Rebooting behaviour after lockdown- Advice to schools reopening in the age of COVID-19

Rebooting behaviour after lockdown

Advice to schools reopening in the age of COVID-19

By Tom Bennett

No one would have believed in the last term of 2019 that a microscopic enemy was gathering speed against us. ‘With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter,’ as H G Wells said. Suddenly, a meteor landed in our schools and abruptly playground sounds – almost - ceased. 

All schools suddenly became special schools, serving the children of key workers, the vulnerable and the disadvantaged. Almost every student in the UK was sent home on what was effectively a fixed-term exclusion. Even the default model of the physical classroom experience was replaced by emergency remote learning. The effects of this earthquake will be impossible to understand fully for years. 

And now, or at some point in the future, schools will be thinking about opening their gates wider to more groups of pupils. Whenever that is, and in what sequence, is for others to decide. But whatever the shape and timing of this awakening, schools will need to face and meet the challenge it presents, as they have done so capably throughout this upheaval. If character is revealed by crisis then the education sector has demonstrated heroic levels of fortitude, compassion, and perspicacity in one of its darkest hours. 

Better behaviour is the beginning of everything 

Good behaviour is the core mission for every school, whatever age or stage. Get behaviour right and everything else is possible. It is the beginning of safety, equity, dignity, curriculum, opportunity and learning, not an afterthought or something that only matters when students misbehave. And now, with more students returning after a long furlough at home, behaviour will matter more than ever. Here are five reasons why:

1.     Students may have partially or entirely lost the habits that enable them to flourish as learners and as member of the school community. This will matter more for some than others. Students from socially privileged backgrounds may be able to cope better with uncertainty, anxiety and change more than students who have more fragile, vulnerable or chaotic circumstances. 

2.     Staff may also be a little rusty, and uncertain. This is perfectly natural. They will have been coping with a variety of new and anxious normalities- teaching their own children at home, setting remote work, working in schools in emergency circumstances, worrying about health, family, bills. What was once normal may not feel so normal anymore. 

3.     Students will have to observe far higher standards of respiratory and tactile hygiene than ever before. Social distancing in the sense of portable 2m bubbles of exclusion will be impossible; everyone who works in a school knows that. So the only way to even partially compensate for that is to generate entirely new behavioural norms of conduct. For schools that already struggle with behaviour issues, the requirement to make and maintain even higher standards than before becomes a greater problem. Even for schools with excellent standards of behaviour, we will be asking for students to deconstruct many of their natural or habitual reactions (like hugging, touching their faces, shaking hands, going to the toilet in pairs etc.) and replace them with new ones that may feel awkward and synthetic. 

4.     Many students - especially young children - will already have hygiene habits that we would probably describe as less than ideal, that become dangerous in the current climate. Not washing hands, picking noses, fingers in mouths, sharing juice boxes (or -sadly - cigarettes, for older students), or spitting, these are difficult things to unlearn.

5.     Staff, too will have to observe not only this type of virological etiquette but also be expected to train and maintain these behaviours in others. For staff members who feel that their behaviour management skills aren’t yet secure, this is a challenge. Even for staff who do feel secure in these skills, it will mean a raising of expectations beyond what is normally expected. 

These are all huge challenges, and ones that seem unique to this crisis. But teachers and schools have managed behaviour for as long as we have had children to teach. I would like to share some advice for school leaders and classroom teachers based on my experience of many schools in the UK and abroad. Schools that have worked hard to build fantastic cultures where children and staff work in a safe, calm, and orderly environment where everyone is treated with dignity. 

Doing this is no easy feat, and requires focus, strategy, heart and brains, sustained over a period of time. Rather than ask every school to reinvent this wheel simultaneously, here is my list of ten ideas about how schools manage it. 

1. Define what you mean by good behaviour

There is an opportunity here for schools to re-evaluate what they actually want their behaviour to look like. Many schools implicitly assume that everyone already knows what good behaviour is, that students know how to do it, and staff know how to maintain it. There is an assumption that we don’t need to define it. 

But this is the beginning of many errors. There is no consensus. Students have very different ideas and habits of how to behave. Staff do too. Teacher and leaders who assume everyone telepathically agrees on the behaviour standards will be continuously surprised by the reality of the matter.

Teachers should define what behaviour they think is ideal in their classrooms; leaders, in their schools. Be concrete. Vagueness is the enemy here. If you are vague, you’ll barely be aware of when behaviour goes wrong; and students will not grasp what is expected of them. What does fantastic behaviour actually look like in a test, lining up for lunch, starting the lesson, carpet time? And so on.  

