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Effective Behaviour Strategies from Research Into the UK’s Best Schools

What makes behaviour in our top schools work? Some things are obvious, but if it were easy, every school would have great behaviour. So what did the research say, asks Tom Bennett...

  • Effective Behaviour Strategies from Research Into the UK’s Best Schools

In 2015 I was asked by then Secretary of State for Education Nicky Morgan to advise the DfE on behaviour.

This started with chairing a group that investigated initial teacher training, followed by an investigation into the best leadership practices that optimised students’ behaviour and their flourishing.

This became the report ‘Creating a Culture: How School Leaders Can Optimise Behaviour’, which was published in 2017 as a free-to-download guide for practitioners, including teachers.

It was important to me to make sure that whatever we produced, it would not simply be a dressed-up reflection of my own preferences, as so many policy or practitioner documents are.

In order to achieve this, we used structured interviews, school visits, a literature review, academic interviews and round tables in order to attempt to establish an evidence base that substantiated any claims the report made.

We also used independently commissioned research to ask questions similar to us, but in different sample of schools and asked by a parallel research team. Happily, their findings matched ours in the most important ways.

We were dedicated to seeing what schools in circumstances of high challenge were doing that had demonstrated considerable success despite the odds.

To do this we investigated coastal schools, rural and urban, primary secondary, PRUs and virtual schools. We found there were considerable overlaps between successful schools in a huge variety of circumstances.

The main things that distinguished what these school had or did were:

  • committed, highly visible school leaders, with ambitious goals, supported by a strong leadership team
  • effectively communicated, realistic, detailed expectations understood clearly by all members of the school
  • highly consistent working practices throughout the school
  • a clear understanding of what the school culture is
  • high levels of staff and parental commitment to the school vision and strategies
  • high levels of support between leadership and staff
  • attention to detail and thoroughness in the execution of school policies and strategies
  • high expectations of all students and staff, and a belief that all students matter equally

Some – if not all – of this sounds numbingly obvious. A second consideration we investigated, therefore, was, ‘If this is so simple, why isn’t it the norm?’ Probing in that direction was even more interesting.

What we found was that most of these terms, such as ‘high expectations’, were used in very different ways between successful and unsuccessful school environments. All terms can be ambiguous.

The chief culprit here was the word ‘consistent’. Everyone thinks they are consistent, in the same way that most people see themselves as the hero of their own melodrama, doing no wrong and justifying it a posteriori.

A way to combat this is to observe other teachers in different circumstances with similar classes. Look beyond what the behaviour is and try to see what the habits are.

When you see children demonstrating habitually good behaviour, ask yourself, ‘When was this taught?’ and, ‘How is it reinforced?’

A second, more subtle finding was that the best schools and teachers consciously taught their students what good behaviour looked like, in detail.

They didn’t merely tell them once and use vague clichés like, ‘I want you to behave,’ as if that had meaningful content. Many children have very clear ideas about what they think good behaviour looks like.

To summarise, we found that the most effective teachers and leaders followed this pattern:

Design the school culture you want to see

Cultures require deliberate creation. A key role of running a room is to design a detailed vision of what the culture should look like for that room, focusing on social and academic conduct. Expectations must be as high as possible, for all.

Build that culture in practice

Staff and students need to know what the culture looks like in practice, from behaviour on buses, to corridor and canteen conduct. This means demonstrating it, communicating it thoroughly, and ensuring that every aspect of school life feeds into and reinforces that culture.

One key way this is achieved is by designing routines. Any behaviour that should be performed identically, most or all of the time, should be made into a routine – for example, which corridor side to walk down, how to queue for lunch.

Maintain that culture constantly

Classroom systems require maintenance. This is often where good cultures break down. It is reasonably straightforward to identify what a good culture might look like, but like a diet, the difficulty lies in embedding and maintaining it. Make ‘making the class routine’ part of the routine.

This sounds straightforward. It is, of course, a mountain of hard work. But it is not rocket science.

Tom Bennett is founder and director of researchED, a conference-based community dedicated to raising the research literacy of the teaching profession. Find out more at researched.org.uk and follow Tom on Twitter at @tombennett71.

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