Strategies To Build and Maintain a Positive, Supportive School Culture

Jessica Bates is the Principal at Beldon Education Support Centre. She has twenty years of education experience bringing Positive Behaviour Support (PBS) approaches into a whole school setting.

Jessica Bates

How long has Positive Behaviour Support been around in WA schools?

The official rollout of PBS in the WA Education Department happened about 20 years ago. This policy shift felt quite abstract for many. In some ways, it followed what we'd already been doing innately, in education support with person-centred planning and looking at people's strengths. That's what we do all day, every day. Introducing PBS in a system-wide process was a bit clunky at first. It took a while to understand what it was trying to achieve. It's what we're good at. That's what it was trying to achieve. By this, I mean looking at the function of behaviour and what communication is behind behaviour. But the way PBS was presented to us was a bit different, so it took a bit longer for people to catch on to the idea of what it was trying to do. For this reason, I think it took a couple of years to really embed into certain schools.

The education support setting that I was in was already very individualised. This was part of how we operated. I think the big challenge for PBS is implementing it in bigger school settings where there is more of a disciplinary and behaviour management approach.

Where did PBS come into your teaching background?

You cannot teach anybody without having a really strong relationship and understanding and connection with someone, which is what PBS is really, isn't it? It's really getting deeper into how people think and what they value and what it means. I learned this early in my career.

If you're thinking, "Everyone's going to be quiet and interested in what the teacher has to say,", that's not the world we live in anymore. It's a two-way street now. You need to understand what's important to the person you are teaching.

The work of bringing that into a whole school setting as a leader probably started 20 years ago. I'm talking about the more formalised process of breaking it down and talking about what it is, what we value, what behaviours we value, why we behave, and what we want. I think the biggest difficulty in doing that is that people often revert back to disciplinary reactions through fear. It's changing the concept of what is expected of the teacher and removing some of that fear so teachers can accept that some kids will be noisier and some kids need sensory things to be presented differently. You don't have to try to have everybody conform to one particular behaviour. It is the system change that takes time. That's a change throughout the community and the Education Department in general, and that's probably a harder shift.

What sort of training have you noticed delivers the most benefit to the adoption of PBS approaches?

Person-Centered Planning

I think firstly, it would be really understanding the importance of person-centred planning. It doesn't matter which individual we're talking about. We need to focus on individual strengths and individual mindsets. That is a lot. There's a lot to develop - in our language, the way we record information and the way we present information. Person-centred planning is a massive foundational thing that you need first.

Individualised Instruction

Individualised instruction is also foundational. Accommodations are needed to ensure that students aren't triggered, and that they're supported and feel safe within the classroom to work. Individual instruction helps avoid the behaviours. That is harder than it sounds, to really get those accommodations, especially in a big mainstream class. If you get those accommodations right, then you do see that students are more wanting to engage, so the behaviours will drop away.

Explicit Positive Instruction

Explicit but positive instruction is required, supported by a communal understanding of what is valued within the classroom.

Understanding How The Brain Works

Understanding how the brain works is vital. This insight helps a teacher understand that behaviour is a form of communication rather than being naughty. This understanding helps to have empathy in implementing PBS.

Lining up the foundations means that staff can align around a common culture. Without the training, understanding and skills, that would be where we run into problems with trying to implement PBS as a process.

Values & Language

How do you approach the alignment of the PBS strategies with the overall school culture and values?

Training, communication. I guess it's talking as a community about what it is we value, and really going through that carefully. There is also a need to review our language because there's always that hidden agenda that's embedded in things. We need to really be upfront about what we value as a school community, and we need some agreement around that. That takes time. It's not just pulling words out. It's a real understanding of what we are there for as a community.

Building Culture Takes Time

I think that cultural building was something that, as an educational leader, took a lot longer than I had anticipated. It's not just a one-off conversation; it's really how you listen to people's opinions because otherwise, it's just the people who speak the loudest who would get heard, and you want everybody to be heard from this point on. That's where you need to get the different forms of surveys and different forms of communication out to really develop that conversation. That's a harder thing. Once you've got that language and that understanding and that clear foundation, then you can build on it. So that's the start.

What I'm hearing is that there's a real need for leadership and listening and conversation over time, to gradually ensure that everybody is coming to an understanding of what they want to achieve as a school community.

