By Adele Bates

Is there a silver bullet, a magic wand, or a Mary Poppins works-well-for-all for behaviour in our schools? No matter how much we dream and hope, I think we all know the answer: Nope, there isn’t. And in fact, trying to create blanket policies, policies-for-all and zero tolerance strategies can get us all in a lot of bother.

As a Behaviour & Education Specialist supporting schools, pupils, staff, Trusts and Local Authorities up and down the country I see the detrimental effect the ‘silver bullet’ belief has on helping us progress with behaviour or how it can hinder us in supporting some of our most vulnerable young people.

I have worked across mainstreams (all settings), Alternative Provisions, Pupil Referral Units and Specialist SEMH (Social, Emotional, Mental Health needs) Schools for nearly 20 years, and the closest I’ve ever found to any kind of ‘silver bullet’ is this: Behaviour approaches and policies must work for your staff, for your school, for your pupils, for your communities, in the context of everything that affects each of those groups; missed breakfasts, a change of catchment area and global pandemics all included – and those factors will often be different from the school down the road, let alone schools across the nation.

Behaviour Policies

In an ideal world, your behaviour policy is a living, growing document that supports the practice, culture and ethos around the values, relationships and behaviour across the school. It is also created by all of the stakeholders affected by it – yep, that includes *those* pupils most known for their negative behaviour in school.

More often than not though, they usually become a document written by SLT and Governors that is too long to read, let alone implement for those who work on the ground – and so they sit on the shelf gathering dust (or the digital equivalent) or look good on the website in time for the Ofsted inspection.

I saw on Twitter this year a snap-shot poll on behaviour policies showing that over half of Headteachers believed that their behaviour policies were working well, whereas nearly three-quarters of teaching staff disagreed. I wonder what the pupils would have thought – it’s telling.

The reason behind it is the silver-bullet illusion: We cannot write a document long enough that would account for every possible behaviour scenario in a school. And yet, it’s really attractive to think we can.

The Department for Education often plays a similar game, particularly when negative behaviour in schools hits the headlines – we will often see a response from the government that quickly churns out a ‘let’s-all-be-more-disciplined-and-pull-our-socks-up-and-everything-will-be-fine’ response.

Most recently, in a reaction to the increasingly challenging behaviour for staff in schools post-lockdown, the Minister for Education responded with a crackdown on mobile phones. Quite rightly, many teachers, schools and anyone who has been near a child in the last two years were exasperated – mobile phones are the least of our worries right now. We have an education system to re-construct. Our government are not stupid, I believe they know this too – so why do this?

Our minds love to have solutions to problems – and particularly for the media. If we can find a one-size-fits-all that’s easy to remember (‘see it, say it, sorted?’), we like to believe that will work. We go against our longer perspective instinct, hoping to gain a quick win.

But in reality, we know the truth. If behaviour in schools had an easy, one-off solution we would have solved it by now. Our prisons would be empty, all our staff would teach in the same way and every school would be the same. No one would ever be put in detention and we wouldn’t even be having this conversation at all.

But it can’t be that way.

Again, it comes back to context – our world is forever changing, and so is the behaviour of the human race, which must be responded to differently in different situations. Our pupils are part of that human race. Our staff are too.

The Staff 

As I support staff across the country and across into Europe, one common downside I see of the ‘silver-bullet’ thinking, is this: If our rhetoric is that there is one superior way to successfully approach behaviour, then ergo, there is only one type of teacher who can do it.

For example; I am increasingly being asked to support schools in which there is a high number of early career, young (in this context 20-30 years old) female staff. Why? Because they can relate to me.

Most experts on Behaviour and people of influence on the subject are from one demographic – white men who are old enough to be the ECTs’ dads.

To be clear – I have learnt a lot from these men – and still do. The discussions we can have with people unlike us about behaviour are incredibly valuable.

AND, the way that my dad approaches behaviour (he’s worked in children’s homes for excluded teenage boys), and the way I do, is completely different. It has to be different because we are different people.

We know this – at your school, Mister Brookes’ style of behaviour management is like a glorious community pantomime with a fabulous dame – it works for Mister Brookes; the pupils know and respect the expectations in his classroom and lots of learning takes place.

On the other hand, in Ms Singh’s classroom, she rarely moves from her spot at the front of the classroom, no one’s heard her raise her voice since 1982, and her left eyebrow is famous for bringing even the most extreme behaviour from a pupil into line; the pupils know and respect the expectations in her classroom and lots of learning takes place.

Both members of staff work within the behaviour policy and both members of staff engage pupils well in learning. To ask Mister Brookes to be more like Ms Singh, or vice versa, would be a disaster.

Hence again, why any rhetoric that says there’s only one way to do behaviour can be detrimental, particularly for new staff.

“Don’t smile before Christmas?” That depends on whether you’re a smiley person and what works for you as a human being, forming a relationship with another human being.

The Pupils

Jo and Irena are both late.

Jo overslept – his dad shouted at him several times, but he just couldn’t get up. In the end he rushed down the stairs, missed the bus and his dad agreed to give him a lift in. Jo enjoys playing computer games throughout the night.

Irena got up early. She is the main caregiver in her household as her mum is ill and her dad lives abroad. She looks after her two younger siblings who are 6 and 8 years old. Irena is 12 years. Each morning she makes breakfast for everyone (including her mum), and takes her sisters to school.

Jo and Irena are both late. Should they be treated the same?

The answer to this matters and is a topic I write about and train on extensively. I am passionate about us holding boundaries for pupils around behaviour so that learning is paramount and learning what the behaviour might be communicating in each scenario. From my experience, it is only then that we will find real, lasting solutions to behaviour issues, rather than one-off quick fixes that can cause more trouble in the end.


Adele helps schools to create a positive behaviour and relationship culture by equipping staff to support challenging behaviour. She’s an International Keynote Speaker, a featured expert on teenagers and behaviour for BBC Radio 4, the author of "Miss, I Don't Give A Sh*t," Engaging with Challenging Behaviour in Schools, from Sage & Corwin Press, and is a fully-funded International Researcher on Behaviour & Inclusion, as well as teaching for nearly 20 years in mainstream, primary, secondary, PRUs, APs and Special schools.

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