‘Unconditional positive regard’ towards even badly behaved pupils is growing in popularity
It is a bitterly cold Yorkshire morning and outside a school in Barnsley staff are involved in the most important part of the school day.
“All right, Kyle?” asks Dave Whitaker, the executive principal of Springwell special academy. “Morning, Kenzie. I saw some lovely writing of yours last night.”
One by one, the children are greeted by staff with a warm smile and a personalised hello. The teachers’ enthusiasm, however genuine, is rarely reciprocated. Some students scowl, others grunt a “hello”, almost all hunch their shoulders. One 11-year-old girl, Whitaker recalls, responded with a curt “Fuck off!” every single morning for a year.
That particular response would be met with instant isolation, detention or expulsion in many schools – but not at Springwell. “She was living in a house where there was violence, drug abuse, swearing – that was just commonplace and no one was nice to her,” Whitaker says. “So when she comes to us and we’re nice to her, she couldn’t cope with it.”
Instead of disciplining her, teachers paid the girl more positive attention in an attempt to understand the angst she was bringing from home. Within a year, she had stopped her morning outburst and got along with school staff. And that, the school’s principal, Verity Watts, explains, is why the daily greeting is essential: it allows teachers to spot which children are arriving in a foul mood. “You’re sussing out where the child is at and how they’re feeling,” she says.