The vital links between staff wellbeing and pupil behaviour

Written by: Adele Bates | Published:
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Managing challenging behaviour on a daily basis can take its toll on staff wellbeing. Adele Bates looks at why and how we must prioritise our own wellbeing if we are to best support our most vulnerable students


Pupil: Miss you’re being more snappy today, what’s up?
Me: I’m fine, get on with your work.
Pupil: You’re not usually this grumpy, have you had lunch?

Me: No, had a club.
Pupil: Eat your lunch Miss.

Me: We’re not supposed to eat in front of you – rules.

Pupil: Please eat Miss.

This conversation was between a “low ability” pupil known for their behaviour and myself – it returns to my memory often.

The self-care we practise and the structures in place that support staff wellbeing in schools directly affect pupils’ behaviour. Let’s use the above scenario as an example. We’ll call the pupil Mo, he is in my English lesson.

When I am hungry and snappier, I am less likely to remember that unless Mo has a sensory break halfway through our double period he will be unable to concentrate. As he has ADHD, the timetabled sensory break involves him doing a quick pre-arranged errand for me to the library and back, through the school field.

The break gives him a chance to self-regulate and refocus on learning. If he does not get this, he will seek that regulation in other ways, albeit not consciously, that are not agreed – such as having a wander around the class to talk to his mates or destroying my interactive board clicker as he gets fidgety and nervous.

For these actions he will have consequences. I will get frustrated that he is not learning as I know he can. Having already seen he is not on task, in my snappy mood, I will be more likely (thanks to the unconscious negative bias of my brain) to be looking for further examples of when he is not on task and will respond immediately to any further misdemeanours.

As I am getting increasingly frustrated with him, my body language and choice and tone of words will change, I may come across as more aggressive than usual. This quickly triggers Mo’s defence response (and if he is a teenager, his teenage brain that is underdeveloped in the pre-frontal cortex will perceive me as a threat), he swears at me, talks back or walks out.

In essence, the situation escalates into a negative behaviour pattern and little academic progress has been made. Later I must spend time rebuilding the relationship with Mo, most likely in my break when I could have grabbed a snack. If I skip this section of restoration, then next lesson he is likely to remember the negative scenario and horrible feelings he had when he was last with me, and the cycle repeats.

In real life, I broke the school rules, listened to Mo’s request and ate my lunch while the class did the starter. We had a lovely lesson and I at least had learnt a lot.


But how can we justify it? Surely the pupils must come first?

Educators, in my experience, are a heart-centred group of people who tend not to put themselves first. The profession attracts us.

However, this is dangerous; systems, managers, academy trusts, local authorities, media and governments can take advantage of our kind nature – and ultimately it is at the expense of the children’s education. Mine and Mo’s scenario plays out everywhere.

We have a responsibility to be the best educators we can be and when we work with pupils whose behaviour challenges us, this is even more important. We have a responsibility to support these vulnerable young people as best we can, especially when the only way they can express themselves is through disruption, aggression and violence – it is tougher on the staff than when they put their hand up nicely and ask for help.

As I write in my forthcoming book, Miss, I don’t give a sh*t (Bates, 2021): “These pupils need the most capable educators supporting them. You have a responsibility to look after yourself, and I know that as teachers we’re generally pretty rubbish at this, but that’s no longer good enough. While I advocate for an improved wellbeing focus in the education system’s infrastructure, I also believe we have more power than we realise as educators on the ground.”

So how do we do it – how do we go about looking after ourselves in order to support our pupils?


Boundaries – with yourself

Understanding how to hold boundaries for pupils is often a large focus when it comes to behaviour management. Understanding how to hold boundaries for ourselves is similar, but it can much be harder.

Great that you ensured that the whole of 9F4 had their shirts tucked in at the end of your lesson as per the uniform policy – how much easier would it have been if you had not stayed up until 3am marking their mocks?

There are many experts who support us with self-care. I signpost to some at the end. But for now, the key aspect is to examine what is actually going on and what you desire. Some questions to contemplate include:

  • How many times did you eat lunch this week?
  • How close was it to the type of diet that is good for your body type?
  • How many hours sleep do you get on average? Is it enough for you?
  • Do you get enough time to spend with your family and friends?
  • Do you often feel run down or get sick?
  • If menstruating, do you often have pains or other issues?
  • Do you find yourself thinking of work when you are trying to get to sleep/when you wake in the night?
  • Do you feel isolated with your work?

