Alternative provision takes in pupils who’ve proved too challenging for mainstream education, but the techniques AP teachers use are transferable, writes Sarah Holding

Building positive relationships is at the heart of effective behaviour management. A strong relationship connects us to our students and without that connection our ability to influence and lead them is diminished.

As a four-site alternative provision academy trust with a long history of Ofsted ‘outstanding’ ratings, we have developed effective ways of supporting the most challenging young people. Our students haven’t responded to the behaviour-management techniques used in their mainstream schools, so there’s little point repeating the same approach. We look at each child as an individual, to examine the issues that are preventing them from succeeding at school.

There’s a lot of debate about the best kind of school behaviour policy

A high staff-to-pupil ratio allows us to build relationships with children in a way that teachers in mainstream schools don’t necessarily have the chance. Yet many of the techniques we use are transferrable, and valuable for teachers in any context.

Most people will be familiar with Abraham Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’ theory. It suggests that all humans share basic needs and once a group of needs is satisfied, we move up to the next level.

The lowest level consists of our most basic needs – shelter, food, water and safety. Then we progress into the realms of a wide range of emotional and psychological needs – from the need to achieve to the need to contribute, the need for love and a whole host of others in between. These needs must be met in order for a human being to feel content and “whole”.

It takes some teachers a long time to realise just how important this list really is and why it is the key to both preventing and dealing with behaviour problems.

Working with our young people, we have identified three basic psychological needs that are crucially important to classroom management.

Belonging

Think of a time when you have not felt welcome, or felt excluded, left out or isolated. We all need to be accepted, valued, appreciated, needed, related to or connected with something beyond our own self.

Empowerment

Think of a time when you have felt undervalued, or that your opinion was ignored. We don’t function well without adequate control, choice, autonomy and freedom in our lives.

Emotional objectivity

It is not always easy to remember but pupils’ poor behaviour is not an attack on you. It is not personal. If you do see it as something personal you are more likely to get angry or upset, and feel depressed or resentful. To remain unemotional you need to be alert and business-like, protecting yourself and your wellbeing.

The reason some teachers have an easier time in the classroom is because they act not only firmly but fairly.

In fact, our pupils say that the best teachers and support staff:

-treat us in a courteous, friendly manner
-let us know when we do something right
-know how to have a laugh
-teach lessons in a fun and interesting way
-trust us
-are firm and fair with the same rules for all
-are always in control
-are there for us, they care and they listen

The attributes listed above, taken as a whole, are highly effective in preventing problems and making pupils feel content, because they satisfy crucial psychological needs.

Across all our sites, the behaviour policy is us, the staff. It’s embodied in how we model behaviour, such as respect, tolerance and staying in control. We do a lot of work on knowing our own triggers, so we can recognise when to step back from a situation and pass the baton to a colleague. In our daily staff debrief we not only discuss problems but also crucially, celebrate successes.

There’s a lot of debate about the best kind of school behaviour policy: should it be zero-tolerance or child-centred, and should we use internal exclusions? And while it’s important for schools to have consistent norms, sometimes the focus on behaviour policy can overlook the fact that a policy is nothing without a whole-school culture.

Sarah Holding is Deputy Headteacher at Aspire Alternative Provision