Exploring Behaviour: Unmet Needs, Wants Or Something In Between?

Most behaviour is a form of communication, however, what that behaviour is actually communicating is debatable. So, “what should we do about it?” asks Saira Saeed…

Having been on Twitter for a year, I have already lost count of the amount of Twitter debates I have read that centre on behaviour. I agree that most behaviour is a form of communication, however, what it is communicating is debatable. The term ‘unmet needs’ is widely used as a tool of criticism for numerous settings nationwide, which is simply unfair. If a student has unmet needs then it cannot and must not be assumed that this is deliberate on the part of the student’s setting. School leaders continue to face a plethora of battles in addition to the ongoing daily rigours of their jobs and sometimes they simply do not have the means, resources, facilities etc required to meet certain student needs.

Moreover, the Cost-of-Living Crisis is impacting schools, their students and their wider communities in drastic and heart-breaking ways. To add to the challenges, the process of either gaining the funds required to meet certain needs or find a more suitable setting for the student in question is time-consuming and emotionally draining for all involved.

This article highlights one particular facet of this challenge; not all poor behaviour in schools is due to a particular need being met/unmet by the school or its leaders. In fact, some of it is due to factors that aren’t fully in anyone’s control, hence can at best be managed and supported.

I intend to explore some of the things poor behaviour could potentially be communicating and then also suggest some strategies that could help. They are by no means ‘silver bullets’ for behaviour, but things to consider and/or try.

To note:

a.) This article is not an exhaustive list but provides ample food for thought.

b.) The case studies are based on true events but for GDPR purposes, key identifying factors have been concealed and (in some cases) events have been paraphrased rather than told verbatim.

Unmet Need vs Unmet Want

This is arguably the most important factor to consider, as meeting the former usually has some statutory guidance and/or laws underlying them whereas this isn’t always the case for the latter. Notably, this does not mean that the latter is to be dismissed because some student wants are linked to their protected characteristics, thus making them as important as needs (think EDI and the Equality Act of 2010.)

Case study 1: A boy in KS4 started misbehaving as soon as he was moved to my class (lower ability set 4) and he had been moved as he was misbehaving too much in the class above mine (yes, there is lots wrong with this but let’s overlook that for now!)  Initially, I tried many things but with no known needs and very little work (he barely wrote anything out of defiance) I was struggling to get him to behave. During a detention, I directly asked him what he wanted. “I want to be in set 2 Miss. I ain’t being rude but this ain’t my set.”

Whether right or wrong, I set him an exam question in my next lesson; in light of his answer corroborating with his claim I successfully utilised it to get him moved to set 2. He genuinely transformed into one of the best behaved and best attaining students in the set he was moved to. Was I meeting a need or a want?  A bit of both, I think it would be fair to say.

Case study 2: A girl in KS3 began misbehaving for seemingly no reason and made a point of trying to be the class clown on any given occasion.  This threw me, as this was completely out of character for her. I did not waste time in speaking to her and learnt that she was trying to impress a new boy who had joined our school and my class a few weeks earlier. When I asked the girl if her friend was correct, she nodded and apologised.

We then had a talk about many things including priorities and how to impress people without breaking school rules or behaving inappropriately.  For those of you wondering, he had a girlfriend at his last school whom he was very loyal to so alas my young student’s efforts had been in vain!  An unmet need?  No.  An unmet want?  Absolutely.

Medical Needs

Medical needs are something that I personally feel aren’t given sufficient focus in staff CPD bar the statutory annual Asthma, Allergies, Epilepsy and Diabetes sessions delivered by a team of NHS nurses. This lack of focus serves to worsen medically triggered instances of behaviour, as staff won’t be equipped with the knowledge requisite to prevent these instances from occurring nor the skills to manage them when they do.

Case study 1: A severely asthmatic child in KS3 was on steroid tablets, which caused weight gain, thus impacting his self-esteem.  This is turn made him extremely self-conscious, which manifested as sudden bouts of unprovoked anger.    

Case study 2: A teen was misbehaving in a seemingly deliberately defiant manner.  Upon liaising with her family, it was discovered that she had an eating disorder and was trying to curb her hunger pangs by drinking multiple cans of energy drinks a day, and was also seeking energy bursts via bags of sweets.  These were making her extremely hyperactive, thus disruptive in lessons.

In both these case studies, the solution wasn’t straightforward nor quick, but in collaboration with the SENDCO who was also the medical lead, a comprehensive IHCP (Individual Healthcare Plan) was put together to help staff (and the student) manage their behaviour.

