Transforming Relationships & Behaviours in your School

This interview is with behaviour support expert, Executive Coach and Integrity Coaching Associate, Steve Russell.

1. What is “Functional Fluency” and how has this become a particular area of interest for you?

Functional Fluency is a model for understanding how people behave, and a practical framework to help them ‘respond’ more and ‘react’ less. This model was developed by transactional analyst, Susannah Temple as part of her PhD, and this model later expanded into the TIFF profiling tool, which can be accessed via an online questionnaire and followed up with coaching-based feedback.

Both Functional Fluency and the TIFF have become one of my main ‘go-tos’ when working either with individual staff or teams in schools. I first came across it about 7 years ago and was immediately drawn to the way in which Functional Fluency offered an easily accessible framework to help colleagues take a step back and reflect upon their own behaviour.

At the time, a lot of my school based work was coming off the back of leaders wanting some training for their staff on ‘behaviour management’ as a result of challenging behaviours pupils were presenting with. Functional Fluency offered a very interesting and powerful alternative take on this by switching the focus onto the adults’ behaviours.

2. What are the underlying principles of the TIFF model?

Generally speaking, Functional Fluency is understood to be underpinned by the following principles:

– The principle that we always have choices as to whether we respond or react to situations and people. We might feel at times that we’ve been made to feel or act in certain ways, but functional fluency is all about reducing our levels of reactivity and increasing our levels of ‘response-ability’.

– The belief that we all have the capacity to use our energies in ways that are beneficial both for others and for ourselves. It’s when we come under stress and pressure, are tired, perhaps in poor health, that we find ourselves reacting in less than helpful ways.

– The view that human behaviour broadly relates to 3 categories – and each category has distinctive elements: 
1. Being in Charge – guiding and directing others and looking after people
2. Taking reality into account – what’s happening internally and also externally
3. Being and becoming myself – How I use my energy in relating to others and doing my own thing
Each of these elements has modes of behaviours related to it. For example, when we need to guide and direct others, we have available to us the Dominating mode (characterised by punitive, judgmental, critical words and actions) and the Structuring mode, where the emphasis is upon being firm and fair and empowering the other person to do what needs to get done through communicating the belief “You can do it.”

– Finally, the TIFF model is NOT about type-casting people. Rather than categorizing people, the TIFF offers a snapshot as to how a person typically uses their energy across the 3 domains.

3. How can this model be used to support Schools?

Sharing the Functional Fluency model is often done through staff CPD sessions. Increasingly, senior teams are seeing the value in setting aside time to come together to be introduced to the Functional Fluency model and to then explore it in relation to their day to day work leading a school. The TIFFs are carried out on a one-to-one basis.

I never cease to be impressed with just how potent the TIFF is for promoting reflective thinking. Time and again I’ve witnessed how insights from the Functional Fluency model and TIFF encourage school staff to:

– Focus on their strengths
– Enhance what they already do well
– Transform patterns of behaviour that don’t work well
– Communicate more effectively
– Find relationships more satisfying and successful

An example of this would be a primary school where all the leadership team had their TIFF profiles created. Feedback to individuals led to some tangible shifts, including several committing to take greater care to be bolder in their decision making and trying to be a little less concerned with what other people thought about them.

The team also agreed to have a group profile drawn up, whereby their individual scores were amalgamated to offer a snapshot of their strengths and developmental areas as a leadership team.

They were particularly encouraged at how, despite the numerous inspection and data-driven pressures, their creativity and spontaneity was relatively strong. They also recognised that as they entered a time of change in leadership, colleagues would need reassurance and care (aka the Nurturing mode), whilst also needing clear expectations and follow through from the leaders on key actions (Structuring mode behaviours).

4. What has been learnt so far from employing TIFF in Schools?

Some of the key insights and learnings we’ve gained from using TIFFs in schools have included:
– Teams and individuals developing a language to talk far more specifically about the behaviours they engage in when they are working well. This helps to build self-esteem and confidence – which can be in short supply given how easily staff can feel ‘not good enough’.

– Teams reporting how they are being far more open about their ‘less than helpful’/unproductive behaviours they engage in because they can use the functional fluency language in ways that help remove judgment or stigma.

– Whole staff groups establishing a more consistent approach to managing behaviour. Pupil behaviour can be a particularly emotive subject, not least of all because it taps into individual values and beliefs around inclusion, fairness etc. The FF model provokes discussions at such a level as to explore these fundamental issues and support a move towards more consistent practices.

5. Can the model also be used to support a School’s leaders?

The applications for School Leaders and school teams are numerous. Leaders can consider how they can best ensure that what needs to get done by staff gets done by focusing their energy into the Structuring rather than Dominating mode. 

Leaders can also consider what would be appropriate in terms of showing care for staff, using the Nurturing mode (empathising and being available to staff) whilst avoiding being over-tolerant and/or over-indulgent (behaviours indicative of the Marshmallowing mode).
On top of this, one of the straplines of Functional Fluency is ‘From striving to thriving’. In other words, people can be encouraged and supported in shifting how they use and balance their energies across the domains in order to reduce their stress and increase their effectiveness and overall wellbeing.

Furthermore, Functional Fluency enables School Leaders to talk about their own stresses and pressures in a non-judgmental, stigma-free way. And because the emphasis is upon what people are doing well, the sessions offer an opportunity to sincerely recognise people’s strengths and the positives they bring to the school.

A quick anecdote here: following his TIFF feedback, a Headteacher identified how not only did he need to create a bit more space for himself to both ‘do his own thing’ and also have space to think and process work-related stresses. His solution was to take up running – and it was actually his wife who shared what a difference this was making to him.

6. What can stop schools from developing TIFF practices?

Primarily the potential limiting factors relate to funds and time. Investing valuable time and restricted professional development budgets in developing staff’s interpersonal skills and self-awareness are not necessarily seen to be of immediate importance. This is especially given the ever-pressing emphasis upon standards and data.

However, effective teaching and learning requires teachers to balance structure and nurture, promote co-operation and spark enthusiasm and creativity in their pupils. Similarly, good leadership in schools has as an imperative the requirement for high levels of emotional literacy.

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