‘He Picks and Chooses’

Of all teacher-speak, this is the phrase that perplexes me most. I heard it often as a SENCo, spoken as a kind of judgement against children whose SEMH or neurodevelopmental needs made for irratic and sometimes challenging behaviour.

The phrase may comprise just four words, but it manages to pack an awful lot of discounting punch. First, the success of a pupil who is able to succeed so well in certain contexts that a debilitating underlying difficulty, such as ADHD, is barely apparent. Second, the success of a skilful and empathetic teacher who is able to create such a context.

Surely, these are two achievements that we should be building on, attempting to replicate, sharing and celebrating in our schools, if we’re seriously interested in making a success of inclusion. Wouldn’t it be worth properly analysing how some teachers consistently create the conditions in which all pupils are able to learn, even the most vulnerable? Whilst others have a habit of triggering them, and then demanding punishment?

The second question might be provocative, but it is reflected in my experience. And if we are going to make our schools finally work for all, not just for Alison Peacock’s ‘convenient majority’, then we do need to be humble about learning from our best practitioners in relation to inclusive practice.  The reductive and intellectually lazy ‘picking and choosing’ explanation for variable behaviour stifles inquiry of this kind and thwarts what ought to be a focus for rich collaboration.

The mindset behind the p&c phrase also prevents us from harnessing the potential for growth and change that exists within every misfiring child. Back in the 1930s, Kurt Goldstein introduced the idea that people are self-actualizers, children no less than adults. We don’t set out to fail in life, or in school – to be disliked by teachers, punished and excluded. All children would prefer to succeed because that’s the driving-force. It’s just that some need to be taught how; they need coaching in how to self-regulate just as they need lessons in how to read and write.

We’re working on this in Lincolnshire. Pupils at risk of exclusion are now supported through a solution-focused pastoral support programme. Dr Geoff James has trained over 50 solution focused coaches to date with further courses scheduled and momentum building because of the overwhelmingly positive feedback. To learn more about the approach, it’s worth visiting The Solution Focused Coach, Geoff’s website.

All I will say about it here is that, in a solution-focused setting, examples of good behaviour are not framed negatively, as evidence of ‘picking and choosing’, to be added to the mounting case against. Rather, the judge’s wig is cast aside.

The solution-focused coach is then able to take charge, with the agency of the child, identifying what is going well and building on such positives as the foundation for future success. It’s a simple, profound behavioural pedagogy – and it works.


Published by Mary Meredith

Working in schools for over 20 years, I've been a Head of English, a SENCO and a deputy headteacher. I'm currently Head of Inclusion at Lincolnshire County Council. I am a sucker for the underdog. Always have been, always will be.

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