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How do we encourage appropriate behaviour at Canopy Forest School?

Updated: Dec 18, 2021

In my previous blog I talked about factors that can affect behaviour so as promised this one is about the ways that we can deal with difficult behaviour. I would like to start by saying that if you are struggling with challenging behaviour and nothing you try is working, please don’t beat yourself up. Having tantrums, questioning, testing, and challenging the authority of adults is, I am afraid, all part and parcel of the process of growing up. It is normal and having to deal with challenging behaviour is something that we should expect to do. As I write this blog, I want it to be clear that I am still learning and developing my own skills, patience, and ability to put theory into practice. What I would like to share is a round of insights from behaviour experts and I understand how difficult it often is to put these principles into real life especially when we are tired, frustrated and stressed ourselves. However, knowing, understanding and being able to dip into a range of behaviour management strategies which help us to respond more sensitively is the first step of becoming more effective.

I would like to start by discussing behaviourism which was originally advocated by many psychologists and educators in the 20th century. This approach is one that we all are familiar with and was put forward by B F Skinner (1972). The basic idea behind behaviourism is that behaviour can be “managed” and “conditioned” externally through reward and punishment systems (Cree and Robb, 2021).

Skinner’s theories about behaviour are centred on the idea of rewarding the behaviour that you wish for and this he calls ‘operant conditioning’ this is where you do something deemed “good” because you are rewarded for it. Skinner believed that there are two different types of reinforcement. Primary reinforcement is when the reward is something we want naturally - a basic need e.g., food, warmth, affection. Secondary reinforcement is a reward that we have learnt to value-like money, a sticker, a certificate. Skinner’s research suggests that reinforcement shapes behaviour better than punishment and positive reinforcement shapes it better than negative reinforcement.

In Skinner’s work he never promoted punishment as a way of controlling behaviour. He stated, as Cree and Robb (2021) point out that:

“when we act meanly, we feel meanly, …..he didn’t see children as natural subverters of the system-guilt does kick in. What is dangerous is when the guilt turns into shame and someone feels that they are a bad person”

Skinner believed that effective conditioning must be contingent, meaning there is a clear link between behaviour and the consequences. He also believed that the consequence should follow soon after the behaviour.

As a teacher and parent, I know that I have always encouraged children to behave in certain ways and I have tried to help them to understand class/home rules and routines through using many of the positive reinforcements discussed above. I use positive rewards such as sticker charts, certificates, verbal praise and occasionally I use negative consequences such as moving a peg down, time out or a discussion about the unwanted behaviour. My experience has shown me that positive reinforcement works better than negative as it motivates, builds, and allows growth and change to take place while negative shuts down, closes and cut off. However, there are times when negative is needed especially when behaviour is jeopardising safety.

However, there are other methods and theories that can be used to help us encourage the behaviour we want to see. The ideas of Skinner do have their limitations especially when the inappropriate behaviour being displayed is

“not because a person won’t behave but because they can’t” (Cree and Robb, 2021).

Another problem also takes place when the reward becomes the only motivator. It is argued by many that the award should be in the joy of achievement, the sense of pride and esteem that flourishes in the self and is an internal self-generated reward not external. If a reward is internally created then we no longer look to others for recognition, affirmation. Consequently, we learn to be more self-reliant and independent. It has been discovered that when we know that the praise or compliment comes from someone’s heart as Cree and Robb (2021) point out and is not formulaic then the reward becomes internal. Amy Banks (2015) in her book Wired to Connect: The Surprising Link between Brain Science and Strong Healthy Relationship writes about how to support the four CARE neural pathways (Appendix 1). This works in the short term and helping behaviour in the moment but as Hall and Jackson (1988) show in their study when constant praise is taken away behaviour will once again deteriorate as an internal process has not taken place. The problem if we don’t comply to a certain set of rewards is that punishment is often used. Although this can be effective in the short term the cost on an individual’s sense of self and need to belong is fractured and broken and the internal monitor which allows us to regulate our behaviour and have agency in our life creeps further away. Louise Porter (2003) in her book Young Children’s Behaviour has created a table that captures the dangers of external controlling behaviour (Appendix 2).

