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Celebrating positives in the classroom may improve child behaviour and mental health

Posted on July 18th 2018

Training teachers to focus their attention on positive conduct, and to avoid jumping to correct minor disruption, may improve child behaviour, concentration and mental health.

Government figures indicate that 10% of children have a mental health condition. The commonest and most persistent mental health condition is severe behaviour problems, and children with “conduct disorder” are at risk of all adult mental health conditions as well as poor educational and social outcomes. Despite the research and guidelines available, there is no specific guidance on how social and emotional well-being should be promoted in primary schools.  

The Supporting Teachers and Children in Schools (STARS) study set out to address this by examining whether training courses could enhance teachers’ skills in promoting socio-emotional well-being among their pupils. The study analysed the success of The Incredible Years® Teacher Classroom Management Programme, the core principles of which include building strong social relationship between teachers and children, and ignoring low-level bad behaviour that often disrupts classrooms. Instead, teachers are encouraged to focus on relationship building, age appropriate motivation, proactive management of unwanted behaviour and acknowledging good behaviour.

Professor Tamsin Ford, led the research. She said:

“Our findings suggest that this training potentially improves all children’s mental health but it’s particularly exciting to see the larger benefit on the children who were initially struggling. These effects might be larger were this training offered to all teachers and teaching assistants. Let’s remember that training one teacher potentially benefits every child that they subsequently teach. Our study offers evidence that we should explore this training further as a whole school approach.”

The project’s outcomes were measured via a combination of questionnaires filled in by teachers, parents and children. Researchers also considered academic attainment, and use of NHS and social services.  Independent observers sat in on lessons in a quarter of schools who took part, without knowing whether the teachers had undertaken the training.

As well as the improvements in mental health, behaviour and concentration, teachers liked the training and thought it was useful. Observations suggest that it changed their behaviour, and improved child compliance in the classroom.

Teacher Sam Scudder, at Withycombe Raleigh School in Exmouth, East Devon, undertook the training as part of the trial. He said:

“I’ve found the training has made a real difference and it’s definitely improved my teaching practice. Praise is an essential aspect of the training and 'proximity praise' has been a really effective tool.  By finding and describing the sort of behaviour you desire, you can bring a change in those who are off-task while simultaneously ignoring them.  Of course there are some behaviours you can’t ignore, but the focus is around really celebrating the kids who exhibit the behaviour you want: those who are quietly listening, yet are often overlooked in classrooms. It has a ripple-effect as more children copy that conduct.”

Teacher Kate Holden, at Ipplepen Primary School, also took part in the study, and said:

“This training helped us to use techniques to raise the profile of positive behaviour and diminish the emphasis placed on low level disruptive behaviour.  Consistent clear rewards and sanctions highlighted expectations in a manageable and positive framework and preserved the high-quality relationships which underpin the whole ethos. This is far from woolly or accepting of poor behaviour.  it is actually proactive and highly effective when used correctly in conjunction with a model to support behaviour across the whole school.

Tamsin has spoken to BBC Spotlight about the findings of the study. You can watch again here

The paper is entitled The effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of the Incredible Years® Teacher Classroom Management programme in primary school children: results of the STARS cluster randomised controlled trial. It is published in the journal Psychological Medicine.

For more information about the STARS study, visit the project page.