Research School Network: Sound the siren for our children; all behaviour is communication Sound the siren for our children; all behaviour is communication

Sound the siren for our children; all behaviour is communication

Sound the siren for our children; all behaviour is communication

Schools the length and breadth of the country are sounding their sirens about worsening attendance, and increasing challenges with pupil behaviour.

The attendance gap (20222023)1
Absence of disadvantaged students and students with SEN was already higher than their peers pre-pandemic. Absences across all groups have increased since the pandemic.

The behaviour gap: (20222023)
The suspension rate for FSM eligible pupils is more than 4 times that for non FSM eligible pupils. The permanent exclusion rate for FSM eligible pupils is 0.10, compared to 0.02 non FSM eligible.

Amongst many reasons for these widening gaps, we hear the following:

- As a result of the many social fractures experienced by families, education is less of a priority when you are working hard each day to secure food, shelter and warmth.

- An overloaded curriculum makes it hard for pupils to achieve and experience success. Success is an important component of motivation.

- In a bid to help children catch up, schools are causing cognitive overload in children with historic under-achievement.

- In the mind of some parents and pupils, experience of home learning has devalued the importance of being in school to learn.

- More home based working for parents enables pupils to be at home more.

- Missed personal and social development has made it harder for some pupils to self-regulate when in school.

- Poor staff retention means children have fewer trusting relationships with adults in school.

All behaviour is communication. More challenging behaviour presented in school tells us that, despite best efforts, school and learning is not accessible for many.

1 Examining post-pandemic absences in England, Education Policy Institute (‑2/

Permanent exclusions and suspensions in England, Summer term 2021/22
Explore education statistics – GOV.UK (

How can we make best use of the evidence base to improve access to education for this cohort of pupils?

The evidence base for Learning Behaviours (any behaviour that supports learning), layers all the areas below. Guidance Reports are available for each of these areas on the EEF website. 

The evidence base for Learning Behaviours

All these areas are united by the following recommendations:

1. Explicitly teach (learning) behaviours
2. Know your pupils and their influences ( e.g. peers and parents)
3. Consistency in implementation

Let’s consider point two; an area highly amenable to individual influence. The Improving Behaviour in Schools Guidance Report details the following:

Every pupil should have a supportive relationship with a member of school staff

In some schools, this principle is the foundation stone of all their work. If you don’t know about it already, it’s worth looking at XP School in Doncaster (secondary) and the work they do around secure relationships amongst staff and pupils, and also amongst pupils themselves.

At the other extreme are schools where a child doesn’t see one familiar adult each day, either because of recruitment and retention issues or because the overloaded curriculum has squeezed out form time/​pastoral time. The truth is, in a quest to realise many ambitions for our pupils, most schools are probably somewhere in the middle; doing so much that sometimes the focus on relationship building can be lost.

How can we adapt what we do already?

Pupils need to know we are interested in them.

Every interaction counts

Make the most of everyday interactions: remember to greet all pupils individually as much as possible; invest time during snack time and mealtimes to respond to their cues. Show an interest in their talents and areas of interest. Make transitions conversational.

Consider the emotional quality of an interaction

Be authentic. As busy as we are, and as busy as we feel, think about what the anxious, stressed or withdrawn child is getting from us. Have a warm, relaxed and friendly demeanour. Smile, nod, wait, listen.

Notice and comment.

Draw in those pupils who aren’t forthcoming by noticing and commenting on their non-verbal cues. I noticed you looked surprised when I said this about X, I wonder if that’s because…” Avoid asking too many questions; questions test, comments teach.


When your own mind is running at 100 mph, pausing is powerful. To build authentic relationships that include our most vulnerable pupils, we need to give them space to respond and communicate with us, even if this is non-verbal. Show understanding: I see you don’t feel like talking right now, that’s ok. I’m going to give you a few minutes, and come back again shortly.”

Secure Early Success

Motivation is a core component of metacognition. It is a myth that motivation leads to success; on the contrary, securing early successes promotes higher levels of motivation.

Securing early successes also supports cognitive load. It allows us to draw on prior learning from the long term memory, and keep an appropriate amount of activity for the working memory.

Reduce Procedural Talk

This can be boiled down to talking with’ rather than talking to’ pupils. Less procedural talk means more time is available to pay attention to individual needs. This allows staff to have many more meaningful chats with pupils, either about specific learning or about wider interests.

Think about aiming for an interactive back and forth, rather than delivering to a captive audience.

If a few key adults in a child’s life made these one degree changes; you shift just one degree by making one small change, the effect of that change on the child, further down the road, could be much greater than we might imagine.

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