Nurture Principle 5: Beyond Behaviour
This latest blog on the Principles of Nurture considers the fifth principle: “All behaviour is communication”. This promotes the importance of not only understanding a young person’s individual strengths and needs, but also adapting our own response and the environment.
First, let’s take a moment to consider the phrase “All behaviour is communication”. We need to be mindful that not all behaviour is purposeful or intentional. Some neurodivergent people may convey words or bodily movements which do not reflect what they want to say or do. It is also very possible that we are making inaccurate assumptions about what is being communicated or misinterpreting the behaviour that we are observing.
The problem with behaviourism
Young people attending Nurture Groups or in need of nurturing approaches have often experienced adverse events. Yet many behaviour policies are still grounded in punishments, see seclusion and restraint as reasonable measures, and pave the road for exclusions. These practices not only discriminate against neurodivergent young people, but also evoke or exacerbate toxic shame. As Chris Dyson writes in “Parklands”, it is possible to have a school with high expectations, clear boundaries and proportionate consequences whilst also prioritising nurturing and loving relationships.
Alfie Kohn has written extensively about the research on the use of rewards. We may instinctively believe that rewards are preferable to punitive strategies, but he argues that rewards are simply more seductive. If a prize is constantly required, its long-term effect must be limited. It also positions the activity as simply a means to an end and restricts natural creativity, risk-taking and intrinsic motivation.
Some relational reflections on traditional behaviour management approaches
Public reprimands or names displayed on a board or wall may only reinforce negative self-beliefs and create a reputation to live up to if it guarantees connection. Can the young person feel that success is possible when they are constantly reminded of failure?
When we have expectations which are not clear and reasonable for the young person’s needs, we risk damaging their self-esteem. How do we respect their developmental stage if we are only judging them by their chronological age?
Behaviour reports which are nothing more than a list of incidents and sanctions can quickly become self-fulfilling prophecies. What if we co-produced plans which reflected a young person’s strengths, views and how they would like to be supported?
We withdraw relationships when we use time out, isolation, and exclusion. How can we expect a young person to build trust in adults and understand that ruptures can be repaired, if they frequently perceive that their needs are too much for us to handle?
Rewards can create stressful comparisons and breed resentment if they are dependent on how all members of the group or class perform. How do we foster understanding and collaboration with others if everyone is perceived as a competitor?
While we want to encourage high attendance, awards for attendance fail to appreciate diverse backgrounds and needs. Is it fair to overlook or penalise young people who are anxious, ill, supporting their parents and siblings or surviving abuse and neglect?
The threat of giving a punishment or withholding a reward are both focused on compliance. Is it fair to call a young person’s behaviour manipulative if we are actively modelling manipulation and coercion?
Praise which is delivered as a form of control is not far removed from criticism. Are we praising in a way which creates unrealistic expectations, delivers uncomfortable evaluations, or provides limited parameters for what is deemed “good” or “bad”?
Looking beneath the surface
We often hear words such as “deliberate”, “manipulative” and “disrespectful” when behaviour is described. In “The Reflective Practitioner”, Professor Andrew McDonnell warns that simplistic explanations often lead to punitive consequences. Much like how we discover a rich world when we venture below the crashing waves of an ocean, we must look beneath the behaviour and seek to understand factors which may explain and maintain it.
Does the young person feel safe?
Do they trust that you will keep them in mind?
Are there particular times, places, or people which elicit anxiety or frustration?
Is their stress-response system over-sensitised as a result of trauma and loss?
Are they overwhelmed by sensory input?
Are they hungry, tired or in pain?
Could they be experiencing low confidence and self-worth?
Is there sufficient structure and predictability in their daily routine?
How much control and autonomy do they have in specific tasks and routines?
Is their access to resources restricted by poverty and discrimination?
Can they easily process the information we are communicating?
Are we providing accessible methods for them to express their feelings and views?
Do we play to their individual strengths and preferences?
Could our instructions and requests be perceived as stressful demands?
Are we responding in a manner which can be interpreted as blaming and shaming?