Julian Rotter (1966) put forward the concept of the “Locus of Control” which refers to the extent to which people feel that they have control over the events that influence their lives. He believed that if you have control over what happens to you then you have an internal locus of control. However, if you believe you have no control over and external variables are to blame to what happens to you, you have an external locus of control. It is an idea about personal agency, self-determination, resilience, and a growth mindset. This links with Dr Glasser’s Choice Theory (1970) which was discussed in my previous blog and takes constructivists viewpoint. It is based on the premise that every individual only has the power to control themselves and limited power to control others. Every part of our behaviour-thoughts, feelings and physiology is about meeting five basic needs and we always have a choice about how we go about doing this:

“Between stimulus and response there is space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. In those choices lie our growth and our happiness” (S Covey, 1999)

We can use these ideas to help us with dealing with behaviour as we can openly talk and share with the children how they are responsible, powerful and can choose how they perceive or filter the information around them, and it is their choice how they respond to it. Alfie Kohn, author of Beyond Discipline (2006) believes that there are three C’s to facilitating an approach which uses self-management of behaviour, and these are choice, content, and community.

Karpman’s drama triangle also discussed in my previous blog is an interesting model to consider at this point as it depicts how destructive interactions can occur among people in conflict and how participants try to unconsciously achieve goals and agendas. However, there is also The Winner’s Triangle (Appendix 3) which was published by Acey Choy (1990) and this is the antithesis of the drama triangle. Acey Choy suggests that we can break the cycle without discounting other people’s ability or human worth. This is done by reframing the roles turning Persecutor to Potent, Rescuer to Responsible and Victim to Vulnerable.

Changing our focus, views and approaches to challenging behaviour is known as “Reframing”. Dr Stuart Shanker founder of the Self-Regulation Institute discusses ways of “reframing the negative and challenging” (Shanker, 2021) and he believes that education is an important part of assisting children having difficulties. We should expect difficult behaviour because it will happen and when it does, we should deal with it immediately in a positive way which can reframe, empower, and give options.

“Over time it can help children understand their behaviour and how to better respond in the future.” (2021)

If we view difficult behaviour as communication and an outward symptom of underlying troubles, then we can understand it better. We can try and remove barriers or stressors from a situation and help the child to feel supported and able and teach them to communicate and work with them to solve the problem. Stuart Shanker points out that:

“Children want to be good, do the right thing and make caregivers happy” (2021)

When we help children to gain an insight into their behaviour, they develop a better understanding of themselves, and others and they are given a new perspective about situations and problems that they feel are stressful. This method strengthens bonds, empowers, and builds support, trust, and healthy two-way communication. Shanker shares five top tips for reframing, and these can be found in Appendix 4.

Bandura is another behaviourist who wrote about social learning theory. His work relied on an external influence to change behaviour and suggested that modelling, mirroring, and attuning to people are “incredibly skilful strategies” (Cree and Robb, 2021) as it supports emotional regulation and stronger relationships. Social learning theory considers how both environmental and cognitive factors interact to influence human learning and behaviour. He suggests that children observe the people around them behaving in various ways and this encodes behaviour, this can be positive and negative, external, or internal. According to Bandura:

“…. there are four key elements to his social learning theory for this type of modelling to be effective:




*Motivation” (Cree and Robb, 2021)

Cree and Robb point out in their book The Essential Guide to Forest School and Nature Pedagogy (2021) that the motivational element is the key to effective modelling as it activates the energetic neutral pathways through the release of oxytocin and dopamine.

This links in with Vygotsky’s work on the zone of Proximal Development (1978) which discusses the importance of students being able to achieve a set task, with or without support as if the challenge is too great, they will become anxious. However, if students are too easily able to achieve and the level of challenge is too low, they will become bored. Consequently, to effectively challenge and engage students the task or activity must be structured to keep them in their Zone of Proximal Development as this is where they are most likely to perform well. Our internal feelings and needs have a tremendous impact and control over our actions, and this affects how we respond to others and our external environment.

The Forest School approach very much supports an understanding, compassionate methodology with behaviour. At its core Forest School education is about becoming as Sarah Blackwell writes:

“protectors and nurturers of ourselves, our souls, spirits and bodies, our health and wellbeing will flourish; in becoming well at an individual level we are able to reach out to others and to the community and society in which we live, and further afield. Enriching the lives of others and giving to the natural environment brings personal hope and joy, not only to us, but also to those that we care for, and is indeed this very action that is identified by the New Economics Foundation as a necessity for wellness and wellbeing. “(Blackwell, 1988-2020)

Every aspect of the Forest School approach is about nurturing wellbeing and thus it follows that we should bring understanding to our behaviour management approach. The long-term process of the programme means that small steps can be taken in building everyone’s self-esteem, self-worth, confidence, and resilience.

