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“Behaviour is communication; we need to be receptive and willing to work out what it is telling us”

28th January 2020

CEO, Tracie Linehan, shares her thoughts after Alex Sobel MP calls for a ban on isolation booths in schools at the Lose the Booths conference.

The 8 year old me loved maths more than anything; I was good at it and ahead of my class. There were work cards with sums on that I could complete at my own pace. These were extra activities, the teacher’s way of keeping idle minds and hands busy! I loved whizzing through them, going to my teacher for more praise and a sticker. My sticker chart was almost full. The final box of cards, full of long division, percentages and ratios became my first mathematical hurdle. I couldn’t work them out. I didn’t want to ask for help as I thought it would mean that I wasn’t good at maths anymore.

I started talking to my classmates, drawing in my maths book, making jokes, walking about the classroom. My teacher was aghast at my behaviour and sent me out of the room. The same sanction happened the next day and again the next. On day three my teacher called me back; I thought I was in huge trouble, I was scared. She didn’t shout or say how disappointed she was, as she had the previous days, she looked at me and simply said she was confused. She asked me what was wrong. I cried and said I couldn’t do the final card, meaning I wasn’t as good at maths as I thought and that all the other stickers were pointless as I wouldn’t get the reward.

My behaviour distracted me from the difficult task and masked my inability to tackle the problems. I was simply being ‘naughty’, ‘playing-up’ – for me this was preferable to admitting defeat. Being sent out of class gave me a sense of relief from the anxiety of getting something wrong, of failing. I realised and learnt that to avoid the task, and the potential for failure, I just needed to get sent out.

I have visited many schools and have seen children sat outside the Head Teacher’s office, or sat in “isolation” rooms. Each time I have asked why the child is there. The reply was “they were being disruptive”; “they’d got 3 strikes on the board, it’s part of our behaviour strategy”; “they were rude”. I clarify my question: “why do they want to be there, what is their behaviour telling you?”

Oftentimes, children in isolation rooms have the individual attention of an adult who will claim that “they get lots more work done for me in here”. When asked, the children say “it’s quieter in here”; “Miss helps me”; “I can concentrate better”. These answers led me to the conclusion that the isolation room is a motivation and to get access, the children know that they need to contravene the behaviour code of their school. Isolation rooms are therefore reinforcing for the child. Behaviour is communication, it is telling us something; we need to be receptive and willing to work out what it is telling us. Undesirable behaviour in a classroom is usually a mask and it only takes the right questions and the right time to work out what is hidden behind it.

My teacher took the time to explain the maths to me, she also took the time to underpin my resilience in learning with the ability to ask for help. As humans we don’t ask for help naturally, we need to learn how to do it; the older and more self-aware we become the easier it should get but it doesn’t – don’t assume that the children in your classroom know how, teach them. Always assume that the child’s behaviour is communicating something less obvious to you, find out what it is. Remember that the sanction of the isolation room is likely to be far more of a positive reinforcer for the child, and not a sanction at all.

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