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Managing challenging behaviour: UK state vs UAE local state school

01st July 2017

Managing challenging behaviour: UK state vs UAE local state school

By Christina Taylor – Associate ELT consultant

This is the first time I have written a blog. I’ve written many papers, assignments, dissertations etc. But never a blog. I looked at the blogs currently on the ELT consultants’ website to get a feel of how they are composed; and it would seem they can be written in many different styles. However, they do all have one common theme; they all aim to share good practice and seek to improve educational experiences for young people.

Dealing with challenging behaviour has presented itself as an area of strength in my career so I thought this would be a good topic to start blogging with. I am taking the ‘informal blog’ approach (i.e. no references just my thoughts) as I am drawn to this style of blog the most – gaining personal insight based on experience from other professionals.

One of the best training courses I’ve ever attended was entitled “Mad, bad or misunderstood”. It was my favourite and most memorable as it was the one that made me reflect on my pedagogy, practice and attitudes the most. I would go as far as to say it was responsible for the successful manner in which I am able to engage and support the young people that I work with today. One of the most crucial theories I learnt was that: “thoughts lead to feelings and emotions which in turn result in the physical behavioural display. Ultimately there is a way to intervene to prevent certain behaviours that are detrimental to learning, by changing the thoughts and therefore feelings of the individual.

I started my career in a predominantly white, secondary school for boys and girls, in the UK that had above average numbers of students receiving free school meals and below average attendance rates. As you can imagine it was located in an extremely deprived area with higher than average rates of unemployment and crime. I worked at this establishment for 8 years, (watching it change from a traditional high school to a state of the art centre for learning). I then relocated to Dubai to teach, firstly in a private (very mixed) international school and then in a local (Emiratis only) state school for boys. It is the first and last schools that interest me the most. They were the least diverse and presented with the most student behavioural challenges. Does this mean that diversity improves student inclusion and behaviour?

In the first school I was Head of Inclusion; so had many opportunities to meet the entire student community. I’d like to mention that I am opposed to use of the word “naughty”. Some childrens behaviours can be perceived by society as “poor”, “naughty” or “challenging”. However, these children are, in basic terms, simply expressing a need, as they may have limited skills to communicate them. As mentioned, behaviours are a result of an emotion or feeling, caused by a thought or a collection of thoughts.

In the latter boys’ school, I taught year 3 and was Head of Personal, Health and Social Education. These students were 100% Emirati, some of them royalty, the rest attended by invitation of the Sheikh only. All had English as a second language; yet their language of instruction was English.

Despite the many contrasts between both groups of students: different ages, cultures, religions, socio-economic groups and languages. Apart from the obvious barrier that the UAE students had which was language; the barriers and challenges to education were almost identical in each of the schools: low literacy, processing skills and self-esteem, lack of confidence, poor home-school communication, poor communication skills, specific learning difficulties etc. The methods to overcome them also have common themes.

Although this article is entitled UK state vs UAE state; if it were a match the result would be a draw as I actually feel that the similarities in the young people far outweigh the differences. The methods by which the students react to these challenges are also very similar: poor attendance, lack of interest in academics, disengagement, low level disruption, defiance etc. There were slight differences but that’s for another blog.

The key message I would like to get across in this blog is concerning the methods to overcome the challenging behaviours in the different establishments. The obvious method is to remove the barrier to learning. This may sound simple, but I have been unpleasantly surprised over the years at how some (not all) practitioners seek a “magic” solution from e.g. a head teacher or another colleague – when they are presented with a student with challenging behaviour in their class. If you do not deal with the behaviour yourself – the student will never have respect for you. They will see the referral as a very clear message that you are unable or indeed unwilling to deal with them and ultimately, that you have no respect for them. Respect is key to having good student relationships, which in turn is key to having engaging, positive behaviour that is optimal for learning in your classroom. Although it may require a lot of effort initially it is always worth taking the time to understand and deal with the behaviour yourself.

That leads me on to another key method – always remember that you are dealing with the challenging behaviour not the students themselves. In other words when having the discussion with the student you would say “your behaviour upset me” or “when you spoke over me in the classroom it made it difficult for me to teach” rather than – “you upset me” or “you made it difficult for me to teach”. This is less threatening to the students and makes it easier for them to engage in reconciliation.

Reconciliation is crucial. If you are handing out punishments, e.g. time out, loss of playtime (I am not promoting these methods, merely using them as examples) you must always ensure that the time is taken to discuss and reconcile with the student before you teach them again.

There are endless methods to discuss regarding dealing with challenging behaviour. What I discovered when comparing the two schools is that; it’s not always what is said, or what you do but it is how you speak to and how you treat the student. Whether they be young learners or older, British or Emirati, boy or girl. Avoid humiliation at all costs, treat the students with kindness and respect and model the behaviours that you wish to see.

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