SEND

Undiagnosed SEND is a complex area, as it can take a very long time to identify it and subsequently seek out and provide additional support, resources etc that the student needs.  In the interim, if staff aren’t aware of what to look for etc, students will suffer (the students displaying poor behaviour and their peers in their lessons.)

Case study 1: A student in KS3 had undiagnosed Speech and Language difficulties, which created multiple barriers to his learning; limited vocabulary, which in turn hindered his ability to articulate what he wanted to say, forgetting what he meant to say and lacking (at times) intelligibility so he knew what he was saying but few others understood. His understandable frustrations manifested themselves in many ways ranging from low-level disruption to outright refusal to do anything.

This took a lot of work to address, as the student needed substantial external support amongst other things (securing speech and language therapy is no mean feat!)  He was also an EAL learner, which added to the challenges faced by him (and my colleagues and I) when trying to develop his communication and interaction skills.

Case study 2: A KS5 student quickly became notorious; rude, running out of lessons, refusing to work, distracting peers amongst other similar behaviours.  Upon liaising with her family and other teachers, I learned (in my capacity as SENCO) that they had asked for help from the setting for many years prior to my joining it, as they believed she was Autistic and because they had not been helped, they (and their daughter) had given up on the system.

This case was multi-faceted as it was a result of multiple issues; unidentified SEND, broken down relationships between a family, student and the setting, a student who’s behaviour was out of control and a set of staff who wanted to teach her (she was very bright) but didn’t want her in their lessons, as she was hindering the progress of her peers.

A number of actions took place collaboratively over a period of time but eventually a reduced timetable was put in place for her before she successfully completed her KS5 journey.  Sadly, her needs weren’t fully met before she left but the processes for obtaining an Autism diagnosis had been initiated so that they could be in the next stage of her life. This wasn’t an ideal outcome but the best that could be done in light of the legacy attached to it.

Safeguarding

Safeguarding is a complex area riddled with an increasing number of barriers to detecting potential abuse, neglect and the like. A clear and consistent set of processes including an effective system of information-sharing is required (as per the ‘Keeping Children Safe in Education’ 2022 DfE guidance) in order to ensure that no child ‘slips through the net’ through being misidentified as simply a disruptive student.

Case study 1: A student in KS4 was seemingly always disengaged in my lessons and rarely handing in homework (with the repeated excuse that she ‘forgot’ or ‘was busy.’) Upon investigation, my colleagues and I learned that she was in fact a young carer with a very sick mother (single parent) and younger siblings whom she was practically mothering. The support she required was beyond my classroom but safe to say, I adapted my approaches when teaching her (leniency with homework deadlines, checking on her regularly in my lessons when circulating my class and so on.)

Case study 2: A KS3 student misbehaved for me repeatedly: defiance, distracting others, being completely disengaged in every lesson etc.  I learned, at a Parents’ Evening meeting with his father (who was a single parent) that the student had been abused by his mother for the first half of his life and I – unfortunately – looked VERY similar to his mother. That was it.

The student and I had a very long meeting with his father (the DSL was involved too) but he was eventually removed from my class because he continued to disrupt the learning of the rest of my class and my colleagues and I were also worried that him seeing his mother’s lookalike might be triggering for him (upon reflection, it probably was.) Not everyone will agree with the outcome of this case study but sometimes, the only feasible strategy is what happened with this student.

Cultural impact

I could give umpteen case studies here.  For instance, in many cultures (especially South East Asian) it is deemed exceptionally rude to make eye contact with an elder who is reprimanding you. It is also no secret that a child being identified as SEND is stigmatised in a number of cultures, hence some families may actively hinder settings from identifying their children as SEND learners and seeking out external support for them. In light of this, I would highly recommend doing your research; reach out to friends, colleagues and community leaders (you could even politely/sensitively ask questions on social media platforms like Twitter) to learn more about the cultural communities your students are a part of.

Suggested strategies:

1.  Do not be afraid to ask for help; it is NEVER a sign of weakness/being an incompetent practitioner. I have been teaching for over 17 years and I will still happily seek out strategies/advice if one of my colleagues has better control of a certain class than I do! Additionally, do not worry if you feel you are the only member of staff struggling with a certain student/class and/or asking for help. I can almost guarantee that you wont be the only one experiencing this; it is more likely that you are the only staff member seeking help for it.

2.  NEVER, EVER take poor behaviour personally. It is upsetting, may make you cry/angry etc (and that is completely valid) but you do not get paid to take it home with you nor to waste energy harbouring ill feelings towards anyone. Moreover, the student/s in question may not even give it a second thought after they have left the school gates, so why should you?  Lastly, as covered in this article, the poor behaviour may have been a result of factors that have no malice attached to them at all and may even be a cry for help.

