With the COVID-19 pandemic fuelling high youth unemployment, financial insecurity and mental ill-health, schools need to be able to spot the warning signs of young people at risk of becoming NEET (not in education, employment or training), unpick the underlying issues behind students’ ‘behavioural issues’ and boost preventative support to help steer them towards a positive future where they can truly contribute to society.
Here, Fleur Sexton (pictured) Deputy Lieutenant West Midlands and Managing Director, PET-Xi Training – one of the most hard-hitting and dynamic training providers in the UK with a reputation for success with the hardest to reach – shares eight things schools can do to help tackle the problem.
- Unpick the underlying issues
Behavioural difficulties are often triggered by Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) or traumatic events occurring before age 18 such as abuse, neglect, parental mental illness, substance use, divorce, incarceration and domestic violence. These young people have often stopped trusting in others and have limited opportunities they can actually access. Unpick the underlying issues to uncover why a student is lacking in self-confidence, not achieving in line with their ability, not engaging or is displaying behavioural difficulties – then tackle the root causes.
- Provide unconditional support
However complex a student’s issues are, understand that with the right intention and 100% commitment they can – and must – be fixed. It’s crucial for schools to give the message “You have our unconditional support, we will help you to break the barriers and the negative behaviours, and we will do that together.”
- Prioritise inclusion
When something isn’t working and a young person is showing troubled behaviour, it’s often because their life is out of control and they’re fearful. School leaders need to translate anger as fear and recognise that these students need more input and intervention. Excluding a pupil goes against every bit of sense and only serves to exacerbate issues – and typically leads to further isolation from society. To stop the negative cycle, school leaders should prioritise inclusion for all pupils, and discipline and behaviour policies should be reviewed to reflect this.
- Use positive reinforcement
Positive reinforcement must be embedded in school culture – actively look for opportunities to give specific verbal praise, reward small steps rather than waiting for big achievements, and tailor rewards to each individual pupil so they are meaningful. Channel what pupils are good at into something positive to create chances for students to experience success. Consistency is key to success with positive reinforcement so ensure that all staff are fully on board with this ‘best practice’ model.
- Involve students in the community
Find ways for students to give back to their community – this is proven to bolster self-esteem. Often when students learn that they can help the elderly or the homeless through practical volunteering projects and change the world for the better, they realise that they can use these skills to help themselves too.
- Empower staff through training
Provide training in child development and mental health to equip staff with the necessary skills to identify the underlying causes of behaviour difficulties so that they can initiate appropriate intervention as early as possible. Share information at regular, well-structured staff meetings to ensure that all staff are consistent in their approach to supporting pupils. Staff need to be aware of the full range of intervention options available and how to refer students for support – including to outside agencies- to achieve the best possible outcomes. A fresh professional perspective is often invaluable in helping to resolve issues
- Focus on individual needs
Some young people – including those with additional needs – learn more effectively when they are practically engaged in “hands on” activities. Ensure that staff are aware that this can manifest as a behavioural issue – which could be resolved by adapting their teaching style to suit individual needs. Alternative provision such as a special school or other non-mainstream environment should always be presented as a different path with real opportunities and not as a second rate option.
- Grab the opportunity to rewire communities
The deep inequities and divisions within our communities – poverty, domestic violence, drug use, criminality – have been exacerbated by COVID. We now have a great opportunity rewire society in a fairer way, to hear these voices – we don’t have to go back to rules that are based on inequality. If we’re to fix society, we have to grasp the things that are easiest to ignore – and this begins in schools.
Fleur Sexton is Deputy Lieutenant of the West Midlands, Businesswoman of the Year and Managing Director and co-founder of multi-award winning PET-Xi Training, one of the most hard-hitting and dynamic training providers in the UK with a reputation for success with the hardest to reach.