My final essay for my MEd.
Introduction and background
The topic that I chose for this research project was looking at the effect of restorative conversations on modifying student behaviour.
It took place at a school for students with SEND including Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD). This is a school with a high staff to student ratio. Staff have all completed ‘Team Teach’ training, which, although it has a physical restraint section, focuses on de-escalation techniques, to help students learn to manage their behaviour better. It was clear to the Senior Leadership Team that staff did not consistently apply this knowledge across the school. There had also, in the previous twelve months, been input from a local behaviour specialist, who worked with a focus group of staff to develop the alternate provision in school for students who found accessing certain lessons difficult. Staff felt that behaviour was not always good, with current sanctions of lunchtime and after school detentions not being as effective as they might be in deterring unwanted behaviours. This is backed up by research from Tom Macready (Macready, 2009) who says that “the evidence (exists) that rewards and punishments which are expected to raise the level of social responsibility in society has not been supported by a decrease in the proportion of the population who are excluded from schools…” The Senior Leadership Team at school were keen to move away from after school detentions, which disrupt the routine of the students, and to get staff to engage positively with those students who are perceived to have done wrong. Research shows that this has been proved to be effective on a whole school basis as an alternative to exclusion and detentions. (Mirsky, 2011)
It is recorded that staff who work in a restorative way feel that this leads to “a shift away from sanction-based responses that aim to ‘manage’ behaviour, toward a more relational approach; Better relationships amongst children and staff; and a calmer, quieter and more productive learning environment.” (Cambridge Education Department, 2011)
The aims and research questions that were decided on were
- To find out how staff perceive behaviour and current sanctions
- To provide a foundation for a renewed behaviour policy
- To ensure staff are consistent when managing behaviour
- To evaluate the benefits of being involved in the sanctions that they have set, including talking to students about their behaviour during a detention
- How do staff feel about the current behaviour policy?
- How do staff help students to manage their behaviour?
- How effective do staff and students feel current sanctions are?
- What impact do staff and students feel that a restorative approach has on behaviour management?
Description of the Methodological Approach
As a supply teacher, I was on a long-term placement at this school at the start of the project and was able to get the support of the Deputy Headteacher as well as the majority of the staff body. Sadly, the post that I was covering was filled before my research was finished, so an amount has had to be conducted from a distance, relying on my school contact to support staff to carry out actions needed.
Harris (Harris, 2003) states that in order for changes to happen teachers need to have access to ‘meaningful professional development, …reflection time…and professional communities.’ With these in place, teachers are provided with ‘a shared pedagogical focus and the opportunity to try new strategies and to share experiences. At the core of (this) is a commitment to teacher development and generating collaborative ways of working.’
There was some resistance from members of staff, in terms of a long-term mindset in more established members of staff needing to be changed. Although many of the staff agreed that detentions were not effective, they were happy that these were a part of the school sanction system and did not want to see them go. There was a feeling that the students needed to see each other being punished as a result of poor behaviour, almost to make an example of them. In relation to the work from Harris, it is important that the stakeholders feel this piece of work is being done with them and not to them.
I self-funded, and so did not have a research sponsor who was expecting a particular outcome to the research. When questioning staff and interviewing students it was essential that individual members of staff could not be identified at any time. Both staff, students and their parents were asked for informed consent before taking part, with the right to withdraw at any point being emphasised. As a result of ethical considerations, I did not re-interview students after the trail with restorative conversations had taken place, as I felt that this would easily identify the staff who had, and who had not, participated in the study.
Staff were asked to give informed consent before answering the questionnaire, which was ensured by including a covering letter and a confidentiality statement which staff had to tick to say they had read. They were also informed of their right to withdraw in this fashion. In order that anonymity was retained, no questions were asked that could directly identify staff, for example by asking which subject they teach as most subjects only have one or two teachers.
Students were asked to give informed consent through information contained in a letter to parents and staff, and this was reinforced before the interview with them took place, as was the right to withdraw.
The questionnaires were done online, and as such the data collected was anonymous. The quotes taken from the student interviews to be used in the staff training PowerPoint were anonymised. Names and details were changed where necessary, and students did not name individual staff when answering questions. The recording and any transcripts were be deleted on completion of the research.
