Reviewing and developing a psychological service’s response to managing behavioural difficulties through action research C. Eleanor Law and Kevin Woods

School of Environment, Education and Development, University of Manchester, Manchester, UK

ABSTRACT Educational or school psychologists (EPs/SPs) can offer support with behaviour concerns at the levels of individual, group or organisation. Their practices, whilst being psychologically based, must be respon- sive to local contexts and needs. To explore behaviour practice in a real-world context, and to consider how development in this domain might occur during the adoption of a “part-traded” service delivery model, an empirical investigation was conducted within one English local authority (LA) educational psychology service (EPS). Using an action research model, data were gathered through a focus group with six EPs and an interview with the Principal EP (PEP). Current behaviour practices, psychological approaches and future develop- ment priorities were identified, as well as perceived facilitators and barriers to change and the EPs’ reflections on professional develop- ment through research participation. Implications for EP practice and future research are considered.

KEYWORDS Behaviour difficulties; social, emotional and mental health (SEMH); educational psychologist (EP); school psychologist (SP); action research


The management of behavioural difficulties

The management of behavioural difficulties in schools has been highlighted as an area of concern within educational policy, research and practice. Behavioural difficulties in schools are wide-ranging, includingexternalisingor “acting out” behaviours (for example, aggression, anti- social behaviour and defiance), internalising behaviours (for example, anxiety, depression, deliberate self-harm) (Department for Eduacation [DfE], 2014) and low-level disruption (for example, talking out of turn, calling out and disobeying teacher instructions) (OfSTED, 2014). Four −14% of children are reported to exhibit some form of school-based behavioural difficulties (DfE, 2014), whilst Public Health England reports that 10% of 5−16 year olds experience clinically significant mental health needs, such as anxiety, depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or conduct disorder (Public Health England, 2016) These diverse behaviours are concerning in terms of their impact upon pupils, parents and families. The equivalent of up to 38 days of teaching time are lost to disruptive behaviour annually (OfSTED, 2014), indicating a potentially negative effect on learning and attainment.

CONTACT C. Eleanor Law School of Environment, Education and Development, University of Manchester, Manchester, UK


© 2018 Association of Educational Psychologists



Furthermore, behavioural difficulties can also be detrimental to teacher and pupil emotional wellbeing (Axup & Gersch, 2008) and are a source of conflict between schools and families (Romi & Freund, 1999).

Whilst it is clear that behavioural difficulties are a source of concern, legislation, guidance and psychological approaches to managing these have been subject to change over time. The Elton Report (Department of Education and Science [DoES], 1989) presented a view of behaviour as being “within-pupil”, to be externally “disci- plined” (Rogers, 1990) by teachers through behavioural approaches such as rewards and sanctions. However, Miller (2003) observes that this gave way under the 1997 Labour government to an increased focus on relational factors and the facilitation of positive behaviour through staff roles and whole-school systemic approaches. There is evidence that the present UK Government has returned to advocating “discipline”, with beha- vioural approaches used to respond to concerning behaviours and promote positive ones, alongside emphasis on consistent behaviour policies and school culture (Department for Education [DfE], 2011, 2015, 2016, 2017a, 2017b). Currently, the mental health of children and young people is also implicated within advice and policy sur- rounding behaviour (DfE, 2014), suggesting that mental health and behaviour are related needs grouped under the category of Social, Emotional and Mental Health (SEMH) in the Special Educational Needs (SEN) and Disabilities Code of Practice (Department for Education and Department of Health [DfE&DoH], 2014).

The role of educational psychologists

Educational psychologists (EPs) are a professional group that can support children, schools and families with SEN, including difficult behaviours, working at the level of the individual young person, group, or system, utilising consultation, assessment, inter- vention, research and training (Fallon, Woods, & Rooney, 2010). Law and Woods’ (In press) systematic literature review identified examples of EP practices at each of these levels within the context of behaviour management work, with emphasis on developing behavioural management capacity within organisations such as through training, co- delivering and supervising interventions and action research.

Furthermore, whilst multiple psychological paradigms were applied across the studies reviewed, EPs were found to adopt an holistic overview of behaviours, considering relational and systemic factors as well as “within-child” aspects. EPs were regarded as responding to context, considering the behaviours presented by young people and the development needs of organisations, suggesting that the nature of referrals and the levels of concern about behavioural issues may vary according to time and place. Therefore, service responses to behaviour must be adaptable and responsive to context.