“This long-term approach is essential for the development and hardwiring of neurons to react to situations that may in the past have or could well become predisposed to unsociable or unacceptable ways of behaving, or indeed absent due to the child experiencing high levels of cortisol in the brain, due to stress or trauma, inhibiting the development of neuron connection and maturing of the brain areas. If these responses are indeed unsociable, they will lead to exclusion, either by peers or by the social group, society and community, and the immediate or indirect school environment “ (Blackwell, 1988-20200 1:3)

The reflective process helps attain capable learners and personal sustainability and this follows with behaviour as once we become more aware of our triggers and individual needs we are better equipped to communicate more effectively. Knowing that you are part of a caring and nurturing community helps students to work through and take down barriers, they can be vulnerable and ask for help because they know that they will be heard and supported. Connecting, relating, giving people space, and allowing students to breathe and be curious about their external and internal world is a very special quality that Forest School brings.

“Though the maintenance of self, developing a clear understanding of our individual needs, how to satisfy those -note needs, not wants- and within that, establishing a sense of place in the world through awareness of and confidence in our right to be heard, our right to exist and our right to be loved and cared for. This journey builds on strong foundations that can then weave its way into the formation of empathetic relationships with others, family, siblings, extended family, friends, colleagues, and others. (Blackwell, 1988-2020, forward)”

The reflective process allows the Forest School Leader to closely observe, watch and consider the best ways to mediate, scaffold and support each student. The baseline assessment allows us to build up a picture and holistic profile of each child. Knowing their strengths, areas for development and working out their Zone of Proximal Development means that we can plan activities that they can access, works with their learning, and play types.

“The skilled practitioner, or ‘Informed Leader’ is able to plan for the individual child, without removing any notion of self-initiation, following of interests and motivations through discovery, exploration with the support of the supportive adult as far as is reasonably possible, with regard to safety and boundaries of behaviour. It is this expertise that creates a positive impact through the Forest Schools Programme when firmly woven into a diverse and beautiful natural woodland setting. (Blackwell, 1988-2020, 1:2)”

The needs of the learners are always central to all that takes place, and the planning is flexible so that it can be adapted for maximum benefit to the students. As Sarah Blackwell writes:

“….the child is at the centre of the learning experience and time is essential in allowing the exploration and self-discovery to occur most successfully.” (Blackwell 1988-2020, 1:3)

The Forest School Programme gives students the opportunity to oversee their learning as they have the freedom to choose, experience and learn from the natural environment. The child-led learning approach allows them to have ownership of the activities they engage in and through this method they develop physically, mentally, socially, attune to the sensory setting, and have open and honest dialogues which builds relationships.

This pedagogy is modelled by the leader and promotes it through a process of careful planning, open and reflective dialogue and relationship building. Play and choice are shown to be very important and a fundamental part of the group’s ethos and values. Through this process the pressure of behaving a certain way and conforming to a very rigid structure has been taken away and, in most cases, this influences behaviour.

“Play and choice are considered very important and constitute an integral part of the learning process. The practice provides support and stimulus for all learning preferences and dispositions. At the end of each session a reflective process is involved during which learners and practitioners assess and understand achievements and plan for the future sessions. Practitioner’s observations are used to improve upon the pedagogy. Reflections are specific and appropriate in format and these will be appropriate to the learning and cognitive abilities of the group. Because the Forest Schools process and intention regards the construction of the learning by the individual, it is part of the programme that the learner is helped to understand what it is they have learnt, acquired or assimilated. “(Blackwell, 1988-2020, 2.4.3.)

Modelling is an important teaching method throughout Forest School practice not only for transferring attitudes, values and how to relate to others but also for teaching skills.