The research ethical statement and school safeguarding policy were adhered to at all times as well. (appendix 1)
Methodology and Methods used to collect Information/Data
This project sought to change the culture of the organisation in respect to the way some students are helped to manage their behaviour, which is often present as a consequence of their ASD, and manifests as anxiety and some challenging behaviour using the RADIO (research and development in organisations) model. This is a tool to negotiate research projects with a desire to evaluate the work that is being done. It identifies a collaborative research process along a given framework, which encourages stakeholders to reflect on the way that the process and outcomes can meet the needs of the organisation. RADIO allows for both quantitative and qualitative data to be collected and evaluated in a reflective way and seeks outcomes which lead to organisational change. (Timmins, 2006)
By clarifying concerns, negotiating a framework for gathering the data and agreeing areas for future action to implement an organisational change, the RADIO project relies on every stakeholder buying in to the process, and having an investment in the outcome. It produces a piece of research which is done with an organisation, rather than done to it. RADIO is suitable for this project as it is seeking to elicit a whole school change in the mindset of staff and the way that the detention system works. It is hoped that, by participating in the research, staff will be able to see for themselves that a positive change has taken place, rather than just being told that this is what we are doing and this is why we are doing it. RADIO fits into the Action Research methodologies, as it involves research which is happening in an organisation.
The aim of using the model was to involve all staff in eliciting their views on behaviour, and to suggest a different way forward for them to try supporting students with.
The ways of gathering information were
- An initial whole staff questionnaire to elicit their views on behaviour and management systems
- Initial conversation with selected students
This was given to all staff electronically to elicit their views on students’ behaviour and how they support students to manage this at the outset of my research.
The main reason for using a questionnaire was that all staff could be asked to complete it, and by doing it online this meant that staff who wanted to take part were able to do so anonymously and data could be collected over a short period of time. (Cohen, 2001). A questionnaire gives the ability to ask a mix of open and closed questions, with some scaled questions and longer answers, meaning that a range of data sets which can be compared and contrasted is obtained. The other advantage of an online questionnaire is that by adding a couple of questions related to the research the same questions can be asked in exactly the same way at the end of the research period and avoids adding potential bias by asking the questions in a different way.
It was ensured that the wording for the questions was clear, and that the questions were specific and planned with data analysis in mind.
Interviews – informal conversations
Interviews were held with a small, selected number of students, to find out how they perceive behaviour in school and the way that they are helped to manage it. This involved a carefully chosen group, with some students who had no incidents of challenging behaviour reported as well as those that were persistent offenders. This was to avoid the bias of just talking to one of these populations of students.
The reason for choosing an interview over a questionnaire for the students was that, due to their ASD, many of them have associated learning difficulties and can struggle to read and interpret questions on paper and give a coherent written answer. By asking them in person, it not only gave the chance for students to have a voice and to find out what knowledge they had of the issue, what their values and preferences were and what they believe to be the best way to manage their behaviour, but also to pick up and expand on comments that they made while giving their answers.
It was ensured that the questions were open, but not leading, and students were encouraged to try give examples without naming members of staff involved. The interviews were recorded to transcribe later – allowing the students to be listened to carefully without needing to take notes.
I had two data sets to analyse – the results of the student interviews and the staff responses to the questionnaire. I took a systematic approach to analyse these, using a qualitative method.
My step by step approach was as follows:
Step 1: Transcribe student interviews
Step 2: Read through the data several times, both the online questionnaire and the transcript of the students’ conversations
Step 3: Group data into themes for longer answers
Step 4: Decide on headings for themes. These were:
1) Knowing your students
2) Being consistent
3) Positive reinforcement of desired behaviours
Step 5: Revisit groups of data for any overlap
Step 6: Link themes into original research questions
- How do staff feel about current behaviour policy (1, 2, 3)
- How do staff help students to manage their behaviour (1, 2, 3)
- How effective do staff and students feel current sanctions are (2, 3)
- What impact do staff and students feel that a restorative approach has on behaviour management (1, 2, 3)
Step 7: Decide how to show data – bar charts, comments on themes, word clouds
The literature review that I carried out helped me to identify six key texts that helped to guide my research. It was interesting to note that only one of them, Restorative Practice and Special Needs (Burnett, 2015) dealt specifically with how restorative conversations could work, once adapted, with those with ASD in particular.
