BESD: a risky business

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Practitioners working with those experiencing BESD need to move outside their comfort zones

In essence, our comfort zone is a neutral position in which, by using a limited set of behaviours, we are able to deliver steady levels of performance, usually without a sense of risk. You might think that this is perfectly fine and that this is how we generally get things done. However, I want to challenge this position. I believe that if those of us who work with children and young people with behavioural, emotional and social difficulties (BESD) do not step outside of our normal routines and challenge accepted ideas, we will not be able to provide the best opportunities for the children we work with to learn to their full potential.

Some commentators believe that in the 21st century, with all the learning tools that are available to us, children learn differently. Fuller (cited in Senge, 2006) argues that you cannot change how someone thinks, but that you can give them a tool, the use of which leads them to think differently. However, while tools are crucial to any deep-learning process, I believe passionately that the quality and effectiveness of relationships within a learning community are at the core of the learning experience.

What is not in dispute, though, is that the skill sets and qualities that young people need post-school today are radically different to those of even ten years ago. Indeed, many of the jobs that today’s school children will do in later life have not yet been invented. Against this backdrop, the youth of today need to be job creators rather than job seekers.

The challenge is to offer the children we work with the ability to be able to adapt and survive in the new era. As Darwin said, it is not the strongest of the species who survive, but the ones most responsive to change.

Changing times

Given the new funding arrangements that are coming to all schools and, in the context of SEN, the new working practices we will have to adapt to (such as being commissioned to provide services), it follows that we will have to be prepared to take a few risks in order to manage this change. Maintaining the status quo is no longer a viable option.

Those of us who work with children experiencing BESD know that learning is a risky business for them; on a daily basis we are asking children to take risks in their lives in order to maximise their potential. Shouldn’t we, as educators, be prepared to take the same risks ourselves? After all, if we want children to write an effective sentence, we model this procedure. Shouldn’t we also model how to take measured risks and how to evaluate the outcomes of the risks taken?

We should remember that many people learn best when challenged, and that when people are pushed outside their comfort zone, this can be where deep and embedded learning really takes place.

One of the biggest challenges we face as practitioners working with those experiencing BESD is to not avoid situations which we know will be difficult. I’m thinking here of when we need to challenge behaviour that is not appropriate or when children are behaving unreasonably. While there is a place for tactically ignoring certain negative behaviours and rewarding positive behaviours, sometimes we have to bite the bullet in order to demonstrate what is acceptable and to safeguard the integrity of the learning situation. So, whilst it may be tempting to turn a blind eye, the real challenge is to have the courage to do what is right, even though it may mean a period of discomfort for both ourselves and the children concerned. This is why relationships are so important in our work. Within a safe and secure relationship it is easier to challenge children because they know you are challenging their behaviour and not them as people.

Whilst an emphasis on behaviour will always be to the fore in any school for children experiencing BESD, the curriculum is also one of the most powerful therapeutic and compensatory forces we can use. We know that asking children to edit their work, or to play in teams and collaborate, or to take a guess at a word they cannot read presents a risk to them. Yet, we must promote these risks, in order to help the children see, and perhaps to remind ourselves, that they can achieve more than they or we think they can.

John D’Abbro (left) shares a moment with Jamie Oliver during filming for Dream School.Embracing new ideas

Eight years ago we started a scheme at our school in which we introduced the use of laptops, including allowing Year 11 students to take the laptops home over weekends and during holidays. At the time, some colleagues thought we were being foolish and naive. However, while it was a bold step, it paid dividends and no laptops were lost or broken.

More recently, we have started to roll out the use of tablet computers, which are even easier to “lose” than laptops. It’s another risk, but so far, so good; there have been no breakages or losses but we have enjoyed many benefits from more flexible approaches to learning.

Sometimes, our fear of failure can stop us making bold decisions or taking chances, but we should not let our fear hold us back. Think about a lesson you taught, or a decision you made, that went wrong. What did you learn from it? How did you mange it? How did you come back from it to teach again? We often learn more from what went wrong than from what went well, as in some ways it sticks and stays with us longer.

Last year, I took part in the TV series Dream School, which pushed me further out of my professional comfort zone than I have ever been before. The programme was a Jamie Oliver production in which 20 youngsters who had not obtained five A* to C grade GCSEs were given the chance to be taught by some outstanding practitioner’s in their fields. Teacher’s included former Poet Laureate Andrew Motion (English), Olympic champion Daley Thompson (PE), Rolf Harris (art), Rankin (photography) and actor Simon Callow (drama), to name just a few.

What stretched me most of all was not the educational approached being adopted but rather the demands of the producers to make a TV programme, which meant I had little or no control over what went on in lessons and outside the classroom, something a headteacher is simply not used to. While the experience was unquestionably difficult for me (I even cried on national TV), I have come away with a much greater insight into myself as a practitioner and as a person. This insight has, I hope, enabled me to more readily accept the new challenges that we all face as practitioners working in the field of BESD.

Further information

John D’Abbro OBE is Head of the New Rush Hall Group, which works with children experiencing BESD. The Group consists of a special school, three pupil referral units, an adolescent psychiatric unit, a behavioural support outreach team and an early years provision. John was the Headteacher in Jamie Oliver’s Dream School TV Series:
http://nrhs.redbridge.sch.uk

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