Kids do well if they can by Mike Bradford

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Six words that summarise the work of our latest guest on More Than A Job podcast, American Psychologist Dr Ross W. Greene.

I’d come across Dr Greene’s work while going through a particularly difficult time with my son’s Primary school as his behaviour became more challenging towards the end of year 3. My son who was diagnosed with Autism at a young age, was beginning to rack up negative points at an alarming rate, mainly for low level things; putting his head on the desk, sitting in the wrong seat to be next to his best friend, or refusing to start his work.

As a fellow teaching professional and a Head of Year at a local secondary school, I backed the school with the plan to remove his breaktimes whenever this happened, and in addition, he also frequently missed the Friday afternoon ‘Golden Time’, an extra break given to children who had ‘got it right’ all week. After all this was what Teachers did and still do to maintain a calm learning environment; sanction the behaviour considered undesirable in order to see less of it and promote good behaviour by rewarding it.

Unfortunately, over time, these sanctions didn’t work – they only made things worse, and my son continued to display the challenging behaviour, by which time I’d been introduced to the book ‘Lost in School’ by Dr Greene which helped to explain why this was. This completely changed my thinking and turned everything I thought I knew about school discipline upside down. As an aside, my son ended up leaving the school not long after, but that’s a story for another day.

So, onto Dr Greene and Kids do well if they can; not exactly a ground-breaking statement until you compare it to it’s often used counterpart: Kids do well if they want to. The latter statement bases itself on the presumption that pupils are not doing well because they don’t want to; they are manipulative, attention-seeking, coercive, unmotivated and furthermore that this is caused by passive, permissive, inconsistent, non-contingent parenting.

Dr Greene says this is way off base most of the time. It is worth pointing out, that my daughter who was at the same Primary school as my son was considered one of the quietest best-behaved students in school, with the same parents!

Kids do well if they want to leads to education professionals intervening by introducing a range of sanctions and rewards aimed at getting their pupils to do well. The ‘do this and you’ll get that’ way of thinking.

On the other hand, Kids do well if they can highlights challenging behaviour as; inability to regulate one’s emotions, inability to consider the outcome’s of one’s actions before one acts, inability to understand how one’s behaviour is affecting other people, inability to have the words to let people know something is bothering you and inability to respond to changes in a flexible manner.

It’s worth remembering this is based on 30 years of Research into the Neuroscience of Young People by some of the best Psychologists in the world, Dr Greene included, and yet it is largely overlooked by schools when formulating a discipline policy.

The solution according to Dr Greene, as controversial as it might be, is that if you truly want to turn around challenging students, you won’t do this through detentions, isolations or exclusions because simply put, these do not address the causes of the challenging behaviour. As Dr Greene says, if punishing the most challenging students was going to work, it would already have worked. If students are continually ending up in detention after detention or worse, isn’t this evidence that it’s a poor way of improving behaviour?

As a pastoral leader in a bustling secondary school, as it happens, I don’t promote completely removing sanctions. From my understanding, where this has happened in UK schools, teachers and support staff have felt undermined and that is bad, whatever your view on helping young people.

But I think many people misunderstand Dr Greene’s work and confuse the routine and necessary rules and systems needed to maintain an orderly and purposeful school environment with the strategies and interventions used to deal with the most challenging students.

What Dr Greene is saying, if I understand correctly, is that if you want to turn around the behaviour of challenging students, do not waste your time thinking that the punishment system will do this for you.

Sanctions might provide short term solutions to maintain a calm learning environment, but you’ll need a system that focusses on the skills deficit that these students have, if you want long lasting change. This happens to be the CPS model mentioned in our episode with Dr Greene. It focusses on teaching the skills needed not to be challenging.

For people who think this sounds Namby-pamby, soft or woke, listen to Dr Greene’s response when we put that question to him in the same episode! As he says, the CPS model is no easy solution, but it will be a better solution to deal with Challenging behaviour.

As for me, I still put students into detentions, isolation and recommend exclusions for some students because I’m working in a school, like 99.9% of UK schools where this is the norm and I’m loyal to the school behaviour policy. However, I do take the opportunity within my work to apply a lot of Dr Greene’s theory and the CPS model and hopefully this has made a positive difference to the students that I support.

If there’s one thing you can do as a Senior Leader, School Governor, Classroom Teacher or Teaching Assistant, take a listen to Dr Greene on More Than A Job or read his two books on schools; ‘Lost in School’ and ‘Lost and Found’, both of these will make you think about how to put into place more effective intervention with the most challenging students in your setting.

And next time you’re dealing with the same challenging pupil for the umpteenth time that week, take a step back and remember the mantra that Dr Greene has given us to support these pupils and open up a whole new way of improving your school: Kids do well if they can.

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