As all of the papers that I found were dealing with how restorative practice changes things for the better, they were all overwhelmingly positive about the effectiveness of restorative conversations, although Dix (Dix, 2017) and McCluskey (McCluskey, 2008) were realistic about the buy-in needed from the adults across a school in order to make the concept as effective as possible.
When considering how effective restorative conversations could be McCluskey provides perhaps the most detailed response, giving more than just anecdotal evidence. Drawing on the feedback from schools in the pilot study, she has split the responses from eighteen schools into primary/special and secondary. In terms of the successes that these primary/special schools reported after introducing a range of activities around restorative conversations depending on the initial need identified by the school, these included that the atmosphere of the schools became ‘identifiably calmer, with students more positive about their school experiences’ and ‘staff being fair and listening to both sides of the story’. The special school was one of those which made significant progress across the school, with interventions put in place such as a commitment to training staff in the process, and time spent training students to recall situations that they had previously been involved in.
In order for students with SEND to benefit from restorative conversations, it is important that these are made as accessible as possible. Burnett says that ‘what educators working closely with children who have special needs already know is that punitive strategies work less effectively to teach them the skills they need most to make the best of their lives.’ The book contains a section which looks at the major challenges that could impact on the process and considers how to make restorative conversations more accessible for students with a range of SEND, including ASD and speech, language and communication needs. It is important to remember that students with ASD have a rigid view of the world, often lacking flexibility in thinking and finding it hard to understand from the perspectives of others. Because of this, they often find themselves in trouble with members of staff, when they can come across as rude and challenging, usually when stressed or anxious about a situation. It is also important to be aware of sensory needs of the student when having the restorative conversation, which might involve being aware of the lights, noises in the room or perhaps unwelcome smells. The possible adaptations that Burnett suggests include using the students name at the start of the conversation, as well as using the adults name when talking about themselves. He also advocates for use of symbols or social stories to support the conversation, as well as keeping the language used simple and giving students time to process the information so that they can respond. Outside of the conversation, students will need to be taught appropriate ways of interacting with others, good and bad choices, and empathy. Finally, he suggests using the ‘repair’ framework as a basis for restorative conversations.
In light of this, and for the research to be successful, it was important that all staff followed the same structure when carrying out these conversations with students, and also that students were introduced to this change in a non-threatening way, such as during assembly or tutor time. A fully structured conversation helps all involved; by providing staff with a script, as well as a copy of the ‘repair’ framework, (Burnett, 2015) so that they could reflect on the way that they choose to have the conversation. It will also be necessary to develop a range of social stories and picture prompts to help the students engage in the process effectively.
Dix (Dix, 2017) suggested that students should be asked no more than five questions, and that younger students might need fewer than this to enable to process to be effective. This will be kept in mind when devising the script for the restorative conversations.
As part of my step by step analysis, I was able to identify three main themes from my data – these being that it was important to know your students, to be consistent and to reinforce desired positive behaviours. I had seventeen responses to the questionnaire, from an equal spilt of teachers and teaching assistants, with a good balance between those who had set detentions in the first term and those who had not. The majority of these had read the school behaviour policy recently. I asked some questions to gauge the level of feeling about the school in general, which showed that staff felt that students were safe, although behaviour was not always good or well managed. A large number of staff also felt that behaviour policies were not applied consistently by all staff. The majority of staff felt that they knew what the school was trying to achieve, and that they were happy at the school.
In order to identify the main themes from my data I put each of the responses to the three longer answer questions, as well as a summary of the student interviews, into a word cloud app to see if there were any concepts which were mentioned on a regular basis. This was interesting as it showed that staff felt consistency was important, and also highlighted that staff felt they needed more training to help the students to manage their behaviour.
I collated the answers from the question asking how staff felt about trialling a restorative approach into a stem and leaf diagram. I had asked this as a sliding scale question which generated an overall positive result, although it can be seen that one member of staff was very much against the restorative approach.
|0 (no thanks)
|5 (I might be interested)
||0, 2, 9
||0, 8, 9
||0, 0, 2
|10 (yes please)
Figure 3: Stem and leaf diagram showing how staff feel about trialling a restorative approach
The transcripts from the student interviews show that they are concerned about teachers (adults in school generally) and the amount of help they are given. Common themes were how students perceived they were treated, being told off for being themselves and not finding detentions helpful. The word cloud for this was less helpful, as there were fewer students interviewed, so less words to analyse.