If we do not do this, we condemn students who have not understood to remain so, and advantage those who already do. Before schools return, leaders and teachers should use the time to consider what their behaviour standards actually are, instead of leaving it to chance. 

Areas where this will especially matter, of course, will be: travelling through school; lunchtime queuing and dining; entry and exit to classrooms and school; classroom conduct; toilet etiquette; assemblies; practical subjects; number limits everywhere; outlining safe spacing where 2m distancing is possible and defining behaviour when it is not, along with dozens of other areas. Every school’s circumstances are different, and  staff need to carefully think about pinch points, waiting areas, corridor sweeps, truancy, absences, registers, bottlenecks, and a hundred other issues that will be specific to their geography, layout, student groups, footprint and resources. 

2. Good behaviour must be taught, not told

A common mistake many schools and teachers make it to wait for misbehaviour to occur, then react to it, often simply. This is like waiting for a fire to catch before dousing it. The best teachers and schools actively teach the behaviour they want to see, as if it were a curriculum. Do you want students to be kind, or work hard, or listen hard in assemblies? Teach them to do so, don’t just tell them. If you tell people they may misunderstand. They may not care. They may disagree. They may find it hard. But if you teach them what these things mean, they will understand. If you provide examples for them, they will grasp what it means in their lives. If you demonstrate the behaviour, you let them see that you value it. If you explain the behaviour, they understand why it matters. If you tell them their behaviour matters because they matter and so does everyone else, then they feel valued and are more likely to value the norms you describe. 

3. Build routines, habits and norms. 

All staff dealing with students must consider these questions:

a) What behaviour do I want them to think is normal? Then, tell them what it is and teach them what normal means in many circumstances. Don’t let them define normal behaviour. Challenge them when it is not met. Show them how to do it. Correct them every time they can’t or won’t do it. Never let it slide. Define the new normal by bringing it to life. 
b) What habits do I want them to develop? If I want them to be punctual, clarify what punctuality means. Insist upon it. The more a behaviour is demanded, and challenged by its absence, the more practice students get performing it, until it starts to feel habitual. We seek, ultimately, to change their behaviour habits, not just their behaviour. 
c) What routines do they need to learn in order to succeed as learners and human beings? This is crucial. In order for it to be as easy as possible to behave, students should be taught the specific sequences of behaviour they are expected to demonstrate. Some students find these hard to remember; some are not used to behaving the way school expects (e.g. waiting their turn, sharing, queueing, clearing their table, putting hands up, listening) so teach the routines that make things easier for everyone, check their understanding, get them to practice the routines, and crucially, do so constantly until you are satisfied everyone understands and can do them. 

4. Don’t wait for pupils to misbehave- be proactive. 

The techniques described form the core of good behaviour teaching. They are proactive, and they are a support and scaffold to good behaviour. They are particularly important for many students who would be more at risk of sanction or exclusion due to insecure behavioural habits. They help to create conditions where good behaviour is more likely and bad behaviour less likely. They pre-empt misbehaviour, defuse and diminish the risk of escalation, and teach children social habits that are portable far beyond the school gates. 

5. Make boundaries meaningful. 

Students need to know that deliberately misbehaving will result in consequences; the school must develop immediate/ fast responses. When behaviour is poor, or fails to meet the standard, it must be challenged. Student need to know a line has been crossed. These lines can be managed by many means. Mild sanctions can act as a deterrent but only if consistently and fairly applied, and when there is a high expectation that they will occur. Rewards too can have a small, short-term motivating effect. Both sanctions and rewards are an essential part of any school’s system, otherwise some students will feel there are no boundaries. They also set a clear expectation on the student body that certain behaviours will not be tolerated, and some will be celebrated. By themselves they are insufficient for all students at all times, as any one technique is. Other consequences, such as pastoral conversations, reteaching behaviour, therapeutic approaches, etc. must also be part of the whole school repertoire. Consequence systems, in order to be highly effective, need to be as consistent as possible throughout the entire school. 

Most consequence systems fail because they are inconsistently applied by individual teachers, or across a school community. 

6. Rewrite your behaviour policy and consequences to reflect the current circumstances

In these times of heightened risk to our health, it is important that students (and staff) are made aware that unhygienic behaviour has to be reclassified from a misdemeanour to something much more serious. Public-facing staff have lost their lives by spitting assaults and disease transmission. Students must be explicitly told that the consequences for behaviour that threatens distancing measures, respiratory or tactile hygiene, are very serious indeed. And malicious, deliberate acts of transmission (eg spitting, coughing) must be treated with the greatest seriousness. 

