GTC Scotland

The General Teaching Council for Scotland

Comhairle Choitcheann Teagaisg na h-Alba

Opinion: Changing language, changing lives

This year has been quite challenging for everyone as we have had to develop and learn new skills and adapt to new ways of communicating and engaging with our pupils. We have seen how successful digital learning can be. The whole country has learned how adaptable schools can be when faced with unseen challenges and we should be proud. In our history, we know that when major challenges have gripped the country, real change follows.

As a peripatetic teacher, I support pupils, schools and families. Many of my pupils have additional support needs. In my role, we have offered and delivered training on a range of topics for our schools, tailored to suit the whole school community. One of the biggest issues within our schools is arguably behaviour.
Most of us are now working with the understanding or mantra that “all behaviour is communication”. Behaviour can be loosely covered under each of the following headings:

  • Justice: whether for oneself or others. Most playground situations would be placed under this heading.
  • Sensory: there has been an internal or external sensory trigger that has impacted on the person.
  • Escape/avoidance: the trigger is the activity/room/person/demand/expectation.
  • Relationship seeking: they are looking for the attention of someone.
  • Tangible: they want something in particular.

If we, as adults, recognise and understand this, why is there such a focus for us on behaviour? We use language around behaviour in schools a lot. We have behaviour policies, behaviour management plans, behaviour support plans, promoting positive behaviour plans etc. We need these, of course we do. But, when we use the word “behaviour” in our society, we place all of the responsibility on one person. If we were to change the word behaviour to communication, we share the responsibility.

I know, here we go again…

…changing language for the sake of change. But this isn’t about that, this is something more. We all understand the importance of positive relationships because we need them as humans. By changing one word, could we really improve relationships?

When working with a pupil recently, he was telling me about “Class of the month”. He told me his class never won it, because to win it everyone had to be “good”. When asked about what that meant, he started reciting the school rules but he thought his class would never win because he didn’t stand nicely in line. He has ADHD and can’t always control his movements.

Another pupil talked about how he was always “getting put out of French class” because he would carry on. He couldn’t understand French and didn’t want to look like the class idiot so opted to look like the class clown instead.
Another pupil found it really difficult to cope with break times as he couldn’t relate to his peers, so he would kick off to get detention and avoid the social interaction altogether.

There are so many different examples any teacher could give around behaviour. In a busy classroom environment, we don’t have time to look at the whys of every behaviour and instead do our best to manage the behaviour. But if we were able, if we could, what would we see? Would we see challenging behaviour or would we see communication challenges? Would we see attention seeking or relationship seeking?

Communication is a two-way street. When communication fails, both parties have a level of responsibility. When a person misbehaves or is badly behaved, they are solely responsible. For some of our five year olds, that’s a huge responsibility. For some of our 15 year olds, that’s a huge responsibility. This isn’t about taking away that responsibility but rather looking at it to see, if we change something will the reaction be different? If it will, what is our reason for not changing it?

Practical steps

If we go back to each of the behaviour headings, we could plan out our reactions. If the communication is sensory, what do we have in place to combat that? Perhaps we have wobble cushions, sensory boxes, ear defenders, therabands available in each class for pupils who need them and/or a separate quiet area for lunch time.

For escape or avoidance, we look at what the trigger is and use talking mats to work through it. Or we use a first/then board with a sand timer to show them how long the activity is going to last. Perhaps we look at whether there is a benefit in making them do/go somewhere.

Looking at justice, maybe we need a visual reminder in the playground to show pupils who they can go to. Perhaps we have a visual sheet for pupils to fill out quickly to report minor incidents that can be posted into a minor incident postbox. We could use a social story or script to show that sometimes issues are dealt with privately so they may not see someone else’s consequence.

Relationship seeking is all about giving opportunities to build that relationship in a more positive way. Instead of saying “stop chatting”, what if we tried “there will be time to chat in ten minutes”? Sometimes, it can be negative relationship seeking, where they are looking for someone to argue with. Encourage debate skills in class instead.
If a pupil wants something, give them other ways to request it. Again, use visuals or social scripting to focus on tangible situations.

When supporting communication, we quickly discover the issue of perceptions and how easy it is to misunderstand communication and see it as rude or defiant. We’ve all done it! “Do you want to open your book?” “No.” As teachers, if we were to take every communication in a positive manner at best, we would improve relationships and avoid confrontation. At worst, we would appear gullible and naïve. Which is worse?

Improving communication can help alleviate anxiety and provide choice over direct demands. Instead of saying “write the title” we could say, “do you want to write the title on this page or write the title on a new one?” You know your pupils best. Some of our pupils need short, clear, direct instructions whereas others benefit from choice.

Ultimately we have such a short time with our pupils. So while we have these wonderful young minds that we can help shape and mould, why not help them that little bit more? Let’s have ‘Supporting Communication Policies’ instead of ‘Managing Behaviour’ ones. Let’s have ‘Positive Communication Plans’ instead of ‘Positive Behaviour Plans’. Let’s try it and see if it makes a difference.


Frances Young works with North Lanarkshire Council.