Overall, the feeling from the initial research was that the majority of staff would welcome a culture change in how students with behavioural needs were managed.
Following the research, I met with stakeholders. I shared both the results of the literature review and of the staff questionnaire, as well as outlining the responses from the student interviews. Given that the three main themes from the research were favouring trialling restorative conversations, the action plan was devised and written with that in mind.
Action: To trial restorative conversations
Aim: To reduce the need for detentions by explaining to students what they are doing wrong and how to do it right the next time
Who is responsible for overseeing this: Deputy Headteacher
When: Starting from February half term, until Easter. Dix (Dix, 2017) suggests that something has to be done for thirty consecutive days to become an embedded habit.
Evaluation: A post-trial questionnaire will be sent to see if staff felt it made a difference. The questions will be in the same format as originally to remove bias, with a couple of extra questions about the perceived impact of restorative conversations.
Steps to make this happen
1) Deliver whole school staff inset session to introduce restorative conversations
2) Provide staff with a script for the conversations
3) Introduce conversations to whole school through an assembly
4) Reinforce assembly in tutor time
5) Carry out restorative conversations
Implementation and Evaluation
At the time of implementation I was no longer working at the school, due to a permanent appointment being made. This made the next stage rather tricky and as a result not all of the action plan has yet been put into place.
A training session was delivered to all staff during weekly INSET time, outlining what a restorative conversation is and how staff were expected to use them.
Having read ‘When the adults change, everything changes’ (Dix, 2017), the five questions that will form our school restorative conversation are
- What happened?
- How did this make people feel?
- Who has been affected?
- How have they been affected?
- How can we do things differently in the future?
He also suggests that younger students might struggle with five, as would our less able students. In these instances, staff would just ask the first and last questions. Staff were provided with a handout during the training session, which should be used as a crib sheet for these conversations.
As yet, there has been no work done specifically with students around restorative conversations.
At the time of writing the follow-up questionnaire for staff has only had three responses, all of whom have used a restorative conversation this term, although staff appear to feel that they would like more training and are still unsure as to the effectiveness of the process. There also remains a high feeling in school that staff do not consistently follow the behaviour policy.
I feel that, with time and investment in further training for both staff and students, restorative conversations could have a significant impact on both the behaviour of students and the way that this is perceived across the school.
Currently, the outcome of the project is that some staff have received training in restorative conversations and fewer staff have trialled them. From the very limited number of responses to the second questionnaire, it appears that there is an appetite for change in the school, and that staff are gradually coming to accept that there are different ways of dealing with students’ misdemeanours to detentions and fixed term exclusions.
In order for restorative conversations to become a successful way of helping students to manage their behaviour, and to understand what they could do differently next time, all of the literature stated that for restorative conversations to be effective the whole school community needs to buy in to them, necessitating a culture shift amongst staff, students and their parents.
To continue the project further, I would re-run the staff INSET session in order to deal with any misconceptions and give staff time to practice the structure of the restorative conversation in a safe environment. I would also ask a member of the Senior Management Team to deliver an assembly to students, asking staff to back this up in the following mentor session, taking time to reinforce the ideas from assembly, including the structure of the restorative conversation. I would also write to parents asking for their support, giving them the same outline of a restorative conversation. Additionally, I would expect the staff in Student Support – the first port of call for students who are having trouble accessing lessons – to be having a brief conversation with students when they arrive around what they have done to be sent out of a lesson and what they might have been able to do differently. Of course, it is important that staff feel the student is in the right place mentally to be able to have this conversation. I would have liked to have been able to interview students who had taken part in restorative conversations to see if they found the process helpful, but with so few staff respondents to the questionnaire I was mindful that identifying these students would also identify those members of staff, so creating something of an ethical conundrum.
To help staff to see if this is having an impact on the incidences of negative behaviour across the school, I would also monitor how many students were receiving after school detentions, and the frequency of these. Over time, the ideal would be that these would drop away to nothing as staff work with students to identify undesirable behaviours and how to rectify these situations.
I believe that it is important for staff to see a school where restorative conversations are used effectively with all of their students. This may be a mainstream school, as there are few SEND schools in the local area with a cohort similar to this one. However, the setting is irrelevant, as a chance to observe the outcome of a conversation and talk to staff who are already actively carrying these out would be invaluable when using the technique back at their own school.
