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A ‘critical friend’ approach to school behaviour and discipline systems

Updated: Nov 3, 2022

Dr Frances Willis, Educational Psychologist

The context

A school requested EP support for their project to reduce exclusions alongside their therapeutic offer and support from community policing. The EP support included a variety of approaches but aimed to understand the high levels of exclusions in the school, particularly for the young people who seemed to be excluded again and again.

I was interested in how the school’s behaviour and discipline system worked for these children and what changes were needed so this group of children could be successful. To do this I offered a ‘critical friend’ approach, where the EP uses their strong relationship with school staff to identify strengths and gives direct challenge where it is needed to support change.

Finding out about the system

To understand what was going on in the school system I:

  • Observed across school including lessons, the internal exclusion room, the personalised learning department, reintegration meetings (following exclusions), as well as the wider school environment such as gate duty in the morning and in the corridors between lessons

  • Consultations with critical reflections on behaviour with almost thirty staff

  • Conversations with several students in the corridors and 1:1 during casework

  • SEN consultations with the inclusion team

It was also useful to complete a small number of individual caseworks, as looking in-depth at the individuals who are struggling the most can help recognise both the strengths and the areas of need for a whole school system (as argued by Laughlan & Boyle)

Identifying the challenges

The main finding of the involvement was that the group of children who were repeatedly being excluded had several commonalities. They were often recognised to have ACEs (adverse childhood experiences, Felittie & Anda, 1988) such as substance misuse, domestic violence, parental separations and experiences of abuse. This group of children were also experiencing ‘relational poverty’ (Bomber, 2020) in that they did not have positive connections at home or school and were feeling disconnected from school. There was high instances of recognised special educational needs, such as social, emotional and mental health needs.

For these students there were concerning consequences of getting stuck in the school’s discipline system:

  • They were ‘opting out’ of the classroom learning environment as they preferred the internal exclusion room where there were less demands on them as learners

  • They spent very little time in the classroom which leads to bigger gaps in their learning to overcome and feelings of being disconnected from the class teachers

  • It became harder and harder for this group of students to view themselves as part of typical classrooms because they spent so little time there

  • These students felt rejected by the school and it affected their self-esteem

  • In some instances, there were systems which heightened the likelihood of this group of children struggling (e.g., placing unregulated children in the same room as those on full day’s detention, causing them to fail)

  • Parents became more distant as they felt their child was seen as a problem

  • There were increased safeguarding concerns as these students spent more time at home on fixed term exclusions, often in homes where there were prior concerns (i.e. where ACEs were likely)

The critical finding was that children who were getting stuck in the behaviour system were not changing their behaviour.

Throughout the consultations it became apparent that the community and the school’s own journey was closely related to their approach to behaviour. The school was in an area of deprivation, with low employment and little engagement between home and school. The setting had been identified as a ‘failing’ school several years ago but had more recently been taken over by a large academy trust.

It was clear that drastic measures had felt necessary to manage the ‘wild west’ of the old school; however, this felt to students like an excessive level of control which was causing tensions with students. Senior staff were working hard to manage the narratives around the school and the exclusion rate and welcomed my outsider perspective on this.

Framework for reflections

For the project I introduced the model used by Louise Bomber (2020) to differentiate discipline for children with difficult life experiences:

  • Regulate – a way of soothing

  • Relate – a way of connecting

  • Reason – a way of reflecting

  • Repair – a way of reconnecting

This model allowed us to consider the small challenges that existed at each point in the discipline system. We identified where staff needed development. This included better allowing students to regulate, ensuring that reasoning occurs in a safe relationship and calm space and creating opportunities to rebuild staff-student relationships.

We found also that there were many strengths to the school’s discipline procedure including:

  • many staff had excellent interaction skills with students and understood the importance of body language

  • senior leaders were available and worked hard to make personal connections with students that were struggling

  • there was a clear pathway for recognising special educational needs.

It was important to recognise what the school was 'getting right’ as the critical friend approach builds on the strengths that exist in practice as well as providing direct challenge where it is necessary.


Early in the intervention I provided challenge to the senior leadership team around their assumptions around behaviour. I encouraged the senior leadership team to rank the values that underpin their views about behaviour (e.g. ‘students should be treated equally’, ‘students should feel they are treated fairly’, etc) and compared them to the perceived priorities of their current behaviour system. Through this I provided direct challenge regarding specific practices at school, such as the language they used over the radio, the duo-purpose of the internal exclusion room, and the reasonable adjustments available to students with high ACEs.

We then established a problem-solving approach with the pastoral year managers to develop their skills in reflecting on challenging cases. Through ‘solution circles’ I worked with senior leaders to support the thinking of pastoral staff so they felt more confident and more able to consider the difficulties and the strengths of children who were struggling. Staff commented about the value of using others to come up with ideas and feeling reassured about making adaptations.

In discussions with the senior leaders, it was identified as necessary to change the structure of the internal exclusion provision. Senior leaders decided to separate the provision into two rooms which could serve different purposes. Based on what I had understood from the consultations and observations, I developed guidance for the new provision to refocus the support on unmet needs and reengaging in learning.


Looking at the experiences of children who are getting stuck in the discipline system can help to show where the system needs to be developed. In using a critical friend approach, I gave staff space and structure to reflect on their school’s discipline system and make changes which better meet the needs of a school’s most vulnerable students.

For support in your school, talk to your educational psychologist or contact us at or call us on 01482 643458.

To hear more about Frances' work on school behaviour systems, watch her session The 'Brain or Blame Dichotomy' in school behaviour systems on our YouTube channel.

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