I spent the last eight years as a senior leader in an Alternative Provision for pupils excluded from mainstream settings. Many of the pupils I had the privilege to work with were from backgrounds where parents face genuine hardship as well as their own physical and mental health challenges. Like all education settings, we found ourselves having to plug the gaps in services against the backdrop of austerity, an increasingly stretched NHS, and a worldwide pandemic.
As the last option before a secure residential placement for a great number of our pupils we were always aware that making it work with us was essential; our policy was zero permanent exclusions, but this meant finding ways to ensure pupils with a range of diagnoses and health and social issues could succeed. It also meant figuring out how to take care of staff because a zero exclusions policy meant pupils remained with us even in the wake of major incidents involving staff. Pupils had usually faced trauma upon trauma before arriving with us and behaved in ways that communicated this very clearly. The biggest circle to square was how to ensure that while supporting the wellbeing of traumatised pupils, the mental health of staff was also prioritised. How could staff be there 100% for those who could (and did) behave in ways that no school could manage, without creating a high-anxiety environment for staff?
What I learned from working at the extreme end of challenging behaviour has been set against the backdrop of small class sizes, a strong no-exclusion ethos, and extremely talented and committed staff. However, I want to share some key takeaways for managing staff and student mental wellbeing that are applicable no matter what kind of education environment you find yourself in.
Banking compassion vs reasoned empathy
The term “banking compassion” is not my own. It refers to the process of investing (or “banking”) time and energy in a pupil despite constant rejection in the form of withdrawal and/or challenging behaviour. To bank compassion is to recognise that we may never see a return on our investment but if we do, it’ll be absolutely worth it. It is the bedrock of good practice in alternative provisions.
However, being supportive, patient, empathetic and committed can take its toll on even the most experienced and positive member of staff. For this reason, banking compassion has to be balanced with what Paul Bloom describes (in his 2016 book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion) as “reasoned empathy”. For Bloom, reasoned empathy is the natural check to banking compassion - the recognition that to over invest too much empathy is to risk making it all about ourselves and not the person we are supporting. This is something that can happen when you work with vulnerable pupils: staff can begin to believe they are the only person that can have a positive relationship, the only person the pupil can rely on, and that can take its toll.
The concept that one cannot fill from an empty jug will be familiar to those with an interest in mental health and this draws on the same principle - to be available to bank compassion we have to manage our own reserves. When working with extremely challenging behaviour, managing our own mental health is about investing in our pupils in a professional and fully boundaried way that recognises that we are part of a team and we aren’t always going to be the superhero of every situation for that pupil. It is vital to understand what role we play, including our strengths and limitations, and how that can contribute to banking compassion holistically across our team.
How you look at a pupil always matters
A lot of pupils arrive at alternative provision schools having been the “worst kid” in their previous school. How do you stay mentally well and foster wellbeing in pupils in a whole school full of the self-labelled “worst” kids? One key concept is that of looking at a pupil in the way you want them to be rather than as how they are while behaving at their worst.
I worked with one student who came to us with the label of “worst”. His behaviour was unpredictable and had resulted in restraint at previous schools - he made staff very anxious and I am sure there had been a degree of power in that for him. His favourite thing to do was to access staff-only areas and he was genius at finding opportunities to do this. Faced with this behaviour, we made a conscious decision that we would look at him differently. Instead of being quickly (often physically) pushed out of places he shouldn’t be, we opted to actively welcome him in. We asked him to enter when he was on the periphery of a staff area and take a seat, tell us about his day/weekend/week, ignoring any negativity despite the temptation to challenge the problem behaviour continuously.
At first he was disruptive, but we continued to look at him like a person who was welcome (even though, frankly, we could have done without his visits) and eventually it became true. After weeks of looking at him like a person who could be trusted despite evidence to the contrary, he stopped the problem behaviour and settled into a new label - one that was much more positive. The impact on the anxiety levels of staff around the pupil was huge because we had stopped fighting the inevitability of challenge, physical restraint and damaged relationships and looked at the pupil like the best possible version of himself. In doing so we were able to open up a powerful space into which he eventually made the step. Staff mental wellbeing improved, and so did the pupil’s outcomes.
Positive language - fake it til you make it!
Language matters, and it can be a powerful tool for positive mental wellbeing in situations where behaviour is very challenging. Almost all the pupils I worked with had spent their time in education being told what they couldn’t do. The pupil whose name, spoken by a teacher, is always followed by a negative comment begins to stop listening at all after a while. The opposite can be true if they are spoken to in a positive way when this isn’t something they’ve been particularly used to. In my experience, it is essential to consistently challenge problem behaviour; it is not OK to let a pupil break rules or behave badly without challenge just because they are facing serious difficulties. How we verbally challenge is the important part.
The best verbal challenge to problem behaviour is clear, concise, and positive, focussing on what the pupil must start doing rather than what they must stop doing. For example, instead of saying “stop throwing things” say “put those away please” even though you suspect the pupil won’t comply. It is unlikely that switching your language in this way will have any immediate impact on behaviour. However, if done consistently it will create an environment where you can be assertive without the cycle of negativity associated with the sound of your voice. If it has no other effect, using positive language will equip you with something to try so that you can “fake it til you make it”. Done consistently, reframing the way you challenge can help establish an environment where language is carefully geared towards a growth mindset, encouraging positivity and mental wellbeing for you and for even the trickiest of pupils. It can’t hurt - so why not try it?
Dr Alexandra Gray is a specialist in choice-informed practice and has designed a range of needs-based behaviour management courses and interventions.
Having worked as a Senior Leader in an Alternative Provision for a number of years, Alexandra now runs LearnTrek, an EdTech platform designed for use in non-mainstream education.