Changing the culture
In “The Kindness Principle”, Dave Whitaker promotes the concept of flexible consistency instead of zero tolerance. This is a balance between rigorous structure and routine and the personalised and reasonable adjustments which young people require. Paul Dix recommends visible consistency with visible kindness rather than responding to behaviour with ferocious punishment. I feel that the key starting point for positive behaviour is ensuring that the environment promotes and supports such behaviour.
When considering how to embed relational practice into existing behaviour policies, a buy-in from the whole school is crucial. It is self-defeating for one member of staff to have a quiet word with a young person and quickly move on from a situation, while another criticises them in front of their classmates or asks them to leave the room. Universal values and consistent routines and procedures must be upheld.
Karl Pupé, author of “The Action Hero Teacher”, recommends developing a social contract with a class. Rather than a set of predefined and broad school rules, the contract invites engagement and coproduction of rules which allow everyone in the class to experience safety, respect, productivity, and fun. It can instil a sense of belonging and responsibility rather than simple compliance.
Structure and routine are essential for allowing positive behaviour to naturally flourish. Visual schedules and checklists can show what is happening now and next and how to organise resources and materials. Consistent cues should be used when it is time to start, stop or listen. The aims of the task should be clear, and the expectations should be modelled. Jarlath O’Brien recommends focusing on “do…”, rather than “do not…”
We can help young people to understand the value of a task. Make it meaningful and motivating by connecting it to practical and real-life contexts or their special interests. Ask questions to stimulate their curiosity. Encourage them to make choices about how to engage and how to work on their own initiative.
Give specific positive feedback about efforts and progress, rather than outcomes or vague personal qualities. Some young people may prefer to receive feedback in private or have their efforts noticed rather than explicitly evaluated. Keep in mind that even the arousal elicited by positive events may be hard for some young people to regulate.
The Division of Educational and Child Psychology’s position paper on children’s right to play recognises how the time for physical activity and play have been reduced in recent decades. Are you providing enough time in the daily schedule for unstructured and child-led play? Similarly, are you offering opportunities for young people to engage in their personal “flow activities”?
Conduct a sensory audit by talking to the parents/carers, professionals involved with the family and most importantly the young person themselves. Do they need more opportunity for movement? Are they distracted by visual clutter on the wall? Are there noises or smells which can be mitigated? The aim should be to find out the young person’s unique sensory profile and adapt the environment to accommodate this.
Ditch the name-and-shame boards and consider recognition boards or books of success. Show concrete evidence of the young person having fun, engaging well, being trusted with responsibilities, and having their interests and efforts celebrated.
Replace the isolation booths with safe spaces. This should be a space which the young person perceives as safe, comfortable, relaxing, and accessible. Gareth Morewood has spoken about the need to facilitate a planned withdrawal from a stressful situation, where everyone agrees and implements a consistent plan.
Louise Bomber recommends reframing time out as “time in”. If a young person has experienced disruption and loss in their relationships, the last thing they need at a time of stress is to be cut off from key adults who can co-regulate their emotions. They may need time away from an activity or environment, but they should be reassured that a trusted adult is still nearby and ready to re-engage.
Relationships make the difference
Lori Desautels encourages us to look past traditional models of discipline in education and prioritise connections over compliance. What if we shifted to a model of relational discipline, which respects the young person’s need for connection, recognises pain instead of behaviour, and strives to help them regulate their nervous systems? Dave Whitaker feels that unconditional positive regard is the foundation for communicating acceptance and understanding.
We can look for ways to be playful and humorous on a daily basis. A warm and welcoming meet-and-greet can help the young person to feel that you are glad to see them. Showing an interest in their interests, noticing what is going well, celebrating their achievements both in and out of school, and encouraging them to advocate for themselves are all easy ways of showing that they are being kept in mind.
It is our responsibility to help young people understand our verbal communication. This can involve speaking more slowly, saying just one thing at a time, and pausing to allow more time for processing. A good rule of thumb in stressful situations is to talk less. We should also respect their individual communication styles and preferences.
