Systemic theory in behaviour management

As someone with a background in Alternative Provision I am often tasked with thinking about systems of inclusion and exclusion. For so many children and young people who struggle to thrive in education, their experience will have involved multiple exclusions sometimes from multiple types of system: home, family, school, and society. Even highly flexible education systems – the one I work within is specifically designed to combat exclusion – will sometimes give rise to difficult decisions based on extreme levels of need that simply cannot be accommodated safely.

In systemic theory, the system is viewed as a series of interrelated, often overlapping, components that combine to affect circular causality – a sequence of causes and effects that ultimately lead back to the original cause. If we think about this in terms of education, the policies, structures, culture and ethos of most schools operate by defining what threatens the system (for example, poor behaviour and poor progress) and by mitigating the negative effects. Exclusion can be one effect – a measure by which to reinforce and strengthen the system by protecting those who remain able to function within it. 

Like all systems, schools are defined by their boundaries – behaviour is thus seen as (relatively speaking) predictable in line with expected patterns. Systemic approaches to managing behaviour, for example, contend that changing one part of the system will have an impact on the entire system; the success of a system is usually determined by the system’s ability to adjust to its environment and complete its goal (improved exams grades/low rate of exclusion etc etc). Good systems find ways to adapt to the individual needs of those within them, while also maintaining and holding the core boundaries. In the very best schools, boundaries are maintained but adjustments are also made to help pupils function well in the system and contribute to its goals. 

So what then, of the child or young person for whom the system cannot be adapted?

Systemic theory sees the child or young person as an intrinsic part of a series of overlapping systems both inside and outside of school. Behaviour and progress are influenced for good or for ill by the child or young person’s interactions with and within these systems. For children who find themselves moving through a series of systems from which they must be excluded to preserve the integrity of the system, opportunities for positive influences on behaviour become increasingly limited over time. Progress falters or stops even in situations where the child or young person has capacity for learning.

Alternative provision is often really good at finding ways of engaging with those for whom being part of systems (like school) have been fraught with difficulties. For children and young people who have been school refusers, face complex barriers, are difficult to place, or who have experienced multiple exclusions, AP can offer a new start in a system that can adapt to their needs more easily. The work done in these settings can be extraordinary in terms of social-emotional and mental health progress, as well as increased attendance and engagement. Having worked for many years in a setting like this, I know that the impact of focused support can feel incredibly tangible to the child or young person, the family and to staff. For most children and young people accessing AP successfully, it can be the first time they’ve been part of a system that feels like it works for them. What can be more difficult is showing this progress in ways that can be understood by various stakeholders. Commissioners, parents and other professionals usually want to see the progress made by students – especially those with significant gaps or who are progressing from very low starting points – usually in relation to EHCP targets or other metrics.

Progress tracking 

One problem with progress tracking in Alternative Provision is that for the children and young people supported in these settings, progress often looks like two steps forward and one step back. Understanding this type of pattern as progress to be celebrated was quite the learning curve for me when I started in AP. Having worked in mainstream (and largely further and higher) education it struck me that this kind of progress was incredibly hard to record. How could the systems we had show that, for a child who wouldn’t leave his bedroom, yelling at us through the bedroom door was progress? How could attendance figures, which tend to be measured in yes/no terms, show the full picture of what was going on for children and young people who were taking tiny, almost imperceptible steps that nevertheless pointed to a big improvement. 

Much qualitative evidence has been relied upon to show progress in students with huge gaps in their learning or with barriers to engagement that meant progress would always be slow and non-linear. A big part of my role as a senior leader in AP has been to try to understand how to design and collect quantitative evidence of progress; this required some thinking about systems that would ultimately take me on an unexpected collaborative journey.

Making our system work

A big inspiration for my work on progress tracking in AP has been Diane Rochford’s Report (2016) on progress tracking for pupils working below KS1 & KS2 levels. Rochford produced recommendations for understanding how to measure progress in pupils who could not be engaged in subject-specific learning. It identified seven indicators of engagement that education settings could report to parents and carers, though these would later be reduced to five as part of the Department for Education’s “The Engagement Model” (2020). As well as the seven indicator’s of progress that could be applied to observations of almost any activity, Rochford had suggested a scale of 0-5 might be overlayed in order to show the extent to which the child was able to demonstrate these “skills”, making it possible to map, over time, improvements.

Rochford had identified a problem with the existing system as well as an adaptation that allowed for success without threatening the existing systemic boundaries. She imagined a scale thorugh which children who might otherwise have not been able to progress in their school (system) could be encouraged, and staff who had struggled to know how to record that progress could find ways to do so. It got me thinking about the need to collect data in ways that used as a starting point the inclusion of all children and young people, without compromising the integrity of the data by making it so bespoke and flexible as to be meaningless when compared against metrics from peers. 

I knew it would be important to design a system for monitoring behaviour and progress that would balance the need for fixed, non-negotiable data like attendance stats (“where they there or not?”) and absence codes (“why weren’t they in if they were absent?”) with more flexible and responsive options that allowed data to be collected on less straightforward matters. In this way I wanted to consider the notion of circular causality but allow for adaptation too. One such example is the development of a metric that my colleague Lara Penfold, had invented called “participation”. She had been concerned with measuring the extent to which children and young people participate in the programme in which they are placed, even if that programme was taking place in a non-traditional learning environment like the home or the community. What had frustrated Lara was that we couldn’t find a way to show– through a curve on a graph, for example– the type of progress that wouldn’t seem all that positive by mainstream standards. The conversation in a child or young person’s back garden because they refused to leave the house, the problem-free chat driving along with a child or young person in the passenger seat  that would never have happened in a classroom but was still a major breakthrough.

Through some intense collaborative conversations over a period of a few weeks, Lara realised that we could begin to track tiny integers of progress backwards and forwards using a 0-5 scale system (similar to Rochford’s) that showed everything from 0 (“no participation”) to 5 (“participated in school independently”) and a range of things in between (“participated in own home”, “participated in the community”). The idea was that, rather than expecting linear progress– students start at 0 or 1 and aim for 5– we could track non-linear progress: the kind that plays out like two steps forward and three steps back again and again. What resulted was the participation progress tracking feature in LearnTrek. A fully customisable set of steps that can be flexed in any way the setting feels is helpful, and can track the various steps backwards, forwards and in between. In this way we could show progress for those who had been unable to see themselves as learners and for whom the usual metrics like attendance weren’t necessarily positive.

Rather than the lack of progress a child or young person made in relation to existing metrics being seen as a threat, my colleague and I needed to figure out how to adjust the system to better reach its goal – in this case, full inclusion. Collaboration like this is just one example of the incredible work being done in APs up and down the UK. The exercise balanced the need for a system (in this case behaviour and progress) with its own important boundaries against the adaptability required to work with children and young people who face so many barriers to full inclusion. Such an exercise is both a key metaphor and a hallmark of what these remarkable AP systems do day in and day out with some of the most vulnerable and marginalised children and young people. 

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