Dr Francesca Heffernan talks about her guiding principles of systemic change and how they helped one school shift their thinking and their policy around behaviour to a restorative, relational and attachment friendly emotional regulation policy.
During the years 2019-2023 I have had the privilege to support a mainstream primary school on its journey to developing a new behaviour policy (re-titled emotional regulation policy). I had been the school’s link Educational Psychologist since 2018 and the work grew organically from casework to discussions about emotional regulation to staff training on Emotion Coaching.
This led the school to request support to develop a new behaviour policy; one based on the restorative, relational and attachment friendly principles that had resonated with them through casework and training. Like many Educational Psychologists, I have always been keen to complete this type of work but have had few opportunities; on the doctorate systemic work is talked about as something to aspire to and work towards but to not expect too often in one’s career (the demand of casework being ever present and generally prioritised by schools).
The brief from senior leaders
Discussions with the school’s senior leadership helped me to understand the initial brief:
To support school to develop a new behaviour policy and to engage with all stakeholders to ensure this was developed robustly and with all voices elicited and included.
Senior leadership were keen to implement change quickly, initially requesting for the work to be completed in one term. From our initial research and by plotting out the work needed, we could see that this was extremely unlikely and not advisable if the work was going to involve all stakeholders and lead to genuine system change.
Research and case studies completed by Emotion Coaching UK were invaluable throughout the project, but particularly at this point as we had this information and blueprints to guide us and to reassure senior leadership that their aspirations of this project were realistic (Emotion Coaching - Research Update (emotioncoachinguk.com) and Emotion Coaching Resources for Professionals (emotioncoachinguk.com)).
The journey and guiding principles
The first year was tough and reminded me somewhat of my thesis work; a lot of time was put into research that did not always lead anywhere and I often felt unsure of the direction of work and lost sight of the forest for all the trees. I kept hold of my guiding principles, however, developed from my Educational Psychology training and from helpful research articles I had read on systemic change. These were:
The importance of involving all stakeholders (in this case staff, senior leadership, governors, children and parents/carers) and considering how participatory the process was (e.g., using the ladder of participation, Hart, 1992).
Keeping psychology at the forefront of my work and being explicit with models and theories used in order to ensure informed involvement from all.
Using an iterative approach to ensure all voices heard influenced the policy’s development.
Not rushing the process but allowing time for reflection and embedding time, in order to further develop the policy in action.
The balance between guiding and motivating stakeholders whilst not ‘owning the problem’. This often proved to be the hardest to hold on to as often I was the only person keeping the policy work at the forefront of my mind as staff and senior leadership were pulled away to other significant demands of their job.
Remaining a reflective practitioner throughout and ensuring I upskilled myself and further developed my knowledge as and when appropriate.
During the first year we moved the project forward significantly. Stakeholder voices were gathered through a range of methods (e.g., questionnaires and group consultations). The first draft of the policy was developed through the commitment of the working group (a self-selected group of staff and parent governors), facilitated by myself. Actions came out of this work, including a training menu, delivered during COVID lockdowns no less!, amendments to the policy drafts and discussions about implementation with senior leadership, the pastoral team and staff. The vast administrative jobs were divided between myself, senior leadership and the school’s administration team.
The policy was introduced to school in the second year and my role was quiet for some time, to allow for implementation and embedding to occur. Midway through the second year my role shifted to evaluation and again I focussed on gathering the views of stakeholders and reflecting on how to ensure their views were acted upon in a genuine and meaningful way. This led to further workshops and training and amendments to the policy as appropriate after the period of time spent trialling it.
The third and fourth years involved a much smaller amount of Educational Psychology time with a particular focus on ‘the reflection room’. The reflection room was created during this project to make space for incidents to be discussed through comic strip conversations or to allow for emotional regulation. It was designed to empower children to come up with alternative ways to manage situations and their emotions differently in the future and allow time for staff to reconnect with children emotionally and rebuild positive connections however, there were a number of concerns about how this was operating in practice and the congruence of its message with the themes of the emotion regulation policy.
The reflection room work included observations, consultations with staff and children then follow up sessions with senior leadership. This may have been the most challenging part of my work as it involved being an advocate for staff and children in delivering constructive criticism to the senior leadership in order to affect change. The senior leadership in this school were very open to this process, however, and actioned a number of appropriate changes based on this feedback which was very heartening. The members of senior leadership even positively responded to my suggestion for further training for them specifically and this was one of the last pieces of work I delivered in this project.
I have now completed the project work with this school and hope their onward journey remains congruent with the ethos that so many individuals involved enthusiastically embraced throughout the process. I have now had time to reflect on the project and be honest with myself about where it went well and where it could have been improved.
Was it delivered perfectly? Definitely not. However, I cannot imagine a situation where perfection would even be possible, given the ‘messiness’ of all school systems and cultures and the competing demands a school has across this number of years.
Did it meet need? I hope so, although only time will tell.
Did it feel congruent and respectful to all stakeholders and lead to sustained, genuine, ‘bottom up’ change? I believe so and my close relationship with school before and during the project gives me some confidence that my belief on this is correct.
In the interest of stakeholder engagement and hearing all voices, we asked the school what they thought:
How has the project impacted the school?
Our restorative approach has really helped the children reflect on their actions and identify where they could have made better choices. They are also able to see other children's points of view more easily and have become more tolerant.
The staff are comfortable using restorative scripts and can more easily unpick the issue and resolve it in a more timely manner.
Staff look for and reward the positive behaviour choices the children are making which is consistent throughout the school.
Has it met the brief in terms of genuine systems change?
We now have a whole school restorative approach to helping children to understand their emotions and how they can affect their behaviour choices.
Children are able to reflect on what has happened, what they could have done better and what they would do differently in the future.
We use different tools to enable us to do this dependent on the age and stage of the child but the approach is consistent.
Is there anything else you would like to share about the project and your experience that might be helpful for other schools?
It has probably taken longer to embed the policy as we began our journey in September 2019 and then we had the disruption of Covid but the positive effect it had when the children returned made it worth while.
The children needed a lot of emotional support and nurture and our policy supported this.
We have an ongoing training programme as we want to make sure that new staff fully embrace our policy and procedures, and although this has cost and time implications it has been worth it.
Thanks to Sarah Murphy at Northwood Primary for allowing us to share our experience of working together on this project and for her time giving us her views.
Whole system change can have huge impacts in schools and can be a way to affect the biggest change from your time with an EP (giving you the most value from your SLA). If you want to know more about systemic working, talk to your educational psychologist of get in touch on email@example.com