The Low Arousal approach emphasises the need to be mindful of our non-verbal communication and how we may be perceived as stressed or threatening. In a difficult situation, we should try to control our breathing, avoid tensing muscles or closing our hands, resist staring and slow down our movements. If the young person needs to withdraw to a safe space, they should be supported in having a dignified exit rather than experiencing raised voices, demands and reprimands on their way out.
Kim Golding, Sian Phillips and Louise Bomber, who advocate the use of the Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy (DDP) model in schools, explain how we need to notice what is happening and consider where the young person is on the arousal continuum. They may initially need access to regulating and calming activities before we begin to wonder aloud about how they might be feeling and convey that we accept the thoughts and feelings beneath the behaviour.
One of the key principles of the DDP-informed education approach is how discipline is sandwiched between attunement and relationship repair. We can communicate empathy for the young person’s experience, stay calm and clear about the limit being set and the consequences of different choices, and reassure them that a rupture in the relationship can be overcome. The latter should include accepting responsibility for the role we played in misinterpreting the situation or how we could have responded differently.
In “Restorative Practice”, Mark Finnis offers examples of questions which help to understand the young person’s perspective and consider how everyone’s needs in a situation can be recognised and met. Can you share what happened? What were your thoughts at the time? How did you feel about the situation? Who else was affected? How do you think they felt at the time? What can everyone do to make things right?
How we relate with the adults in the young person’s life is also important. Many parents and carers may only have contact from a school for parent-teacher meetings or when they are being informed about a concerning incident. What if we proactively shared success stories through phone calls, emails, or postcards? The staff working with the young person also need opportunities to debrief, reflect and have the choice of engaging in wellbeing activities. If we are struggling to regulate our own emotions, we will also struggle to regulate a young person’s emotions and maintain a relational perspective on their behaviour.
References and Further Reading
Bomber, L. M. (2007). Inside I’m Hurting: Practical strategies for Supporting Children with Attachment Difficulties in School. London: Worth Publishing Ltd.
Desautels, L. L. (2020). Connections Over Compliance. Rewiring our perceptions of discipline. Deadwood: Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing.
Dove, S. (2021). Behaving Together in the Classroom. A teacher’s guide to nurturing behaviour. London: Open University Press.
Dix, P. (2017). When the Adults Change Everything Changes. Seismic shifts in school behaviour. Carmarthen: Independent Thinking Press.
Dyson, C. (2022). Parklands. A school built on love. Carmarthen: Crown House Publishing.
Finnis, M. (2021). Restorative Practice. Building relationships, improving behaviour and creating stronger communities. Carmarthen: Independent Thinking Press.
Golding, K.S., Phillips, S. & Bomber, L.M. (2021). Working with Relational Trauma in Schools. An educator’s guide to using Dyadic Developmental Practice. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Hobbs, C., Atkinson, C., Barclay, M., Bristow, S., Casey, T., Finney, R., Goodhall, N., Mannello, M. & Woods, F. (2021). DECP position paper on Children’s Right to Play. Leicester: The British Psychology Society. https://cms.bps.org.uk/sites/default/files/2022-06/PP17%20Children%27s%20right%20to%20play.pdf
Kohn, A. (2018). Punished by Rewards. The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise and Other Bribes. Twenty Fifth Anniversary Edition. New York: Mariner Books.
McDonnell, A. (2019). The Reflective Journey. A practitioner’s guide to the Low Arousal approach. Peterborough: Studio III.
Morewood, G. (2019). Teaching Alternatives for Distressed Pupils. Studio III. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MSQ2o3-0xiU
O’Brien, J. (2021). Better Behaviour: A Guide for Teachers (2nd Edition). London: Sage Publications Ltd.
Pupé, K.C. (2019). The Action Hero Teacher. Classroom Management Made Simple. www.actionheroteacher.com
Whitaker, D. (2021). The Kindness Principle. Making relational behaviour management work in schools. Carmarthen: Independent Thinking Press.