Yes. Why are the students there? What is it that we see as important? What's important for the community? Different people would have different answers to that. And I think that's where, again, we do that in special needs or special needs education. We look at what's important for the student. What's important for the student is what's in the curriculum and what's in the plans. In a bigger school context, sometimes we block-value something. If you block value, I think that's when you lose traction.

Could you describe a challenge or an obstacle that you faced in implementing it and how you overcame that?

The biggest obstacle is always going to be with your most challenging of students. The students that are struggling are the most vulnerable. They're going to often have the most vulnerable physical reactions to things or the most challenging. When you are faced with a challenge like that on a daily basis, staff can lose faith in what they're doing. They can lose faith in the process, and you sometimes feel that you need to do a harsher reaction. This is when you'll start to hear things like, "Oh, the other students will see what's happening and think he's getting away or she's getting away with something". That's when you have to really go back to what we value and what we're doing. That is where you need ongoing training through the staff because it's a little bit of training and it's a little bit of reassurance at the right time that is so valuable.

It just brings us back to what we are here for. One-off workshops don't work very well, because it's in those hardest times when your energy is just really down that the support is needed. Progress at times can be slow when you are changing these kinds of behaviours. That's when even the best practitioner can start to lose confidence.

What does it feel like when you see behaviours of concern start to transform? What's that like for you?

Sometimes it can be so slow. My last school was a high school, and I was there for 20 years. One of the reasons I stayed so long was because you fell in love with the kids in Year Seven. They can have these behaviours that can be really intense. One day can feel like a week at times. But then, when you see that student leaving high school, starting employment, being able to engage in a conversation, or getting a girlfriend. They're a totally different person than the vulnerable student that you've got in Year Seven. You just feel such a sense of pride for them and achievement in helping them with behaviours that could have got in their way.

Celebrating Every Achievement

Success often doesn't happen quickly. Young teachers will do well celebrating and looking for every achievement. You celebrate for yourself, you celebrate for the student and for the whole school community. When we can see changes and growth and development in a different light, really great things happen.

Do you have any thoughts about the challenges of consistency across classrooms?

Consistency can be a problem in mainstream classrooms. If a student starts to feel safe and confident in one classroom, but that changes dramatically in another classroom, it can really impact the implementation if PBS. What helps is a culture of understanding of what we value. If that is really understood, there shouldn't be dramatic changes from one classroom to another or from one individual to another. That's where time is required. If we try and hurry, and the values are not really understood by the staff or the culture's not clear, then it would be quite frightening for a student. You'd be very vulnerable going from one classroom to another if it's just dependent on who's standing out the front that day.

Are there ways that you measure how someone's doing within a school?

Measuring progress in social, emotional and wellbeing areas is difficult. What any educator wants is for someone to feel a sense of security, belonging, and happiness. How do you measure that? One way is a really robust survey system within the school. That might be for students who are verbal or nonverbal, and for parents and for staff. If we start to identify what it is that they get enjoyment out of at school, where it is that they're feeling unsafe, where it is that they're feeling challenged, then I think you can start to identify whether proactive social-emotional programmes are working. Surveying is a big one.

Are they anonymous surveys?

In our primary school, we've got a lot of nonverbal students. It'd be difficult for them to be anonymous because for their voice to be heard, they often need someone to be there. What's important in this is that the students realise that their voice is important, and they're given the opportunity to give feedback. That is really important. Just because they don't speak, it doesn't mean they don't have a really clear understanding of what they're enjoying.

In a high school setting, students would be more honest if it was anonymous. Maybe they could have a way of doing it digitally because teenagers love digital things. Everyone loves digital. What's really important is giving different modes so students have the option of which one they're going to engage in. That's the same for staff as well. If I'm standing there and saying, "Give me your feedback," to the teachers, they might not want to hurt my feelings on that day. They might not want to directly give me some genuine feedback.

Can you talk briefly about the collaboration and communication between staff, students and parents in the success of PBS?

If we were talking about someone with behaviours of concern, and this person would have their own individual plan, and for an individual plan to be made, it would be in consultation directly with the student, the parents, the therapist, and possibly any stakeholder. The whole basis of PBS is going back to what we value. If we make that agreement, such as "This is the most important aspect of what we're trying to achieve," if we get that communication clear, then it should be a successful outcome. There is not going to be a successful outcome when that original understanding of what we want to achieve is not agreed on or not understood by each member.