While it would be inappropriate to detail precise tariffs for every school circumstance, any student caught deliberately breaking such rules should receive serious and possibly severe consequences: immediate fixed term exclusions, parental meetings, in-school isolation etc. Schools should also, in the most extreme cases consider the use of reporting matters to the police. The point isn’t that we want to see such reactions; but as ever with any sanction, the sincere and authentic execution of it conveys a clear message to the student body about what behaviour is tolerated and what is not. This is, quite literally, a matter of life and death for some, and especially adults. These are not normal times. 

7. Train staff first. 

A big mistake many schools make is to believe that you can change student behaviour simply by telling them. Similarly it is a mistake to believe that staff will instantly know what to do if you tell them once. Teach- don’t tell- the behaviour staff need too. Leaders need to spend time with staff before students, and front load their professional development so that they both understand and know how to implement the new routines and are able to teach it to children. Old, whole-school standards should be reinforced alongside new expectations, because if we assume that staff already understand the rules perfectly then we risk papering over misunderstandings. 

8. Implementation is everything

New norms and standards can be taught, but unless someone monitors and maintains these standards, they quickly wither. Even the most diligent of pupils and staff tend to lose habits unless they are reinforced. Some will hardly need this, and for others it is vital. If you lead a school or a classroom, maintaining routines is the glue that keeps standards high. So build a monitoring schedule. When will you check that standards are being met? What will you do in response? Reteach? Reprimand? Remind? How will you record it so that you have a sense of how behaviour is going?

9. Reboot your expectations constantly. 

Behaviour needs to be a state of constant re-creation. Staff need to repeat the expectations constantly, and in unison throughout the school day with all children. Positive cultures are immersive. Students- and staff- need to see the norms as frequently as possible. This means a) continually, on a day-to-day basis. They should be modelled, explained, mentioned, pointed out, demonstrated and insisted upon and b) Formally in a targeted way. This means though periodic reboots of the expectations, standards and behaviours needed for students and staff to flourish. For students this might mean once a term in a period of formal re-instruction like a morning or day. For staff this might mean planned CPD for all staff- especially new, but including everyone. We imbed culture by repetition, and if we expect people to remember it forever without reinforcement then we guarantee that standards will slide. 

10. High expectations means high support. 

Everyone, form staff to students, have been through difficult times. All have seen their routines turned upside down. Some will have had relatively happy circumstances spending time with family, others will have suffered trials, and some tragedy. This is why a proactive approach to behaviour is even more vital now. When behaviour is taught, people understand what they need to do, and can do it better. But asking more of people without helping them build the skills they need to do it is to invite disaster and difficulty. The higher the expectations- and they must be higher now- the higher the support required to achieve them. Staff training, calm student induction, checking for understanding, consistent repetition of norms, demonstrated and corrected where necessary, these are the foundation of good behaviour. 

Finally remember: all rules have exceptions. 

Routines, norms, and consistency are how cultures are built. As an approach, it is a rising tide that lifts all ships. The most vulnerable or challenging students often need structure more than other children, who may have been living in a challenging, turbulent or unstructured environment. If students feel that they are valued, that they matter, and that their behaviour matters, they are far more likely to turn up and try. This is not only consistent with having high expectations, it is intrinsic to them. 

But schools must be aware that students with the most challenging behaviour sometimes – but not always – need even more than these factors. They may need a more targeted approach, pastoral support, therapeutic strategies, and so on. They may need complex programs of support that involves work inside or outside the classrooms, multi-agency approaches etc. Not all students will need this. Some students with typically mainstream behaviour will need more support than before due to their circumstances (e.g. bereavement or anxiety) and some will thrive and surprise us with their resilience. We should not assume that students are returning to school traumatised, and equally nor should we assume they are fine. Whole school approaches that assume all children are anxious and confused may have a negative effect. Be alert for signs of difficulty and let all students know that discrete pastoral support is available. Remember that a calm, safe, structured school culture is one of the best ways to reduce anxiety and promote good mental health. Students need to see adults being positive, hopeful and in control of themselves- whether we feel it or not. 

There is an opportunity, even in this dark time, to relaunch into the future in a way that makes it as likely as possible that children- and staff- will work together again in a calm, safe environment where everyone can flourish in dignity with one another. I cannot say it will be easy because it won’t be, for anyone. But it will be worthwhile, as everything that matters is.

I live in the certain hope that we will see each other again in better times and hold our families and friends once more. 

Good luck


May 2020

NB: To be clear, these views are my own, and do not represent any official guidance of any kind. This post has been summarised and designed into a one sheet pdf that people are very welcome to share for free if they find it useful. 

Thank you to the excellent Oliver Caviglioli for his assistance with this. 


  1. Thank you Tom for this report. Realistic and sensible advice for leadership in their plans to reopen schools.


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