“In nature education and Forest School, this “theory” can be seen in action all the time when teaching hard skills…..Using a sensitive modelling approach, you can see that we are starting to hand the task itself and power over the learning of the task to the learner through giving choice and keeping out of their hair! ” (Cree and Robb, 2021)

All these teaching and learning methods help to build a problem-solving community and it takes this approach to behaviour. The Archimedes Earth 5 Cs of Emotional Welling (Appendix 5) Emotional Intelligence Star (Appendix 6) Community of Brilliance (Appendix 7) and the Emotional Wealth Inventory (Appendix 8) are all models that reinforce that the child should be at the centre of everything. They address the intrapersonal and interpersonal areas of the self and when strong emotions arise the forest school practitioner can be there to help members understand their emotions and provide strategies that may help the child manage their behaviours. As Blackwell writes:

“The art of the practitioner as mentor, facilitator and coach, is to understand what is in effect a positive experience for that individual. This will come from their ability to observe, make good judgments, to provide the right level of risk, the right level of challenge and utilize those elements that intrigue and interest that child.” (Blackwell Sarah, c 1988-2020,

Consciousness, control, self-awareness, and self-regulation are all parts of these examples there for us to follow. Establishing rules, routines and boundaries are important and essential elements when establishing a new group and this can be done in an empathetic way. As Forest School Leaders we are responsible for the children in our care and part of our role is to safeguard them and their health safety. For the students to feel comfortable, safe, and secure in the forest school setting they need to see, believe, and understand that the Forest School Leader is ultimately the one in control of each session and we can handle their emotions, feelings and behaviours and are always consistent. It is possible to run a child-centred approach in this way although it does in many ways sound contradictory, but I believe it is always important to get a balance.

“What did most compassionate people have in common? They had boundaries of steel……They are clear what is okay and not okay…..(Cree and Robb, 2021)

Another factor that can influence behaviour is the natural environment. There has been much research conducted on the power of nature to calm and help regulate the child. Richard Louv in his book Last Child in the Woods-saving our children from nature-deficit disorder (2008) writes about how nature offers the child an older, larger world and his can be healing:

“Given the chance, a child will bring the confusion of the world to the woods, wash it in the creek, turn it over to see what lives on the unseen side of that confusion” (Louv, 2008, p7).

Guy Murchie has written about and identified 31 senses/sensitivities in his book The Seven Mysteries of Life (1999) and when we connect and use these senses, we become rejuvenated and restored. In Japan, visits to local forests are considered significantly valuable for health and wellbeing and forest bathing is becoming more popular here in the U.K and a new field of forest medicine is appearing. This is because research is showing us that forest environments significantly lower cortisol increases concentration, decreases pulse rate and as a result blood pressure. Other studies have shown that after increased contact with nature as Sarah Blackwell writes:

“the brain can be restored from exhaustion caused by direct concentration and can reduce many symptoms such as impulsive behaviours, irritability and aggression, thus improving performance and the opportunity for praise and success from the teacher. Children with lower academic success rates and what is perceived to be antisocial behaviours in class are more likely to receive negative personal comments than those who are moderate or high achievers, who are more likely to receive praise for achievements.” (Blackwell 1988-2020, 6.3)

Reductions in the severity of symptoms of ADHD in young people who are engaged in activities in open green spaces have been recorded by Faber Taylor and Kuo (2008) and in their research they also state that the natural environment improves children’s mood and improves self-esteem. Sarah Blackwell’s paper on the Impacts of long-Term Forest School Programmes on Children’s Resilience, Confidence and Wellbeing (Blackwell, 2015, England) also writes that:

“…learning in nature enhances the development of three critical forms of self-discipline, which improves self confidence in children and adults. These forms of self-discipline include delaying gratification, concentrating, and inhibiting impulses” (Blackwell, 2015, p31).

At Canopy Forest School we want our students to be calm, alert and to flourish in a physically and emotionally nurturing environment. We have a very clear ethos, mission, and set of value statements (Appendix 9) and they underpin everything that we do. Our ethos, mission and values are built upon the Six Leading Principles of the Forest School Association (Appendix 10) and the Archimedes Earth E.N.E.R.G.Y model (Appendix 11). We have clear teaching and learning rules and procedures and Behaviour, Equal Opportunities, Additional Needs and Play policies. These all guide and help us to map out the support and structure that we use to create a flourishing community.

At Canopy Forest School we carefully identify ways of building our student’s self-esteem, emotional intelligence, and overall sense of wellbeing through the experiences, activities, and reflective practice that we offer, and this supports and influences behavioural responses. We strongly believe in the importance of developing healthy relationships and strong connections with each of our students and the low adult-child ratio helps us in achieving this. Canopy Forest School is a supportive community where we help learners to recognise and reflect upon how their behaviour affects others and we support them in adjusting and turning their behaviour around in a nurturing and supportive way. We model our ethos, mission and values through our own behaviour that is productive in our Forest School.