I think, additionally, more work needs to be done around how to make the restorative conversations work best for students with ASD. This would best be done by evaluating the outcomes of the conversations that are being had, looking at what makes a student change their behaviour and what does not seem to have any effect. There is really vey little literature available as to how this works best with students with any kind of SEND, and this would be an interesting field to develop further.
The following questions formed the basis of this research:
- How do staff feel about the current behaviour policy?
- How do staff help students to manage their behaviour?
- How effective do staff and students feel current sanctions are
- What impact do staff and students feel that a restorative approach has on behaviour management
I am going to consider each of these questions in turn to see if I have been able to answer them, before revisiting the aims to see if they have also been met.
How do staff feel about the current behaviour policy?
From conversations with stakeholders it was apparent that the current policy was due for an update, but that no one had been doing any particular work in school to update this, following the work done in the previous twelve months with an external behavioural consultant. From the questionnaire responses, 82% of staff claimed to have read the behaviour policy recently. However, 62% of those disagreed that the staff team consistently applied this policy. It appears then that most staff are positive about the behaviour policy but frustrated that it is not being followed consistently. Of course, when working with students with ASD, each of them has a different way of dealing with frustrations, and each of them need to be treated as individuals when staff are helping to support these behaviours, some of which might not fit neatly into the structure of the behaviour policy.
How do staff help students to manage their behaviour?
As can be seen, staff feel that a range of techniques help students to manage their behaviour, but this can be summarised as knowing your students, being consistent and modelling desired behaviours. This initially appears to contradict the frustrations of the behaviour policy not being followed consistently – for some students, the advised procedures would just exacerbate the situation, so staff need to be flexible. I feel that knowing students is the most important part of this; in order to help students to improve their behaviour, knowing what triggers might be and so avoiding those is essential.
How effective do staff and students feel current sanctions are
Some staff feel that giving students detentions makes the situation worse, while others state that it is an effective way of managing students’ behaviour. There is also a discrepancy where the person setting the after-school detention is not necessarily the person who the student will sit the detention with. Also, due to issues surrounding transporting students home from school, these detentions are often done more than a day after the original misdemeanour.
Students generally don’t find detentions useful, but those that I interviewed were not sure what would be a deterrent to misbehaving.
What impact do staff and students feel that a restorative approach has on behaviour management
Unfortunately, I do not have enough data to be able to answer this question.
The aims of my research were as follows:
- To find out how staff perceive behaviour and current sanctions
- To provide a foundation for a renewed behaviour policy
- To ensure staff are consistent when managing behaviour
- To evaluate the benefits of being involved in the sanctions that they have set, including talking to students about their behaviour during a detention.
I believe that I have met the first aim. However, having not been at the school to deliver training and provide support, I have not been able to help ensure that staff are consistent when managing student behaviour, or to be able to evaluate the benefits of taking part in restorative conversations. I would like to think that the analysis of the first questionnaire would provide a foundation for a discussion about the behaviour policy.
Burnett, N. a. (2015). Restorative Practice and Special Needs. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Cambridge Education Department. (2011). Restorative Approaches in Schools in the UK. Retrieved from https://www.educ.cam.ac.uk/research/projects/restorativeapproaches/RA-in-the-UK.pdf
Cohen, L. M. (2001). Research Methods in Education. Abingdon, Oxfordshire: Routledge.
Dix, P. (2017). When the adults change, everything changes. Carmarthen, Wales: Independent Thinking Press.
Ferrance, E. (2000). Action Research. Providence, RI.
Harris, A. (2003). Behind the classroom door: The challenge of organizational and pedagogical change. Journal of Educational Change, 4(4), 369-382.
Macready, T. (2009, September). Learning social responsibility in schools: a restorative practice. Educational Psychology in Practice, 25(3), 211-220.
McCluskey, G. L. (2008, November). Can restorative practices in schools make a difference? Educational Review, 60(4), 405-417.
Mirsky, L. (2011, December). Restorative practices: Giving everyone a voice to create safer saner school communities. The Prevention Researcher, 18, supplement, 3-6.
Timmins, P. B. (2006, December). Teachers and Consultation: Applying research and development in organisations (RADIO). Educational Psychology in Practice, 22(4), 305-319.