New beginnings – getting schools fully open in the new normal

Tom Bennett, Behaviour Advisor to the DfE

We meet the new school term in circumstances unlike any other. There has never been an autumn term like this one. If character is revealed by crisis then the education sector has demonstrated heroic levels of fortitude, compassion, and perspicacity in one of its darkest hours. For the good of all staff and students, it is vital to get behaviour right. In fact, it has never been more vital. So what can we do to greet this challenge?

A school or classroom culture can be rebooted at any time in your relationship with them. But it requires strategy, nerve and determination. It is rarely as simple as simply reminding them of the rules, because telling children how to behave is never so effective as teaching them.


The reboot.

Sometimes, students have forgotten what the core routines and norms of the school are. You may have forgotten what you wanted from them in the first place. Your goal posts may have shifted, and you may allow different standards than before. Or, like now, you may be emerging from one of the longest periods of enforced absence from education that history has ever known. Everyone, from staff to students, have been through difficult times. All have seen their routines turned upside down. Some will have had relatively happy circumstances spending time with family, others will have suffered trials, and some tragedy.

Routines, norms, and consistency are how cultures are built. As an approach, it is a rising tide that lifts all ships. The most vulnerable or challenging students often need structure more than other children, who may have been living in a challenging, turbulent or unstructured environment.

Under normal circumstances, behavioural degradation is often hard to notice. Things change slowly, like hair growing, or lockdown weight around a waistline, until one day clothes no longer fit, and you wonder where the gymnast went and why you suddenly seem to have a body like a dropped lasagne(© Frankie Boyle). Under the current extraordinary circumstances, we should expect students and staff to be unpractised, or have developed new, home-grown habits.

  • Students may have partially or entirely lost the habits that enable them to flourish as learners and as member of the school community.
  • Staff may also be a little rusty, and uncertain. This is perfectly natural. They will have been coping with a variety of challenges.
  • Students will have to observe far higher standards of respiratory and tactile hygiene than ever before.
  • Many students – especially young children – will already have hygiene habits that we would probably describe as less than ideal, that become dangerous in the current climate.
  • Staff, too will have to observe not only this type of virological etiquette but also be expected to train and maintain these behaviours in others.

Many will snap back into school processes easily. Many, perhaps most students are keen to be back with friends and in classes. But as a group it is best if we can make it as easy as possible for them to get the behaviour right. Here’s how:

Ctrl + Alt + Del

If you teach, stand in front of your students and instead of diving straight into the curriculum, focus on the behaviour curriculum instead. You could use of a script to do so. It should contain the following beats:

  • We have all been through an extraordinary time.
  • I hope you managed as best as you could.
  • We are delighted to have you back.
  • We have lots of important things to do and learn.
  • We need everyone to be safe and happy.
  • In order to do that, we need to try our best to behave in a way that allows this.
  • When we succeed, we succeed together. When we do well, we all do well.
  • Here’s what we need to focus on.

This is the beginning of the reboot. It must be delivered with sincerity, and with the understanding that things will only get better if everyone tries hard to do better. But it is essential that staff also make this happen. This usually means committing to:

  • Noticing more
  • Challenging students more
  • Setting more consequences
  • Being more consistent
  • Following up
  • Checking that you are sticking to your new standards and boundaries

If things slide again (and they may), reboot constantly. Persistence is what pays off. Giving up allows the reboot to fade away like mist. This where your mindset is vital, where your head must be totally in the game in order to succeed. You must wear down their resolve to behave as they please by presenting them with a resolve of your own not to back down. And give them reasons to behave. Improved behaviour makes schools happier, calmer, safer places to be, learn and work.

Inertia may be powerful, but so is momentum. When students and colleagues start to see the behavioural weather changing around them, many will be inspired by it, and find better reasons to follow suit. Norms beget norms, but the energy will have to come initially from you, whatever your role.

But you will never, never be able to relax and stop investing your energy and focus on these matters. Entropy is the natural state of everything. Creation takes far more effort than destruction, and teaching and learning is one of the most useful acts of creation there is. And that’s why all the effort is worth it. Good luck.

For more advice on re-opening in Autumn, read Tom’s blogs here, where you can find resources and school policies to give you ideas about rebooting your behaviour after lockdown:

Get in touch with Tom at, or on Twitter @tombennett71.