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In our final post this week exploring different elements of remote education, Tom Bennett, lead behaviour advisor to the Department for Education (DfE) and founder of researchED, provides an expert insight into behaviour management and offers support and advice for schools on overcoming some of the most common challenges they are being faced with.

A steep learning curve

Remote learning used to be seen as something boutique in education. While not exactly rare, it wasn’t exactly common either.

It was the province of adult education, virtual schools, MOOCs and prison education. Suddenly the great meteor of COVID blew everything to smithereens and left us all blinking. It took schools some time to get up to speed with the new normal, and who could blame them for that?

What is undeniable is that schools everywhere moved mountains to do their best, despite the emergency. Within months, schools had learned more about emergency remote learning than they ever thought they would need to.

And that’s what it was at first – emergency learning. Not distance learning in ideal circumstances.

It has been a learning curve of a year for us all; and everyone has had to be flexible, patient, and determined. One of the greatest challenges was initially at least, the least obvious: how do you manage behaviour in an online learning environment?

Re-defining behaviour or re-defining the problem?

Moderators of commercial media like Facebook can expel and ban as they please, but in the massive and comprehensive world of public sector schooling, simple levers like that just won’t work, and would be immoral.

But behaviour was almost immediately a big problem for many, once the smoke had cleared and people had got past the first hurdle of ‘how on earth do we set up an online curriculum for an entire cohort of children?’

That was the first problem. Once that had been established (in thousands of different ways) the next question was, ‘How do we make sure they’re doing what they need to do?’ Or in other words, ‘How do we make sure they behave?’

And, of course, this has never not been the question for teachers to address.

How do you get them to behave? By behave I don’t simply mean ‘sitting still and shutting up.’ That has always been a gross simplification of what good behaviour is.

Good behaviour means ‘behaviour that helps students to flourish, both as learners and as human beings.’

That can mean knowing when to be quiet, of course – it’s a valuable habit to have – but also when to speak, when to question, when to argue, and when to dissemble. In short, ‘good’ behaviour means a lot of things. In fact, it means everything that a student does.

Suddenly, getting them to be quiet isn’t the problem anymore. In fact, for many teachers, the problem was getting them to speak.

Identifying the concerns

Now, the problems faced by teachers in this brave new world revolved around:

1. Turning up. How do you make sure students are actually there? Some students realise that you cannot force them to their desks, and suddenly bunking is as easy as shutting the lid of a laptop. How do you make sure they are present when there might be legitimate hardship at home that prevents children spending all day in a quiet space? And even if they are in front of the laptop, how do you make sure they engage with the work? Which leads us to…

2. Effort: Assuming you have them where they need to be physically, are they present in body only, and are they thinking about what they need to be thinking about. And how do you know? Which leads us to…

3. Assessment: how can you assess their work in real time? How can you check if they have understood? How can you get them to demonstrate where they are in the learning? Suddenly, the sea of blank screens seems very remote indeed. Which leads us to…

4. Curriculum coverage: we suddenly see that circumstances vary so much for students. Some have automatic access to a laptop, a quiet room, and a warm chair with snacks on tap. Some have supportive family members who check in on their work, who make sure they meet deadlines, and who offer them the social encouragement that is normally so much part of a normal classroom. And some do not. The gap grows wider in these circumstances, ever wider. How do we know they have learned the curriculum?

These are just some of the problems. What can a teacher do to ameliorate them?

The first thing to realise is that this is a time to be kind to one another.

The mistakes we made in the first few months of lockdown are infinitely forgettable and forgivable. We are, as they say, where we are. These are not ideal circumstances. The best we can do is to make the best of a bad time. So teachers need to learn to forgive themselves a little when things aren’t perfect. No doctor can save every one of their patients. No one is perfect. We do our best and sleep easily knowing that.

Next, we consider that children behave the way they need to behave far more readily when we remember that behaviour is a curriculum. It is learned.

None of us are born knowing how to behave in complex circumstances. No teacher is born knowing how to run remote learning. No student is born knowing how to be the ideal remote student. The solution, and one that flows logically from the idea that behaviour is a curriculum, is that we must teach them the behaviour we want to see. Students flourish when they know that they are expected to do, and that behaviour is taught to them, not merely told.

So we need to teach them the new behaviours we want to see. Which entails another question: what behaviour do you want to see? Well, you want them to be far more attendant to punctuality, to attendance, to deadlines, to the importance of logging in at certain times when teaching is synchronous and allowing more fluidity when it is not.

So, communicate that clearly with students, and make sure that parents know about these expectations. Teach them how to be on time, which might mean having conversations about how to behave before learning is scheduled to start: getting up in good time, having breakfast before learning etc. It sounds obvious, but the obvious is only obvious to people who know it. Ask Mastermind contestants.

Next, design communication channels with parents and guardians. They need to know when students are falling behind, and when they are doing well.

This might be a simple scoresheet, or it might mean boutique conversations and phone calls. But these people are your best potential allies. Not always, but they are your partners, your teaching assistants. Most parents would love to know how to help their children, because they love them, however harassed and tired they are. They worry that they don’t do enough, and that they can’t help. So help them to help you help their children. Send them short crib sheets about the topics, or how-to-teach guides. Many won’t read them. But many will. You reduce the learning deficit in this way.

And crucially, keep communicating your norms to students all the time.

Congratulate good work and attendance, and celebrate the right behaviour far more frequently than you would normally. Students need as many extrinsic reasons to turn up as possible, and status, recognition, community and being valued by an adult is one of the most powerful motivators there are.

In classrooms, we often take it for granted that they are there, and that they are in a workplace. At home, we cannot take this for granted. We need to work for it, which is why it is often so tiring and dispiriting. This was never going to be easy. But it is more important than ever.


Learn more about Managing Behaviour in Remote Education through our webinars with Tom Bennett.

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