Look at your answers – even better, have a chat with a friend to reflect back for you. This only works if you are honest with yourself. If you “just keep going” or, like me, are an eternal optimist, then you will come to a halt at some point, and become part of the huge numbers of teaching staff who have reached burn-out. We are not robot teachers (yet). We are human teachers with physical, emotional, communal and spiritual (whether that is playing with your dog or praying in the synagogue) needs.

We do not need to be faultless with our pupils – what does that teach them?

In my experience, the moments where I appropriately share some human need or vulnerability – yes, even with a pupil who has been excluded six times for behaviour – is the moment my pupils step up. I want to role model that looking after ourselves is important and is an art, not teach a PSHE lesson on it while shaking with anxiety about my work pressures.


Support

You may find the answers are a little or a lot away from your desired lifestyle. Yes, you can sustain this for short periods of time, in pressure points, but remember – there is only one of you. We only get one chance.

Decide small things you would like to adjust first. This is not about a whole new-year’s-resolution-impossible-to-keep goal. It is about what can you do that is so small it is completely achievable, next lesson, next week, long term?

The next step is support. Ask. For. Help. It is something we regularly tell our pupils. It applies to us too.

For those of us working with pupils with social, emotional or mental health needs (SEMH) or who have been excluded from other schools, it is usually for a reason – lots of staff can’t “manage” them.

The therapists who work with such children have supervision scheduled in as a part of their compulsory practice as a professional. A teaching assistant may be working with the same children every day – and not get that support. This is where school-wide approaches to support systems for those working with challenging behaviour need to be considered. See further reading below.


Know your own triggers (and the pupils’)

A trigger is something that sets off a flashback transporting the person back to an event – this could be positive, or it could take a person back to a time of trauma.

In schools, I am pleased to say that we are increasingly discussing trauma-informed practice and triggers that, though invisible to us sometimes, can greatly affect how a pupil can engage with learning.

Here I will focus on our own triggers, small or large. We all know that there are certain topics that will trigger a negative reaction in us. For me, a pupil can tell me I’m a “gay bisexual c*nt” as many times as they like (and they have), and it does not touch me. But mention something negative about Eastern Europeans and I feel my hackles rise – my fiancée is Eastern European, I see a lot of prejudice against her ethnicity in my country; I feel protective.


What does this mean in our classrooms?

It means that I am more likely to react negatively to a pupil who brings up one topic than another. If I am not aware of my own bias, then I am more likely to punish someone for being anti-immigrant than anti-LGBT+. If I have not looked after my own wellbeing and reflected on my own triggers, then my reactions and punishments will be biased. If I am then, for example, in charge of writing a behaviour policy, this can become structural discrimination. We all have biases – that’s human. But we must work with others to support and spot each other’s blindspots.

Other triggers may be to do with our environment or tasks. If I am given a new piece of technology without training, I shut down. I cannot concentrate on my lesson or my pupils, until I feel comfortable. For other staff, who have experienced adverse experiences or trauma themselves there may be situations they are asked to be in at school in which they do not feel safe. It is hard to teach when you are experiencing flashbacks of former abuse. We need to look out for each other.

Think of the last time a pupil triggered you; when they created an emotional response that was not rationally linked to the action or behaviour presented.

  • What was it?
  • Why do you think it triggered you?
  • Were you able to create space? Why/why not?
  • How can you respond rather than react next time?


School-wide approaches to supporting wellbeing and behaviour

There is only so much we can do ourselves if the environment in which we work is not helping. For leaders, a starting question to ask when it comes to supporting wellbeing and behaviour is: “Do all staff (including support staff, and non-academic staff) know what SEMH is?”

Offer on-going training, too. We need space to feel supported about the behaviour we face. There can be an emotional projection that occurs when working with these young people. An annual half-day INSET is not enough. Consider the therapy supervision model as mentioned above.

Education on mental health awareness should be the norm for staff and pupils and we must promote emotional literacy and character education. A school-wide culture of positive mental health can prevent many pupils and staff from feeling isolated with the issues they may be facing. As can a curriculum and values base within the learning that supports it, such as emotional literacy or character education.

Finally, for pupils with SEMH or other behavioural needs, the key adult model can be supportive for them and other staff who teach them. It is easier to support a pupil when you know they have an unmet need, and a little about what that need is.

  • Adele Bates is a behaviour and education specialist who helps school leaders, classroom teachers, and parents support pupils with behavioural needs and SEMH to thrive with their education. She is the author of Miss, I Don't Give A Sh*t (forthcoming from Sage & Corwin), and a TEDx speaker 2020. Visit, www.adelebateseducation.co.uk, follow her on Twitter @adelebatesZ and read her previous articles for Headteacher Update via http://bit.ly/2JPGa6K


Further reading & listening


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