Growing and Embedding a Puzzle-Solving Culture

Published On: 17 October 2022

A blog by Jonathan Newport, Team Teach Global Managing Director.

Human behaviour – all human behaviour – is complex and can best be understood as the vehicle through which we communicate our emotions and feelings. All our actions, words and habits offer a window into what’s going on inside, which is why it’s so important we learn to interpret what we see and hear, and use that information to understand one other better.

Understanding behaviour isn’t always straightforward

This process of revealing the communication behind the behaviour is not always straightforward: it requires us to ‘join the dots’ and look beyond the immediate situation, rather than react to what’s in front of us. It demands a ‘puzzle-solving’ approach, using a range of information from a variety of sources. After all, we all see different things in different moments, so it is only by drawing on experience and evidence over time that we can reliably understand what is going on inside a person’s mind, and what the root cause of their behaviour might be.

That’s where a ‘puzzle-solving culture’ comes into play.

Building up a picture over time

A puzzle-solving culture is driven by a desire to view all behaviour as communication, and a need to understand the underlying complexity of emotions and feelings that shape this behaviour. In settings where we support individuals who can become dysregulated, this approach is vital to ensure the best outcomes and to plan for the most appropriate support. It’s really easy to label individuals but what we want to do is understand them.

Puzzle-solving encourages us to look beyond the ‘here and now’, and to piece together what we know about an individual, based on current and past behaviours. This understanding helps us anticipate future behaviours and allows us to formulate appropriate and timely support. And by ‘behaviour’, of course, we can mean a number of things, such as verbal interactions, sleeping and eating habits, avoidance, and friendship choices, to name but a few.

Putting the puzzle pieces together to see the bigger picture

A puzzle-solving culture requires all behaviour, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, to be examined and interpreted in relation to the ‘bigger picture’ by a number of parties: leaders, staff, parents and the individuals themselves.

Think of it like a jigsaw puzzle: only by slotting the various pieces into place (bearing in mind we may not have all the pieces at any given time!) can we begin to build a clear picture of what is going on. Everyone’s contribution matters; everyone’s input is vital if we are to identify how we can best support an individual.

The keys to puzzle-solving success

As with all worthwhile endeavours, developing and embedding a culture of puzzle-solving can’t happen overnight; it takes a long-term commitment from all stakeholders to adopt and maintain processes and systems that will, ultimately, transform outcomes for all the individuals in their care.

There are no ‘sticking plaster’ solutions; there is no silver bullet. However, there are key factors that underpin this approach and are crucial to its success:

These include:

A readiness and willingness to embrace this culture: ‘buy-in’ from whole teams, at every level, is essential, as an effective puzzle-solving culture requires contributions from and collaboration between all stakeholders;

Space and time to embed new practice: all settings need to allow time for collaboration, reflection, and recording and reporting of information, to ensure that a clear picture is built up over time from as wide a base as possible;

A culture of openness and honesty: only by allowing staff and individuals to be open, and admit that sometimes they ‘don’t know’ can settings reduce the tendency towards ‘negative chat’ or labelling, and work interdependently to truly understand an individual’s needs;

Highly-skilled staff: professionals need to be trained in how best to identify behaviours and look beyond them in order to ask pertinent questions and apply their professional curiosity about potential root causes;

Setting out a timeline for change: this will involve evaluating your current position, including which supports work well, and where there is opportunity for improvement, then using the findings from collaborative sessions to feed into and refine existing practice.

Transformational outcomes for all

Growing and embedding a culture of puzzle-solving, a culture that is seamlessly interwoven through every interaction and relationship within a setting, can have a transformational impact on both staff and individuals.

A puzzle-solving culture:

Allows for the separation of behaviour from the individual

Minimises labelling or ‘negative chat’ around a person

Enables deeper understanding of needs so appropriate support can be planned and delivered

Removes the need to find a culprit or apportion blame, both of which are unhelpful in terms of supporting an individual

Facilitates ownership of behaviour and increases positive self-regulation

Increases self-awareness and understanding of emotional state

Encourages meaningful, purposeful recording and reporting that drive support and intervention

Webinar attendee Mica Coleman Jones commented

“I love the idea of a puzzle-solving approach to understanding where behaviour is coming from and how it enables us to co-build a clearer picture.

I think this works best when people don’t fixate on ‘missing puzzle pieces’ but instead focus on what we do see and what that behaviour is achieving for an individual.

By working together to discover the function of a behaviour, and guided by the knowledge of an individual’s strengths, we can better plan how we will consistently teach the more helpful ways for communicating that feeling or need across multiple contexts.”

Mica Jayne Coleman Jones | Managing Director

The Happy Lighthouse Training and Consultancy Company

“Promoting a kinder world where difference is embraced and celebrated.”

Commitment to change over time

While the benefits of this approach are clear to see, it is worth reiterating that this is not a ‘quick fix’; nor should it be a tokenistic ‘bolt-on’ that rapidly falls by the wayside.

Real transformation takes time and to truly embed a puzzle-solving culture, leaders must commit to a long-term cultural shift. We must be willing to look, with fresh eyes, at our current approach, and be prepared to model, at the highest level, the change we wish to enact. We must create the conditions in which this culture can successfully grow and evolve.

A deeply embedded culture of puzzle-solving leverages the power of connection and allows us to meet individuals where they are. And it is through this profound connection that we can fit the pieces of the puzzle together and create lasting, positive change.

If you’d like further information around creating a puzzle-solving culture, contact us on to find out how Team Teach training can support your setting.

Jonathan Newport is a behaviour specialist with over 30 years’ experience. He has worked in a range of educational settings, starting his career in a mainstream primary school. It was here he developed a passion for puzzle solving with children who were struggling to ‘fit’ in their own classes. This is where he began to broaden his understanding around the concept of behaviour as communication.