3. This next point feels like a case of grandma and sucking eggs but if you find yourself getting increasingly agitated that student x has an attitude problem, or an issue with teachers of a certain gender, or is just rude because they won’t look at you when being reprimanded then take a step back, breathe and inquire why (this may need to be done later and not at the time of the poor behaviour occurring.)

4.  If the poor behaviour is impacting your lesson to the extent where it is stopping you teach then for that instance, remove the student but do follow it up later.  Every school I have ever worked in had a faculty buddy system of some sort whereby colleagues could send a student to a colleagues classroom as part of a de-escalation process.

5.  Information seeking is absolutely paramount and where appropriate and possible, converse with the student directly but if not then do liaise with your HoD, SENCO, DSL, etc as required. Context can be a real eye-opener!

6.  Don’t be afraid to reprimand, as required. Yes, a number of the case studies above highlight that some poor behaviour isn’t deliberate but that doesn’t mean you don’t consistently follow your setting’s behaviour policies.

One of the best behaviour policies I have ever seen in a setting was unbelievably simple (yet still humane) but it worked because all staff were empowered and supported in applying it consistently and fairly in their lessons (as well as during duty at unstructured times.)

7.  Establish good relationships with parents; they are a knowledgeable and powerful ally!  Some of the trickiest students I have ever managed to successfully deal with had parents who supported me and reiterated my expectations at home.

Key consideration point: HQT (the concept formally known as QFT.)

As tempting as it is to list a set of strategies that will solve all behaviour management issues (eg doing X for learners with SEND or doing Y for students who have tough home lives etc), there is no simple quick fix.

A culture is needed where all of the areas listed above are taken into consideration when planning the intent, implementation and impact of the curriculum.

Acknowledging SEND and Safeguarding in tokenistic CPD sessions for staff, having sporadic curriculum drop-down days for students or inviting parents to tick-box coffee mornings will not suffice. These areas of education need to be threaded through the culture of any given setting in order for that setting’s curriculum to truly to be inclusive.

Moreover, staff then need to be given adequate CPD to empower them to deliver this inclusive curriculum via truly High-Quality Teaching; confident practitioners who feel valued and trusted to deliver a meaningful curriculum in a way that improves the learning experiences for all learners (not just SEND for example.) This in turn will make behaviour easier to manage, as there will be fewer opportunities for students to misbehave and when they do, staff will have ample knowledge and a broad range of strategies they can utilise to manage it.

Admittedly, this is easier said than done and requires investment from all involved (teaching staff, support staff, SLT, students and their families) but it can be done.  Yes, the status quo has added a plethora of challenges (budgeting and staff retention to name but two) but that does not mean all hope is to be lost. In fact, what Ofsted are looking for is inclusivity and safety for all, which is needed now more than ever before:

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/education-inspection-framework/education-inspection-framework

End Note

We can all agree that behaviour is complicated.  Why?  Humans are complicated, especially young ones who aren’t physically, emotionally and mentally developed, hence adequately equipped to deal with this gargantuan challenge we call ‘life.’  There are no quick fixes for every form of poor behaviour that you may encounter during your career in teaching.  However, investigating and identifying underlying reasons for behaviour (even if it is a classroom crush!) will place any classroom practitioner in good stead to manage it as best possible without compromising the learning of others in your classrooms.

Recommended Reading

  • Tom Bennett – ‘Running the Room: The Teacher’s Guide to Behaviour.’
  • Paul Dix – ‘When the Adults Change, Everything Changes: Seismic shifts in school behaviour’
  • Rob Potts – ‘Caring Teacher: How to make a positive difference in the classroom.’
  • Andrew Hall – ‘Safeguarding Handbook.’
  • Stephen Lane – ‘Beyond Wiping Noses: Building an informed approach to pastoral leadership in schools.’
  • Maria O’Neill – ‘Proactive Pastoral Care’
  • Samuel Strickland – ‘The Behaviour Manual: An Educator’s Guidebook’
  • SAPHNA Eating Disorder Toolkit – https://saphna.co/homepage/toolkits/eating-disorder-toolkit/
  • DfE Guidance:

Safeguarding: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/keeping-children-safe-in-education–2

Medical: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/supporting-pupils-at-school-with-medical-conditions–3

Looked After Children: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/promoting-the-health-and-wellbeing-of-looked-after-children–2

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