The foundation blocks of communication are really just going to have an impact all the way along, so that it has to be right?

It has to be right and flexible. If I have in my mind that this is what I want for every student of the school, and one of my students isn't able to manage that or to self-regulate in that way or to present in that way, and I'm not flexible in the accommodations that I'm providing or even the expectations that I'm providing, then they're set up for failure, aren't they? How are they going to achieve in my setting?

This is such a profound shift for the education system, teachers are going to be learning a whole different learning approach?

Maybe. I'm not sure what people expect. As a student, as a child, I attended 13 different schools. I experienced very different types of teaching. The safest place I ever felt was the teachers who did have a very secure expectation, and a lot of routine. So, in some ways, they were considered the strictest, but I knew with those teachers because they knew me that I was safe in there. So it's that relationship building, and I think that relationship building is old as anything in teaching. It goes back to, I don't think people learn from people that they don't like or think doesn’t like them. If you get that relationship right, how you present it can be different. It's the understanding that you are valued and you are safe and how that's achieved might be different in different settings, but I think that's the foundation of PBS.

It feels like it's got really big implications for the recruitment of student teachers, doesn't it?

Most teachers go into teaching because they want to have an impact and they want people to achieve the best. It's more of a service, and I think people go into it for that reason. It's sometimes the fear of having to manage the expectations of what that looks like that puts pressure on teachers. What is it that we value within the education system? If it is that we value for every student to come out with 100%, then we're setting everyone up for failure. But if we value growth and achievement and developing of people as a whole, then I don't think there are any changes needed in recruitment.

What are the steps to ensure that the interventions are tailored to meet individual needs?

That's non-negotiable. In settings where PBS is failing or struggling, that might be an area to review it. If individual plans are not there, then PBS is not going to happen.

Have you encountered any other resistance or scepticism from staff or stakeholders regarding PBS implementation?

If people see it as tokenistic, there is resistance or scepticism. If the communication and the culture is not right, and people see it as a tokenistic system - just giving out stamps - it fails. It's going back to the real understanding of what we are trying to achieve and what we want from our students, what the students want to achieve, then I think people accept it. If there's not that real understanding of the foundations and the fundamentals that underline all PBS strategies, any strategy can fail without that understanding.

If you try and do this quickly, it's never going to succeed because you will just get those tokenistic strategies and drum beating. It's like any relationship. To develop a relationship takes time. It takes an understanding, and it takes time. Some things are going to fail with particular students, some strategies aren't going to work, and that's when you go around, and you need the refresh button on it, refresh, refresh, but it's a continual process.

What do you see happening in the future?

If the Education Department starts to invest very early in our early year teachers, and even before you're teaching really as student teachers. If you start to understand at that point that these processes are built on relationship building and built on communication, then it will drip feed into your practice. If you're coming into your practice with the expectation that students are going to conform to your wishes because you are a teacher and they're students, then we are going to constantly have difficulties with behaviour management and behaviour understanding.

The Challenge of Individualisation & Personalisation

What challenges need to be considered?

Individualisation and personalisation can come into conflict with the systems required within education. How do you roll out some of these processes in a systematic way when you're talking about really getting to know each individual and tailoring the programme for that individual? I think that is the number one question in education. It comes down to training and constant training and support for both parties because when you're dealing with behaviours of concern, it's a two-way relationship. You need to keep that motivation and confidence in the process within the teaching profession, I think that is where we need to look as a system. How are we going to support educators in that process? And for me, that's where you talk about professional learning. It's not training as such. It's more of a support and more of a guidance.

Developing and maintaining a PBS practice is a long-term process, and it's something that you have to review yourself all the time. If you have the worst day in school, it's usually when you think you've failed a student. That's when you go home, and you feel like, "What am I doing?" when you fail a student, generally, it's because you feel that their behaviours in some way are demonstrating that they don't value anything that you're trying to support for them. That's where I feel there is a need for more than professional learning. Teachers need guidance in how to overcome that feeling, and not just give into it. There's work to do to ensure teachers know how to support themselves and each other and refresh the vision of how PBS can positively transform lives and school communities.

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