “feel safe, settled and valued from the start”, they can also model the school’s expectations, particularly where there are specific classroom routines. Where the buddies speak the same language, they can explain aspects of classroom expectations where appropriate. Hampshire’s Young Interpreter Scheme is a good example of a peer-to-peer support scheme (see further information).

Challenging racism and bullying: Ensure that effective actions to address discrimination are adequately picked up in school policies. This should include listening to and supporting the victim as well as dealing with the behaviour of the perpetrators and finding opportunities to challenge underlying prejudices.
Some groups experience particularly high levels of bullying, for example 86% of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children state that “bullying was the biggest challenge facing them at school” (Choudry, 2021). Unfortunately, the same research also found that racist incidents often remained unchallenged in the school. Allowing poor behaviour to go unchecked, sends a signal that this is acceptable: “We permit what we promote and we promote what we permit.” (Strickland, 2020)

3, Use classroom management strategies to support good classroom behaviour

Adding an ‘EAL’ twist to existing strategies: The EAL coordinator might be able to support teachers in looking at aspects of their regular routine and considering how they can be adapted to support learners who use EAL. For example:

  • Learners might respond to the register in their own languages and potentially teach their peers simple greetings, thus creating a positive relationship and acknowledging the importance of the languages they use.
  • Ensure that seating plans are suitable, particularly for learners at the earlier stages of language acquisition. Learners should be at the front of the classroom, close to the teacher and the board, where they can see and hear clearly.
  • Wherever possible, sit learners with appropriate partners. One suggestion might be using groups of three: one partner who speaks the same home language and is more proficient in English, and a second partner who will be another confident model of English. Both partners should be empathetic and be positive role models in terms of classroom expectations.

4, Use simple approaches as part of your routine

Creating a safe space: The whole school ethos should foster a supportive and inclusive learning environment where each learner’s voice is valued, and where learners are comfortable trying out their new language. Similarly, ensure that minority ethnic groups are represented in the curriculum, for example in class reading books, and that opportunities to learn about and from other cultures are woven into curriculum planning to prevent new arrivals being “othered”.

Promoting opportunities to present learners as experts: Learners who are newly arrived may feel frustrated at not being able to show their ability and understanding and may feel alienated from peers. Similarly, their peers might only see a new arrival as someone needing support. Create school-wide opportunities to present multilingualism as an asset and to share the expertise that new learners may bring with them.

5, Tailor targeted approaches to meet the needs of individuals in your school

Building and maintaining positive relationships with families: Support staff in building on positive relationships established during the induction meeting. Encourage families to attend events such as parents’ evenings, information and social occasions. Where families are persistently absent from key events, find out why and seek out ways to reverse the trend. Manzoni and Rolfe (2019) acknowledge in their research that some schools found it difficult to involve parents in school life, and that proficiency in English was “seen as a factor discouraging migrant parents to engage”.

Schools that found ways to present school as “safe”, for example by inviting families to activities that involved little or no speaking (class assemblies or awards ceremonies), reported that subsequently, attendance at parents’ evenings and information sessions increased.

Some families may not have had positive experiences of education themselves and may not feel that they have a place in the school community. Some schools employ a member of staff who speaks the same language(s) as larger cohorts who can help develop positive relationships and increase engagement. Manzoni and Rolfe’s report provides a wealth of ideas on how schools can develop positive relationships with children and their families.

Overcoming language obstacles: Ensure that difficulties in communicating do not prevent teachers from including families wherever possible. This should include communicating the positives as well as highlighting when there are concerns. Make use of multilingual members of staff or interpreters – or where appropriate the learners themselves, taking care not to use learners when the discussion is in any way sensitive. Letters on recurrent topics such as school trips and absences must be accessible, either translated or in clear English.

Accessing relevant support from external agencies: As with all learners, there will be times when specialist support will be needed. The EEF’s behaviour guidance (2021) considers the impact of adverse childhood experiences on the rest of a person’s life. Trauma associated with enforced migration should be treated as an adverse childhood experience, with a clear need for specialist intervention.

Hamilton and Moore (2004, cited in Choudry, 2021) draw attention to the fact that refugee-seeking families deal with major and abrupt changes, over which they have little agency, before, during and after leaving their home countries, and in each of those phases deal with stressful events which prevent the normal development of a child.

According to the Refugee Council, refugees are five times more likely to have mental health needs than the UK population. Children dealing with trauma associated with enforced migration will almost certainly need specialist support. Refugee Education UK is one organisation supporting schools with trauma support (see further information).

6, Whole school: Consistency is key

“No excuses” policies with a one-size-fits-all approach to behaviour hold no place for children who are dealing with so many new experiences and potentially dealing with trauma too.

Schools are a safe and wonderful place for children to adjust to a new life. Positive relationships with staff and other learners, together with consistent and fair expectations that are explained and taught where necessary will support learners in developing positive behaviour patterns.

Applying an EAL lens to standard 7 will provide teachers with an insight into some of the nuances of working with this large group of learners (almost 20% of the learners in England). And recognising the individual learners within that group will help develop positive relationships that will have a big impact on a learner’s behaviour and ultimately their success in school.

  • Caroline Bruce is training manager at The Bell Foundation, a charity working to overcome exclusion through language education. For details, visit www.bell-foundation.org.uk

Further information & resources

  • BBC Teach: How to be a better ally to your students: https://bit.ly/3VmOGyD
  • Bell Foundation: Creating a learner profile for plurilingual learners who use English as an additional language, September 2022: https://bit.ly/3ioIx6h
  • Bell Foundation: Great Ideas: https://bit.ly/3vbVD7J
  • Burge, Lu & Phillips: Understanding teacher retention: Using a discrete choice experiment to measure teacher retention in England, RAND, 2021: https://bit.ly/3uhg6tS
  • Choudry: Equitable education, Critical Publishing, 2021.
  • DfE: Teachers’ Standards, July 2011: https://bit.ly/3egw6Dv
  • DfE: Early Career Framework, January 2019: https://bit.ly/3vqkRQc
  • DfE: Behaviour in schools: Advice for headteachers and school staff, September 2022: https://bit.ly/3QdkfHG
  • EEF: Improving behaviour in schools: Six recommendations for improving behaviour in schools (report and poster), 2021: https://bit.ly/3H7brCp
  • Hampshire Services: Young Interpreter Scheme: https://bit.ly/2WER0EX
  • Manzoni & Rolfe: How schools are integrating new migrant pupils and their families, National Institute of Economic and Social Research, March 2019: https://bit.ly/3UmCQmD
  • Ofsted: Teacher wellbeing at work in schools and further education providers, July 2019: https://bit.ly/3xQOafJ
  • Refugee Education UK: www.reuk.org
  • Strickland: Education Exposed: Leading a school in a time of uncertainty, John Catt Educational, 2020.

Further reading

  • The Bell Foundation has hosted webinars from experts on education in Ukraine and Afghanistan. You can find the recordings viahttps://bit.ly/3UmyGLp
  • Headteacher Update: Welcoming and supporting Ukrainian refugees in your school, October 2022: https://bit.ly/3Vo0qAV
  • Richardson: Welcoming refugee children: Advice and guidance for schools, The Bell Foundation, March 2022: https://bit.ly/3Vo0sIX

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