During the first six weeks when we were conducting our baseline assessments, we found that our evaluations which focused on play types, multiple intelligences and wellbeing really helped us to carefully consider and build a deeper understanding of the needs of the group. From these assessments we were able to develop next step goals and areas to focus on. This really helped us to hone into individual and group needs as well as strengths and fascinations. These were shared with the group and then during subsequent sessions they were drawn into our reflections, but they were not explicitly taught but rather became part of the hidden curriculum.

Knowing each child and their needs, making connections, and building trust are the foundations of being able to communicate with each child and assisting them as they work effectively and authentically through their own personal barriers. As practitioners we also need to be able to establish our bottom line-our core boundaries as Cree and Robb point out (2021). We need to stand firm to our ethos, mission, and values and this is not a negative or defensive stance but one that is loving but clear. Our job is to keep the group safe and that includes other adults and ourselves. If members of the group do not feel safe and secure, then more behaviour issues will take hold and the group will not be able to build and develop as capable learners.

When we have all these factors in place the group can work as a cohesive whole and as we travel on our Forest School journey together, we can deal successfully with issues as they arise and at the same time, we will be developing our own intrapersonal and interpersonal skills. Each learner, adult and Forest School leader is benefiting from this method as we are developing our abilities to work with empathy, use the language of feelings, think critically, and become a real community. As we grow together, we are becoming what Sarah Blackwell terms as a “Community of Brilliance” which encourages, supports, and helps each other along the way.

One of the most powerful lessons that I have learnt throughout my teaching career, and during this course is that connections and relationships are the key for dealing with difficult behaviour. It is very easy to conjure up a romantic notion about what it is like working with children, following them on a learning journey and making a difference. What we often forget to put into this romantic picture is the emotional work involved, supporting, scaffolding, encouraging, and protecting young minds and dealing with their emotional wheels of feelings. Experiencing and dealing with the feelings of others is draining but it is important to remember that it is in these key moments that we are strengthening bonds. As while we are helping others to overcome obstacles, resolve conflicts, deal with difference, and calm down situations, we are showing our students that they can trust and rely on us. M. Scott Peck (1936-2005) an American psychiatrist who studied and wrote about the community-making process outlines in his book “The different drum” (1990) the rules and process of building a community. In this book he states that there are four stages of community building: pseudocommunity, chaos, emptiness, and community.

Scott Peck’s work on the stages of community-making, focuses on how communities work and how group action can be developed using the principles of tolerance, love, and respect. He defines a community as:

“A group of people, who, despite the diversity of their previous history, have been able to accept and transcend their differences, thus enabling them to communicate effectively and openly and to cooperate in working toward a recognizable goal or for the common good of the group, while having a sense of unusual safety with one another.” (FCE, 2017,)

The work of Brue Tuckman (1965) and his model for nurturing a team to high performance: forming, storming, norming and preforming, echoes Peck’s stages. They both assert that trust is an essential element for building a team or community.

Learning to use appropriate behaviour allows all students to grow, flourish and develop socially, emotionally, physically, spiritually, and intellectually. It enables the well-documented outcomes of Forest School which are confidence, resilience, and self-worth to take place and a healthy and thriving learning community to grow.

As we try to use and apply these different methods and address the range of needs, we come across we find that we are learning alongside our children. Using a calm and mindful approach, gaining a perspective, banishing our own negative thoughts and frustrations is the key. It is also important to remember that we should expect difficult behaviour to emerge within a group as it is a natural stage of community building and child development. If we shift our perspective and focus onto the children and not the activity or adult agenda we can instead view these moments as problem solving experiences that can lead us in a new direction. Difficult behaviour is communication, and an outward symptom of underlying troubles and Forest School Leaders are privileged in many ways because they are the guardians of a special space that can allow students to breathe, be curious and explore their natural internal and external world. Brene Brown writes about creating brave and safe spaces and her work has been a great inspiration to me over the years. She discusses the importance of dismantling oppressive systems and having the courage to:

“be brave, serve the work, take good care, cultivate belonging, create beauty and excellence in all things” (Brown, 2021)

I would like to conclude this blog with a quote which I feel sums up positive methods of dealing with behaviour:

“You do not have to make your children into wonderful people. You just have to remind them that they are wonderful people.” (Martin, 1999)


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