Taking children with behavioural issues on a residential

Key features

  • Building resilience, self-esteem and self-belief
  • Experiencing success in a different environment
  • The perception of a 'fresh start'

Occasionally schools need to make a decision whether to take pupils with challenging behaviour on residentials. This case study explores the issue of whether they should be excluded from attending such events, outlines the many benefits and describes some of the strategies put in place in order to support these young people when they are included.

St George’s C of E Primary School, along with four other Barrow-in-Furness primaries, runs a Learning Away camp as part of the Walney partnership’s transition project from primary to secondary school. Occasionally we have had children with ‘challenging behaviour’ in our classes and this has led to heated debate with staff as to whether these children should be included on Learning Away events.

‘Challenging behaviour’ is used to refer to behaviours shown by children that include aggression, self-injury, destruction and other behaviours, such as running away. Such behaviour can put the safety of that child and others at risk as well as jeopardising a residential visit. However, without providing an opportunity to learn outside the classroom, these children could be denied a chance to shine or excel beyond expectations in a different environment.

Learning Away ‘classrooms’ are not conventional teaching spaces and as such the normal or conventional rules do not necessarily apply. Guidelines for conduct vary because the pupils are not confined to a room – new rules are made, others are modified and expectations can differ. Behaviour often changes in a new environment and, in our experience, this has always been in a positive way. As a consequence, staff perceptions of pupils have changed.

One of the advantages of Walney’s transition camps is that pupils from five primaries come together to meet each other and staff from their prospective secondary school. This arrangement supports pupils in starting afresh and making an impression on new staff. No preconceived ideas of their behaviour are known (at least the pupils think this!). This offers an opportunity for the child to make a new beginning. One girl, who had spent the year part time at the Pupil Referral Unit (PRU), felt empowered to “show them what I am really like”. On paper, her behaviour detracted from the very able child she was, but given the chance to start again, she was a ‘dream child’ with no indication of the problems she could create. The assigned mentor at secondary school, who until then had only read the notes on her, was pleasantly surprised by her attitude and a strong bond was forged on the residential. The mentor had presumed her to be a low-attaining pupil because of her behaviour issues, but by meeting her in this setting had been able to see a more positive side to her ability. This certainly had a positive impact on the child settling well into secondary school. Without this opportunity, her reputation would have followed her, along with a heightened risk of failure from the start.

Another pupil, a recent addition to our school, had severe behavioural problems both in and out of school. Prior to the residential we undertook a risk assessment that he and his mother signed, stating that we would remove him immediately if there was any misbehaviour. The lead behaviour specialist in school spent time reiterating the expectations but also outlining the advantages of the camp – rock climbing, sports activities, being outdoors, camp building and orienteering. You could see the excitement build in his eyes. Strategies were put in place to help him cope with feelings of frustration so that he had the best chance of success. However, it wasn’t these factors that made the greatest difference, but the fact that the headteacher of one of the primary schools immediately chose him to help demonstrate tent building. He felt so empowered that the head teacher needed his help.

“That head had no idea about building a tent. If it wasn’t for me, no one would have a tent that would have stayed up an hour, never mind the whole night!” the pupil happily boasted.

Even his classmates kept sharing how clever he was at solving the problem of putting up a tent. He spent the next hour going around supporting children with hammering in tent pegs, laying mats, unzipping sleeping bags and being generally helpful.

“All the plaudits he received helped him grow. His self-esteem rocketed and he chose to be ‘the helpful boy’. The label and attitude stuck with him on his return to school. With only four weeks left of his final years of primary, the pupil was able to show he had turned a corner in his attitude.”

He left primary school ‘secondary ready’ and with a reputation of helpfulness preceding him. Two years on, he still recalls the camp with fondness – it was there that he made good friends, who helped him settle positively into secondary school.

One child had been externally excluded only two weeks prior to the residential camp following an assault on a member of staff. His erratic behaviour and violent temper caused us to carefully consider whether he should be included on the residential experience. There were no warnings when he was going to ‘flip’ and no discernible triggers, except being caught out in rounders! Quite a chunk of the residential visit was assigned to ‘free time’ for pupils to make new friends on their own terms. This was the time we felt he was the most vulnerable. However, on the residential, he realised he wasn’t being expected to read or write, so his attitude was positive. During the course of the residential, he experienced events that might have triggered a violent reaction in school (such as being caught out in cricket) but as he was able to take himself off within the grounds of the camp, he found a chance to calm down and manage his feelings without adult intervention. He was able to manage his own behaviour.

Getting students involved and taking responsibility for their own behaviour is a good step in developing the independence of the learner. Staff sit down with each child with behaviour issues, and talk about expectations of their behaviour. The teacher/learning mentor and child discuss the appropriate behaviour for a range of possible scenarios. A clear understanding that the child is responsible for their actions and the consequences for these actions is reached. As our Learning Away residential is a transition camp between primary and secondary schools, the child is made aware that this is the first occasion the secondary school will have to meet them and that first impressions are vitally important. Reiterating expectations and suggesting this is a ‘fresh start’ have ensured a positive residential for every child with behavioural issues.

Some pointers for success:

  • Prepare pupils prior to leaving through intensive coaching on behaviour, expectations and an outline of what the residential involves so that they can mentally prepare themselves for the visit.
  • Involve parents in the writing of risk assessments, making it very clear that misbehaviour will not be tolerated in the residential setting because of its impact on safety.
  • Plan group dynamics carefully so that pupils will have the greatest chance of success and clashes of personality are avoided.
  • Use a dynamic risk assessment uncritically to suit the people, places and activities involved. Ensure it is ongoing, assessing triggers to behaviour issues and best procedures to deploy should a pupil ‘kick off’. Constant re-evaluation of the risks helps prevent any major problems arising.
  • Ensure that potentially disruptive pupils are closely supervised and monitored as unobtrusively as possible, especially when the chance to go off-task is high. Providing these pupils with specific responsibilities helps to maintain their attention and focus (as with the tent building example).

Using this framework, we have successfully taken pupils with challenging behaviour on our residentials. The children have behaved well, forged new friendships, and grown massively in resilience and self-belief. We have never had to remove a child from the camp. The benefits of taking them away have been maintained back at school, with these pupils feeling empowered. They have shown that they can control their own behaviour and have experienced success.

Certain guidelines are useful not just for those pupils with behavioural problems but for all pupils on the trip. Staffing levels must be adequate – if possible, well above requirements – and all staff should be experienced, known to the children and involved in planning the trip so that they know what to expect. All pupils should have contact sheets with mobile phone numbers for emergency contacts. Specific risk assessments for pupils with behavioural problems should be undertaken to ensure that all staff know what to expect and how to deal with any problems.

It is important in developing children’s personalities to provide exciting, creative opportunities for learning outside the classroom. Residential trips help children to develop by encouraging them to be physically active and collaborate productively with others, which is why they prove constructive in overcoming bad behaviour.  While the educational benefits of taking children outside the classroom are evident, it is important to identify and manage risks and make sure our approach is right for each child to ensure trips have the best possible outcome.