Working with students in a Behaviour School. How staff do it, every day?

Lomandra School, in Sydney’s south west, is a NSW Public Behaviour School supporting students Years 5-12 with severe challenging behaviours and/or mental health issues. It is the largest of its kind in NSW, with an enrolment of 70 students. It is, essentially, a mental health environment.

Staff face the challenges that these students bring daily: high risk-taking attitudes, poor impulse control and diagnosed mental health conditions which can lead to verbal abuse, physical threats, physical attacks and property damage. These challenges require great individual professional skills and sound teamwork in order to restore and maintain a calm and successful authentic learning environment. This is what staff have to do EVERY SINGLE DAY.

That behaviour schools are able to function in a manner that is safe, physically and emotionally for all students and staff and in a manner that provides genuine learning, is not a given. While I could dwell on the incredible skill, resilience and passion that each staff member at Lomandra brings with them each day, I want to mention what I believe to be the essential protective factors for staff that allow schools to thrive, not just survive, every single day:

* A clear vision for the school. Ours is to shift imaginations.

* A clear purpose. Ours is to increase students’ knowledge and develop their self-awareness and social/emotional skill.

* A cohesive executive and a known and understood hierarchy of incident responses . We have a close working relationship with the local police who form an essential part of that hierarchy.

* A vigilant, insightful executive team that is sensitive to all staff, that provides strong and regular supervision and addresses issues early and in a manner that empowers people.

* A collective and inclusive sense of humour….and much laughter!

* An effective model for debriefing that gives voice to individual staff and voice to the team. It needs to be a healthy place to vent professionally.

* A sense of team and an understanding and respect for the different roles within the team.

* A trusted support system outside of the school that understands the school and trusts its management. In effect, a support service that ‘has our backs’.

* Trust – at all levels: that there will be follow-through, that full and frank conversations can be had, that teaching time is spent well.

* A sense of perspective: staff know why they are doing things – they know they can make a difference, they develop deeper levels of self-awareness and emotional intelligence and they have the capacity for detachment – the ability to respond without reacting.

* Opportunities for all staff for leadership, finding creative solutions, ownership and responsibility. Success is acknowledged and strategic support for correction is provided.

* Encouragement for staff to take risks.

* A school culture where all staff are learners.

* Clear and regularly articulated school values that scaffold conversations with students. At Lomandra, there is no set of ‘school rules’ for the students.

* And, finally, a fantastic school counsellor!

Schools evolve. The daily journey may highlight new insights – and we are open to them.

Written by Mark Smith, Principal Lomandra School, in conjunction with staff from the school. For more information on Lomandra School, visit the website: http://www.lomandra-s.schools.nsw.edu.au/