By Lynsie Monro
Think of a situation that makes you nervous or fills you with fear but that most other people seemingly manage with ease. For instance driving, travelling on the Tube, eating in front of people, collaborating with new people on a training course or public speaking. We all have different fears and phobias that influence our behaviour when engaged in any activity.
Now think of a time where you’ve been forced into that situation with little or no support and even been reprimanded when you either refused to engage, made a mistake or failed to complete the activity effectively. What did that do to your confidence and emotional wellbeing? How did it cause you to behave?
Often in the moment of anxiety, when we find ourselves thrust into circumstances that makes us uncomfortable, our emotional response distorts our ability to function and can trigger certain behaviours – irritation, refusing to speak, isolating oneself, unable to listen and even swearing, slamming doors and shouting.
Being the experienced humans that we are, most of the time, we can skilfully shift from the emotional to the rational side of our brain and implement coping strategies. However, just as we can’t expect a child without any phonetic knowledge to read Shakespeare, nor can we expect our learners to manage their emotions without being given the necessary tools to do so.
For years educators have been using their professional judgement alongside assessment data to flexibly respond to the varying levels of academic ability in their class’. They’ve been designing differentiated lessons based on learners’ needs.
Covid-19 has presented the opportunity to gather more data about our children and young people’s home lives, character and emotional attributes which are rooted in their diverse childhood experiences. Considering how inextricably linked pastoral care is with teaching and learning, let’s demonstrate the same level of adaptability we use when differentiating our lesson plans, to support pupils with their behaviour post-lockdown. Here I believe schools have, at the start of a ‘new normal’ an opportunity to question how they respond to behaviour and contemplate a more personalised but overtly fair approach.
It’s important to stress here that differentiating for behaviour is not about letting some learners sidestep expectations because you’re more aware of the difficulties they face at home. It’s about keeping your eye on the culture you want everyone to be a part of and deciding on the best route for different learners to get there.
For example, there is an expectation in most schools for learners to remain on task in a lesson for one hour. For the past 10 weeks, some of our children and young people will have been subject to insufferable home lives with no structure, routine or sense of time and will be panicked by the thought of stepping foot inside the classroom.
Just as we have baseline figures for maths and English, this is simply their baseline behaviour and we as educators can adapt our approach to help them reach the end goal of being able to enter and stay in the classroom. The first step could be that they are asked to come in and sit down for five minutes. Once they have managed to do that over a period of time then they are a set a new, higher expectation.
I understand that for some this is a mindset shift. It’s a new way of thinking, it might feel counterintuitive at first and it will certainly require careful planning. Maybe reflect on where your energy has been directed pre-lockdown in terms of behaviour and start to think about how your pastoral data can inform reasonable adjustments for your learners so that time is better spent.
You might also find other learners wondering why the rules and expectations appear to be different for some. Children and young people show notable sophistication in their understanding of fairness. Talk overtly to your learners about the need for varied responses and levels of support.
I always used to say: “You know I care about each one of you and you can trust that although my response and instructions might not be the same for everyone, I will always do whatever I can to be fair.”
Fairness & equality
We talked frequently about fairness, equality and equity and I invited my learners where appropriate to question my decisions as opposed to sitting silently and allowing their frustrations over what appeared to be ‘special treatment’ to fester.
Asking a child, who has been living without some or all of their basic needs being met, to then meet our high expectations immediately, without any scaffolding or supportive measures in place, is like asking a child who has not yet learnt their letters, to write their name.
Tests have been cancelled and there is no current, robust academic data, but perhaps Covid-19 has presented the most comprehensive test of all. One that presents our learners as people not numbers. Let’s embrace the power of this information and design a school day for the unseen personal issues our children and young people bring into school.