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Taking the challenge to challenging behaviour in our education system

Thursday 6 May 2021 Education

By Miles Reucroft

“In 2011 I was asked to head an EBD (emotional and behavioural difficulties) school and quickly realised that the skills I’d acquired over more than 20 years as a teacher didn’t work – I needed to re-skill and re-skill quickly.” Rich Berry has over 32 years’ experience as a teacher but decided to focus upon improving outcomes for children whose behaviour sits outside of the acceptable ‘norm’, having come to garner a better understanding of why difficult children are difficult.

The school he led was judged to be failing. “I realised that we needed a fresh approach,” explains Rich. “So, I built a team with experience in working with young people who had experienced trauma and we started to investigate neuroscience and the impact that trauma has on brain development in children. Trauma can manifest itself in so many different ways, but we commonly see the emotional struggle emerge in the form of challenging behaviour – this is the only way children have of communicating their struggle; it is not the conscious deliberate act that many assume.

“Through implementing a therapeutic curriculum at the school, our Ofsted judgments began to head in the right direction. The emphasis moved away from a traditional school discipline model and I personally played a more prevalent role in the education process, as an emotionally available adult, always interacting with the students and looking at how we could improve their outcomes.”

After nine years as head of two schools, Rich took early retirement in 2019 to establish his consultancy, Rich Berry Educational Consultancy. He is also co-chair of the charity, Engage in Their Future, which specialises in providing support to teachers and schools for children with SEMH (social, emotional and mental health) challenges. His work covers the UK, with Engage in Their Future working across more than 90 specialist schools and children’s homes.

“I also qualified as a mental health first aid trainer,” explains Rich. “Identifying and preventing mental health issues is a key challenge in helping the children I work with. Early prevention is always the best route, so being able to spot the signs and help them to get the help that they need can be hugely beneficial. I used the mantra with my staff that we were agents for social change. By helping young people overcome trauma they are less likely to suffer with mental health problems in later life.

“In all settings young people's ability to learn and develop resilience depends on the approaches taken by their teachers, parents, sports coaches and youth workers. It's a responsibility I put at the centre of everything I do.”

CACI is delighted to be partnering with Rich to provide his consultancy services to local authorities and associated youth justice and education workers. As part of this, and to promote trauma-informed practice and challenge preconceptions around children displaying disruptive behaviour, CACI will be arranging sessions for customers and as part of our tender process.

“Much of my work, whether with parents, teachers or school communities, focuses on challenging behaviour policies,” says Rich of the consultancy he provides. “Teachers feel disarmed if you take away their ability to sanction pupils in a punitive way. What I challenge them to do is to look at poor behaviour not as a deliberate act of defiance, but as a communication. The fact that we struggle to read that communication should not mean that we go ahead and punish. A punitive system tends to do one of two things; either the child's behaviour continues and deteriorates further, or the child complies and their message is missed, which can lead to a mental health issue in later life. Stats tell us that 50% of adult mental health issues are embedded by 14 and 75% by 17 years of age.

“You can’t argue with neuroscience. There has been a massive increase in our understanding of brain growth as scanning techniques have developed. I use this understanding to develop everyone else's understanding that trauma causes the emotional (limbic) brain to be underdeveloped. I develop peoples’ understanding of trauma. I then help them to understand that the body’s natural fear systems kick in and what we very often see as challenging behaviour, is just a fear response.”

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Disruptive behaviour is a form of communication from troubled young people that often gets missed. A fresh approach is required, both to help the young person and the people around them.

Taking the challenge to challenging behaviour in our education system