The present context for EP work

Increased service trading has required educational psychology services (EPSs) to be responsive to context in order to generate income from commissioners such as schools or other children’s services, for example, virtual schools (National College for Teaching and Leadership [NCTL], 2014). Lee and Woods (2017) suggested that service trading increased the range of work that might be requested of EPs and the types of skills utilised within their practice. Different service




commissioners may value different contributions from EPs, potentially departing from a predominance of assessing individual children (Ashton & Roberts, 2006). Furthermore, the distinctive needs of different contexts mean that work can be individually contracted and negotiated, broadening the range of skills and practices EPs may utilise. Therefore, whilst EP practice is partly determined according to national agendas and legislation, EPs’ responsive- ness to local context and individual service commissioner needs is also apparent.

Aims of this study

Although previous research has explored the role of EPs in working with behaviour management concerns (for example, Brown, Powell, & Clark, 2012; Burton, 2006; Hannen & Woods., 2012; Hart, 2010; Hayes, Hindle, & Withington, 2007; Hayes, Richardson, Hindle, & Grayson, 2011; Hayes & Stringer, 2016; Jones, Monsen, & Franey, 2013; O’Callaghan & Cunningham, 2015; Regan & Howe, 2017; Smith & Cooke, 2000; Squires, 2001; Swinson, 2010; Williams, 2012), this research exemplifies individual pieces of work carried out by practitioners, rather than exploring broader service responses to context.

The present study therefore aimed to explore how a LA EPS responded to the needs of its contemporary local context in relation to behaviour management work, an identified development area for the service concerned. This was approached using an action research model, in order to explore behaviour management ideas and practices, contextual factors that shaped service development, and to provide a basis for future service development. The following research questions were considered:

(1) How do EPs currently respond to student behaviour management concerns? (2) What psychological theory and approaches inform these responses? (3) How do EPs envisage the development of their practice and the responses of the

service to these concerns? (4) What are the facilitators and barriers to service development within this context?


Epistemological position

The research was underpinned by a critical realism stance (Maxwell, 2012), which posits that external reality is only imperfectly known and mediated by human perception. Situated between realist and constructionist paradigms, this position incorporates fea- tures of emancipatory approaches, particularly the importance of participant perspec- tives (Robson, 2011), which were integral to the research undertaken.


An action research design, utilising the Research and Development in Organisations (RADIO) model was adopted to answer the research questions. This model was selected owing to its structural incorporation of investigation and development (Ashton, 2009) and its documented use in organisational research (Timmins, Shepherd, & Kelly, 2003; Timmins, Bham, McFayden, & Ward, 2006; Douglas-Osborn, 2017). This model therefore




provided the means of exploring and synthesising current behaviour management practice within the EPS and identifying, and potentially implementing, ideas for future development. An overview of the RADIO structure can be found below (Table 1).


An invitation for the researchers to act was given by a UK EPS, due to an identified need in exploring current behaviour management practice and developing service responses to behaviour concerns referred by schools within the LA context (Phases 1 and 2). Following discussions between the authors and a link EP from the service (Phases 3 and 4), all qualified EPs working within the EPS were invited to participate, and to contribute to agreement of the research aims and data gathering methods (Phases 5 and 6). Participants were therefore recruited through self-selecting purposive sampling (Robson, 2011), and included one Principal Educational Psychologist (PEP), three main grade EPs and two associate EPs.

Data gathering

A pilot study with EPs in a different LA utilised a focus group method for exploring current and previous practice in relation to externalising behaviour management, aspira- tional future directions and possible facilitators and barriers to service development. This method was therefore felt to be appropriate for gathering similar information from the EP team during Phase 7 of the RADIO model (Barbour, 2007). In order to explore contextual issues around service development from a managerial perspective, a semi- structured interview was also carried out with the service’s PEP. Both the focus group and interview were audio-recorded and fully transcribed. Notes were also made by the

Table 1. RADIO model. 1. Awareness of a need A local EPS presented to the researchers a perceived need for exploration

of how their service responded to behaviour management concerns and how their offer to schools could be developed.

2. Invitation to act Research commissioning process with researchers and further discussions with link EP from the service.

3. Clarifying organisational and cultural issues

Discussions between link EP and first and second authors for example, change of Principal Educational Psychologist (PEP), adoption of a part- traded model.

4. Identifying stakeholders in area of need

Identified major stakeholders, that is, PEP, EPs in the EPS.

5. Agreeing focus of concern (research aims)

Meeting with PEP and EP team to discuss research aims and data gathering methods.

6. Negotiating framework for information gathering

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