Since returning to school after the pandemic, I have heard increasing reports of children struggling with their behaviour.
Children who found it difficult to listen, concentrate, manage friendships, and follow school rules before are struggling even more since their return.
Children who seemed engaged and settled before are now displaying higher levels of anxiety and stress and lower confidence.
In many schools, especially those in areas of deprivation, teachers are finding it hard to manage the needs of their children in the classroom, and headteachers are spending much more time responding to behaviour incidents.
The impact of the pandemic is becoming more apparent. Figures from the NHS show that 18% of seven to 16-year-olds now have a probable mental health disorder. In 2017, this figure stood at 12.1% (Newlove-Delgado et al, 2022).
Official figures for the 2021/22 financial year show that there were 404,310 children in need, an increase of 4.1% on 2020/21. This includes 50,920 children on protection plans, an increase of 1.8% (DfE, 2022).
The most common factors involved in referrals in 2021/22 were domestic abuse and concerns over parental mental health, followed by emotional abuse and child mental health worries.
From my experience of working in schools since the pandemic, these findings and figures are reflected in what I am seeing – and these issues are a real barrier to learning.
It is easy to focus on the behaviour itself when faced with on-going scenarios day-to-day. Sometimes we can find it hard to understand why a child has behaved a certain way. We may believe they made a choice.
However, it is important to remember that when we see children struggling outwardly with their behaviour, it is usually a sign that they are struggling with something internally. This is often an emotion, thought or belief that is affecting the way in which they respond to a situation.
Fight, flight, freeze
When children feel threatened, attacked, or unsafe in some way, their brain responds by going into survival mode. This is a natural, developmentally appropriate way of responding to stress.
This means you are more likely to see children reacting to things they find difficult with a fight, flight, freeze response.
You may notice children getting aggressive, angry, or argumentative. That is their fight response. They are trying to protect themselves from whatever it is making them feel unsafe internally – by fighting back.
Other children may go into flight mode and run away, hide in the toilets, or even avoid their work by going to the toilet a lot.
They may respond by freezing. This is where their brains are so overwhelmed that they do not respond, they shut down, they seem to glaze over or they disassociate.
No child is in charge of these responses, they are automatic. If you consider the behaviour incidents you may have come across this week alone, you will find all of them are anchored in one of these three responses.
When a child is struggling with something in school, whether that is a friendship group, a hard lesson, a new teacher, transition, or even having to go to lunch, this can activate their survival responses.
You might see a child refusing to leave the classroom, this is their outward behaviour. But internally, they feel overwhelmed, unsafe, and anxious.
Maybe they have intrusive thoughts – “Nobody will play with me” – or a negative belief system – “You are going to leave me”.
These thoughts and feelings are the trigger for the outward behaviour you see. This is true for every child who struggles with their behaviour, they are unable to manage the emotions they are feeling and the situation they are in.
Searching for calm
The behaviour is a sign that the pupil is struggling. The only way for a child to begin to feel in control of their emotions, rationally reflect on their experiences, and problem-solve is for them to feel calm – thus, reducing their survival responses and activating their thinking, rational responses.
The key then. Is to help children calm down. So, why do our behaviour management policies not account for this?
There is a big focus on children’s mental health at the moment, yet behaviour policies often do not meet the emotional and mental health needs of our children.
Children are still developing ways to manage and cope with their emotions – this is why we see difficulties in their behaviour – and our response should be to help them, not to punish.
Common behaviour management strategies can make things worse – like sending children out, taking something away from them, moving their name to the “sad” cloud or the red zone, creating a behaviour chart, exclusions, or even just telling them off.
All of these teach children that we do not accept them, that we will not help them, and that we will reject them when they are struggling with their emotions.
Then we wonder why children and young people don’t talk about their feelings and can’t manage them. We are silently teaching them to ignore their feelings and to stop showing us that they are struggling. This is causing serious mental health issues down the line and is something society has done for years.
Instead, we must anchor our responses in helping to guide and teach our children how to manage their own behaviour and emotions. It is not up to us to “manage” anyone’s behaviour by trying to stop it. It is up to us to help upskill them to manage their own behaviour.
Try integrating the following things into your behaviour policy.
Identify feelings first
When approaching a child about their behaviour it is easy to focus your attention on the behaviour itself.
- “Jack, stop taking the ball.”
- “Why have you just kicked over the bin?”
Instead focus first on the feeling.
- “You are angry and feel left out.”
- “You are frustrated you didn’t win.”
Focusing on feelings allows the child to feel heard and seen. This will increase feelings of connection and help reduce their feelings of attack which will in turn begin to calm down the survival responses and help the child to access their rational thinking skills.
This will also teach them self-awareness and raise emotional intelligence. You can then link this to their behaviour: “You are angry and feel left out, so you took the ball.”
Focusing on the behaviour first ignores what is really going on internally and therefore misses the opportunity to teach the child. Highlighting the feeling and the behaviour gives them insight and a chance to learn.
Give them time to calm down and self-regulate
Avoid telling a child off, redirecting behaviour, giving instructions, or expecting an apology while a child is still feeling overwhelmed.
Their brain is still responding from a place of survival and they will continue to respond with fight, flight, freeze until they feel calmer.
Try telling them off and you risk escalating the issue and you may find the child becomes more and more difficult to talk to. This is because you are keeping them in a state of stress.
Instead, help them calm down. Rarely do we see behaviour policies which allow children to calm down as part of the steps in behaviour plan. Don’t be afraid to allow the child to take five minutes to sit by themselves, take some deep breaths, read, listen to music, do some calm colouring, have a walk.
This is not a reward. This is helping them self-regulate, access their rational thinking mode, and therefore be in a better place to respond and learn from the situation.
This is also teaching a life-skill that is essential for taking care of their own mental health long term. It is an unfair expectation to ask them to make amends, listen to your advice, or follow any instructions until they are calm and feel safe.
Give fair, consistent boundaries
Too often our boundaries are rooted in punishment which reinforces rejection and keeps children in a state of stress and survival. No life-skills are taught or learnt with this approach.
Try “responsibility boundaries” instead. If a child rips down a display, then their boundary is to help put it back together. It might not be the whole display of course, but the expectation should be that they pick things up and stick things back on.
If a child rips a book, then they should tape it up. When a child hurts another child, help them make amends by asking them to get that child a drink of water or a tissue. This helps the child to learn how to show they are sorry, rather than just saying it. These are tangible things they can do again next time. Then pull it all together:
- Feelings: “You are angry and feel left out, so you kicked the bin over.”
- Self-regulation: “Let’s go inside and take five minutes to calm down, there is some colouring in you can do.”
- Boundary (once calm): “I’d like you to go and pick up the bin.”
Let’s focus our policies on teaching children how to understand and manage their own feelings and behaviours. We are more likely to see a positive impact on both their academic and their social, personal, and emotional outcomes.