OU lecturer John Ralston explains how teachers undertaking practitioner research into behaviour management for their Open University course have produced real change in their schools

Does this sound familiar? ‘In my first year of teaching there was one student whose behaviour I just could not manage. I struggled. I spent late nights rewriting lesson plans, looking for a different approach to teaching. I became discouraged, relieved when the end of the day arrived.’

What about this? ‘In the classroom, I feel that I am losing confidence in myself as a teacher. The pupils just keep chattering and won’t listen. Increasingly I feel isolated, not sure what to do. Whatever tactics I try seem not to work.’

And it is not just dealing with the pupils that make teachers so depressed and discouraged; it is often knowing that in other classes these same pupils behave better. But how can you turn it around so it is you that gets them to listen and to concentrate?

To begin we need to understand why certain situations arise, why some people can manage behaviour issues easier than others. We need to be aware of the different ways that people have responded to students whose behaviour is thought of as ‘threatening’. There are varying views among professionals about the causes of challenging behaviour and how it might be addressed.

Historically, one approach has been to place the blame mainly on the individual and search for a ‘cure’, a ‘treatment’, a ‘solution’, which might resolve the situation. Another approach places the emphasis on the learning environment and how it might be more effectively adapted to meet the learners’ needs, so that learners become more active participants in the process. But successful interventions aimed at improving student behaviour need also to be based on an understanding of a range of factors associated with the family, school, classroom, peer group or teacher as well as the student.

We know that student behaviour can be influenced by the school organisation and structure as well as its relationship with the community. For example, how can the relationship between the school and the local community be developed to ensure that parents do not feel marginalised? Why and how are some schools more successful than others in building such links and fostering partnerships?

 Addressing issues of student behaviour needs to take account of these factors, and by linking theory and practice, consider intervention approaches at community, school, classroom and individual level to find appropriate strategies.

One route to improving understanding and raising the confidence of teachers can be through the development of a ‘practitioner research’ project. This is the approach taken in the Managing School Behaviour course offered by the Open University as one option in its Master’s programme. Such an approach focuses on identifying an institutional need and then designing and implementing an intervention that will contribute to the improvement of student learning. At the OU, the focus is on behavioural issues at whole-school, classroom and individual student level.

Designed for newly qualified teachers to those with 30 years’ or more experience, working within mainstream or special schools, or colleges, across the UK, the Republic of Ireland or overseas, the course gets students to identify a behavioural problem in their institution and then design, implement and evaluate a piece of research intended to bring about improvement in pupil behaviour. The course also encourages students to look critically at national, local, school and departmental policy relating to behaviour, operating in their own country, identifying ways that institutional policy can be improved and developed.

The choice of topics is open to students and their choices have been varied and far-reaching. These are just some of the projects:

  • In what ways could a clear reward and sanction system help to overcome the disruption in my class?
  • Is poor behaviour among some students with special education needs linked to the way my school organises learning?
  • Will the introduction of regular circle time help create social responsibility within a class and improved relationships among pupils?
  • What impact can lunchtime supervisors have on the perceived behavioural difficulties of children arising during lunchtime play? 
  • Could a class-run social skills programme address the social behavioural needs of a student with Asperger’s syndrome?

What is clear at a first glance is that these projects address real concerns derived from real situations arising in schools. They have been chosen individually by students to explore solutions to addressing classroom issues. Results are positive. One student concluded: ‘The findings of the research would indicate that the involvement of students in the review process of a departmental discipline policy does produce a decrease in the number of classroom exclusions. It also suggests that through a sense of ownership, a better appreciation of the consequences of their actions and an understanding of the rewards and sanctions available to the teacher, there is a more positive approach to the self-regulation of behaviour.’

Using the practitioner research model to improve behaviour management can have profound repercussions for the teacher, the pupils and for the school. For the teacher, it encourages a critical attitude to practice, particularly where this may be generating perceived problems in pupils, and it increases the ability to assess and address personal professional development needs. Students can identify how addressing perceived issues is effective in stimulating change.

One OU student said her work had ‘increased motivation to promote change and disseminate ideas in my own institution’, providing ‘greater awareness of deficiencies of my institution with respect to the area which is the focus of the course.’ Pupil learning and behaviour was improved ‘by focusing on how the culture of an institution is important if it is to successfully develop learning.’

