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We are what we do: The case for explicit and school wide routines

By Andy Tharby, co-author of Making Every Lesson Count. This article was posted on 17 May 2023.

There is a growing national picture suggesting that poor behaviour has become more prevalent in British schools since the pandemic. In a blog last month, Geoff Barton wrote of the ‘sheer volume of responses’ and ‘the bleak depiction’ of the current situation shared by ASCL members who had been asked about their experiences of behaviour in their schools. The daily survey app Teacher Tapp recently asked teachers: ‘If you could wave a magic wand and drastically improve your proficiency in just one aspect of how to do your job, which one of the following areas would you choose’. From a choice of nine options, ‘managing classroom behaviour and routines’ came in at number one at 23%, up from 18% in 2019.

The national evidence points to a gradual and complex decline in behaviour standards in certain groups of children, the causes of which are not yet fully understood. Sadly, genuine system-wide solutions may be many years away. In the meantime, schools and teachers are scrambling to pick up the pieces.

It is fair to say that many of the factors that contribute towards poor behaviour are out of the locus of control of the average classroom teacher. These include the lack of mental health services, ineffective parenting, the impact of smartphones and the complicated legacy of multiple lockdowns.

However, we must avoid fatalism. By adopting explicit and consistent routines, all teachers can still positively influence the narrative around behaviour and improve the prospects and wellbeing for the children in our classrooms.

A pre-pandemic EEF report based on the evidence around behaviour in schools (2019) points out that ‘consistency is key’ when it comes to the implementation of behaviour policies. The report also suggests that while schoolwide changes take longer to embed than single-classroom approaches, ‘behaviour programmes are more likely to have an impact on attainment outcomes if implemented at a whole-school level.’

There are two key steps towards achieving this that are within the grasp of every school and every teacher:

1. Leaders must develop and define a set of explicit school-wide routines and phrases that are designed to promote pro-social behaviour norms and reduce the likelihood of poor behaviour.

2. Teachers must actively teach these routines and apply them with consistency.

Crucially, the success of a whole school approach depends on whether we are all prepared to cede some of our personal autonomy to the greater good. The current national picture suggests we really should.

Let’s look more closely at why a consistent approach in secondary schools is so powerful.

1. Consistency supports our most vulnerable students. These may be children with a defined SEND, children whose home lives lack stability or children who struggle to regulate their behavioural choices amid the multiple stimuli of a busy, thriving school. Typically, transition points of the day are difficult times for these students: the starts and ends of lessons; moving between lessons. This is why a school-wide policy of ‘meet and greet at the threshold’ and ‘orderly dismissal’ is so powerful. Not only do these strategies actively target the needs of vulnerable children by reducing the opportunities for poor behaviour choices at the crunch points of the day, but they also make the school a calmer, more purposeful place for all.

2. Consistency builds character. Aristotle purportedly wrote: “Our actions become our habits, our habits become our character, our character is who we are.” In schools, the consistency of routines is the starting point for the growth of the habits that help young people develop into the adults we want them to become. The regular routine of starting every lesson with a quiet ‘do now’ task develops independence, patience and studiousness. A warm and welcoming personal greeting at the door – every day, five times a day – creates a sense of belonging and encourages friendliness and openness. These are attributes and behaviours we want children to take into their adult lives.

3. Consistency supports our most inexperienced teachers. Teaching is so much easier for ECTs, trainees and new staff when there is a clear set of successful routines and phrases to take off the shelf and use right away. For example, ‘Pens down, eyes on me’ is a brilliantly simple phrase (with accompanying hand gestures) that calls for attention from all. When the most experienced teacher and the least experienced teacher in the school are both using this phrase, the gap in status between the two teachers becomes narrower. The common language codifies the expectation for attention as a whole-school expectation rather than the pleadings of an isolated individual teacher. To enable this, it is essential that experienced staff swap their favourite go-to strategies for the new routine, so that they too are contributing towards the common sense of purpose and team spirit.

4. Habits and social contagion are inevitable. If schools do not explicitly design the school-wide habits they want to see, then the students will create their own instead – these may involve pushing, running, inappropriate language, lateness and other undesirable behaviours. Social contagion is also unavoidable: we unconsciously imbibe the social norms around us. When a child sees another child being pushed, they are more likely to do the same to another student and so on. This kind of social contagion is probably one of the main reasons why behaviour incidents spike across a school on certain days. Thankfully social contagion can work in our favour: when everyone else sits down quietly to complete the do-now task, you are primed to do just the same yourself.

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