The General Teaching Council for Scotland

Transforming behaviour

We talk to Paul Dix about the Pivotal Education approach to excellent behaviour in schools

TS: You deliver training sessions on the “habits of amazing teachers”. Can you sum up some of these habits?

Stand at the door, smile at your children, give them a handshake, a high five, a fist pump, a hug, make them feel like they’re welcome, they belong – it’s an essential habit. And it’s an essential habit for every teacher, I’d say actually for every member of staff working at the school to do that at least once a day. In some secondary schools they’re doing it at the beginning of every lesson. But I think even just at the beginning of the day that connection is critical. It’s very difficult to start your lesson in a negative way if your first act is to smile and say good morning and notice something and have a conversation with every child. It does make the first five or ten minutes flow much easier. So there’s a very practical reason why teachers need these routines. I’d say that using a recognition board is a habit of an amazing teacher. So that they’re not putting naughty names on the board, which is totally redundant and every piece of research on it has shown that it just encourages poor behaviour. To actually recognise the children who are doing the right thing, and to give them some public recognition. Finally, I’d say there needs to be habits in dealing with the most difficult situations. If a child behaves very badly and you improvise, that doesn’t help the chaos at all. What we need are planned approaches. So we [Pivotal Education] teach teachers what we call a 30-second intervention. This is a scripted intervention so that the child is protected, the adult is protected, they know what’s going to be said, they know the tone and pace and how long it’s going to take. And we don’t end up with these sort of endless power plays between children and adults that end up with “I ain’t doing it, yes you are, I ain’t doing it, yes you are!” The scripted intervention means that everything is planned and everything is routine. When I see meet and greet, recognition boards and scripted interventions in a classroom I know up those habits, those relentless routines that children need so that behaviour isn’t exhausting.

TS: You give advice on developing a whole-school ethos built on kindness, empathy and understanding. Why do you think kindness is so important?

It’s too easy in a school to default to a sharp word or a shout, or an instant judgement, and small kindnesses that are planned into the school day are deliberate attempts to change adult behaviour and make it visible. If somebody is being kind to you, it’s almost inhuman to act in a consistently poor way to it. And children make choices about who they behave poorly for. They often choose to misbehave appallingly for the teachers who show them least kindness. It doesn’t mean we’re all skipping around and everything’s perfect, but it means that when we meet distressed behaviour our default is kindness. When we have to remove a child from a class we do it with care, consideration and kindness, not with anger.

TS: Many schools are beginning to follow an approach where relationships and awareness of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are at the centre. Is such an approach in line with your own?

Absolutely it is. Excellent behaviour is an essential foundation because you can’t do excellent teaching and learning without it. Too many schools try to do innovative teaching and learning but the discipline is such that the children are not focused, there’s too much chaos, and if you lay innovative teaching and learning on poor foundations of behaviour it’s like sinking sands. Eventually you find that the innovation dries up because the teachers say “I can’t do this kind of teaching because the basics are not there yet”. Being trauma-informed and being ACE-aware is so important, not because you excuse behaviour or allow it to destroy your classes, but so you can understand, connect on a better level and have better conversations with children. What’s going on in Scotland just now is so interesting for me because the work that we do does mirror that. We’re not dealing with children with extreme behaviour, we’re not dealing with naughty children. The children who concern us most as teachers are distressed children. They are children who have experienced trauma, they are children who are not able to trust adults anymore because of what’s happened outside of school.

TS: How difficult is it for adults to change their behaviour and can it be achieved using a top-down approach?

Pivotal programmes are not top-down approaches and I worry so much when I stand on a stage and do an hour-long keynote that people are thinking, right I’m going back to school on Monday morning and we’re going to announce all these changes. Let’s do this properly. You get one shot as a headteacher to cause a revolution in behaviour so you better get it right and it can’t be a top-down flash in the pan. This is why we’ve got 215 podcasts on our website, and this is why the book has gone crazy. Because as a headteacher what do you want to do? Do you want to stand up in front of everyone and say this is what we’re doing, or do you want to wait until staff are knocking on your door saying can we do this. So the amount of schools that have started pivotal programmes by doing a reading club, by getting some books into the library, by making sure that the people on the ground get it, understand it, and want it. That’s when you get real long-term embedded change. Headteachers who just try to demand and insist – I’ve seen it before, where teachers were told, we’re doing the Paul Dix thing, we’re doing the Pivotal thing, you will stand on your door and shake the hand of every child. I’ve never seen so many unenthusiastic handshakes. So many teachers just going through the motions. The Pivotal Education programme is amazing but it’s hard work and it’s grind and you’ve got to grind it out every day, put on that smile, hold out your hand, build those relationships on the days when you yourself feel that that’s the last thing that you want to do. It’s got to come from the ground up. So what we do is we work with staff and we go slowly. We feed faculty meetings with tips and ideas, and video clips. We make sure people have read the book, got the ideas and principles, and then we start, very slowly and gradually bringing in the training, bringing in the train-the-trainer scheme and gearing the school up to take the big step and for everyone to launch it together. If you look at Portobello High School (see Positive Portobello) and the absolute transformation they’ve had since September, and working with the Pivotal project, you’d think actually this hasn’t taken a great deal of time, but it has taken great leadership and it has taken a great deal of commitment from the staff to do it. You’ve got lots of great leaders in Scotland, but it’s our programme plus the leadership. It’s not a programme on its own, you can’t just throw it into a school. But when you have great leadership, people that get it, the programme runs alongside that great leadership.

About Paul

Paul Dix is a speaker, author and notorious teacher-wrangler in huge demand. He is founder and Executive Director of Pivotal Education. As a teacher, leader and teacher trainer, Paul has been working to transform the most difficult behaviour in the most challenging schools, referral units and colleges for the last 25 years. Paul is Chair of the Board of Directors of a Multi Academy Trust and co-hosts the www.pivotalpodcast.com

His bestselling book When the Adults Change, Everything Changes was published in June 2017.