Another commented that her research had ‘developed awareness of the need to place self in another individual’s position’, while another identified the impact on others within the school, admitting he ‘gained a better understanding of pupils’ barriers to learning. This helped to reinforce information to other members of staff’.

A similar point was made by one student who felt that her research had ‘identified failings in her current school-based interventions, and helped to develop proposals to resolve these’.

Benefits to pupils’ performance is also evidenced from participants’ project reports. The teachers were learning how to do their job better through practice and the pupils felt the benefits. Here are some examples: 

  • ‘Many children in both groups recorded substantial gains in reading accuracy. However, the improvement in percentiles achieved by the intervention group were quite remarkable and a tremendous source of professional fulfilment.’ 
  • ‘All pupils made more progress in reading accuracy and rate than had previously been achieved in a comparable period.’
  • ‘There is evidence that the students were actively participating in learning and that their confidence as group members increased during the project. The presentations encouraged a sense of belonging to their peer group. Moreover, the project led to an improvement in behaviour.’

OU course tutors have found evidence of impact on teachers’ learning. There has been greater involvement of pupils in their own target setting and self-assessment of progress, and more positive approaches to behaviour plans. Practice has become more inclusive; teachers more responsive to pupils’ needs. There is increased knowledge and understanding of, and confidence about, special needs issues especially with regard to those new to role.

Participation also led to greater awareness of inclusion among colleagues (mainstream and special), and ‘identification of personal development targets, following critical reflection on own practice and execution of small-scale investigation in own context’, according to one tutor.

In some cases, course participation also resulted in greater cooperation between different parts of the education system (eg, special/mainstream/PRUs/resource units). It stimulated whole-school involvement in examining efficiency and effectiveness of policy and practice (for example, individual education plans, behaviour management). Significantly, course participants have been able to influence and inform senior leadership teams in their own organisations and contribute to school development plans.

Below we present an extract from a local authority officer’s evaluation of the practitioner research approach course.

‘A gigantic stride towards understanding the need to link theory and practice’: an LA officer’s appraisal

Teachers rarely focus upon the way in which differing theories of behaviour might impact upon styles of behaviour management. For the students studying this course, it was genuinely an almost ‘Damascene’ experience, not so much that they made a complete about turn in their practice as a result of the new knowledge, but that they realised that theoretical notions should impact upon and intertwine with practice and that they became reflective practitioners who were able to see a range of factors that impacted upon student behaviour rather than pedagogues who simply blamed students who elected not to behave appropriately. One participant wrote: ‘I have learned to question myself, not in a “beat myself up” way, but in a ‘what could I change to make things better’ way?’

 Completing the ‘live’ projects enabled them to take a gigantic stride towards understanding the need to link theory and practice. One student told me: ‘I’d never thought about it before – I know that sounds stupid, but you just sort of do it, don’t you, you manage behaviour in the way that people managed your behaviour, and you never think how that relates to theories of human behaviour. I’ve done the psychology before, but somehow this course enabled me to link the two in a way that I hadn’t done previously’.

It has also helped them to develop understanding of how ‘the system’ (from central government down to individual school) works. Students described their better understanding particularly of their local structure and the link between their local authority and their school during and after completion of the third assignment (national local, school and departmental policies relating to behaviour).

In summary students believed themselves to have improved their knowledge and understanding of: 

  • ‘theories of behaviour’ – some said that this was from a virtual nil beginning
  • systems for supporting difficult to manage students both through off-site provision and on-site support 
  • national policy directives and the way in which local authorities respond to such directives 
  • the way that policy and practice interlink at all levels l the confusion surrounding what it is that constitutes inclusion.

The OU Managing School Behaviour course

The course is organised into five parts:

  • Perspectives on behaviour and behaviour management in schools. 
  • Behaviour management strategies. 
  • Developing school policies and practices on behaviour. 
  • National and local policy initiatives and developments.
  • Methodology and planning practitioner research. The course contains both continuous assessment and a final assignment:
  • Three summative tutor-marked assignments. 
  • One formative tutor-marked assignment which is a proposal for a practitioner research project.

A final report on the practitioner research project. The final assignment involves initiating and reporting on a small-scale practitioner research project, drawing up an institutional development and personal development plan, setting targets for short, medium and the long term.

Further details, including costs can be found at www3.open.ac.uk/courses (Enter the course code E804 in the search box.)