This article was originally written for Head Teachers update Magazine
How you approach the behaviour of the children in your school will have a direct impact on their development as young people.
In primary school, you play a large part in guiding and forming your pupils – you teach them much more than just the curriculum, you influence their self-belief, self-concept and internal compass; you help them to understand who they are. This happens whether you mean to or not.
Rejecting the child
Challenging behaviour has always been something that schools struggle with and is often an area where new teachers have very little guidance.
Often teachers feel overwhelmed and out of their depth when faced with a consistent difficult behaviour and can find themselves resorting to raising their voices or punishments.
If we look back over history at popular methods of behaviour management, the list includes things like the cane, the dunce’s hat, sitting on a chair in the corner, facing the wall, time-out, being sent to the headteacher, doing detention, being excluded…
Happily, some of these approaches are long-gone. The ones that remain involve expending a lot of energy on trying to stop the behaviour. However, you will often find that regardless of the behaviour plan or strategies you have in place, some children continue to struggle. It may seem that they just are not responding to anything.
The truth is that it might be time to look at other methods of behaviour management. If you look again at the list above, it is evident that almost all of the methods we use (or have used in the past) to “manage” behaviour are based around rejection – rejecting the child.
In fact the phrase “behaviour management” suggests that our goal is to “manage” – i.e. handle, supervise, control – the behaviour, when instead we should be guiding children to manage their own behaviour – supporting them with their difficult feelings and teaching them self-regulation and self-awareness.
We are basing our methods on disconnection rather than connection – and that is why it rarely has lasting outcomes.
Behaviour is not a choice
Difficult behaviour is a symptom of something a child is struggling with internally. It is not a choice. Their behaviour is a warning sign that something is not right that they need some support.
Often if we unpick the situation, it is rarely the actual situation that is the problem, it is the child’s feelings or thoughts in that moment.
For example, think about a child playing football outside with a group of friends. The game gets heated and Jack tries to score but can’t, he is then nudged by another child and he gets angry. He lashes out, pushes back hard, and the other child falls over.
It is easy in this scenario to focus all our attention on Jack’s behaviour and actions: “You cannot push Liam like that. You do not treat people like that. Go and say sorry and go inside to Mrs Jones.”
But when we respond like this, we fail to recognise the reason for the behaviour. Jack already has low self-esteem, things are rough at home and he is from a large family. He often feels left out and unnoticed. While he was playing he had thoughts like “I can’t do this, I am not good enough” and he began to feel overwhelmed and anxious.
When he was nudged by accident, his brain (which was already overwhelmed) interpretated this as confirmation of his negative thoughts. It was another sign of rejection, and so he fought back.
What happened internally was that while he was having these overwhelming feelings, his rational thinking brain which helps him solve problems and have empathy for others turned off. His reptilian survival brain, which is in charge of keeping us safe and protecting us, came on. He could no longer think clearly and had an overwhelming need to protect himself.
His behaviour was in fact the result of a very difficult mix of feelings and thoughts which are not visible on the outside. His behaviour is also a sign that he needs help understanding and working through his own feelings.
Focusing on the feelings
What is important here is that if you approach Jack’s behaviour with the intention of “managing it”, you will find that you focus all of your attention and energy on the behaviour and not on the feeling, therefore missing the opportunity to teach Jack how to deal with these difficult feelings.
You are teaching Jack that his feelings do not matter and are in fact punishing him for having a difficult feeling that he needs help with. Jack therefore experiences further rejection and confirmation that he is not good enough and thus stays in his reptilian survival brain (because now you are attacking him, or so his brain believes).
So, how can we help Jack to learn how to manage these feelings better next time? If we want to make a real difference in the lives of the children we teach then we have to change our approach to difficult behaviour. Our goal should be to guide and teach when things are difficult, to communicate that we are here to help them to deal with those feelings. But how can we keep this connection with a child when things are challenging for them? Here are some ideas…
Reflect back their feelings
Before you do anything it is important that you recognise the feelings of the children involved in the incident. Noticing how they feel and verbalising that feeling will help to make them feel understood and noticed. It also teaches them to recognise what is going on internally, which develops their self-awareness skills and emotional intelligence.
Ask yourself: “What might they be feeling right now?” You can usually answer this question if you know the child and have some concept of what just happened.
- “Jack, you feel overwhelmed and were worried you wouldn’t score, and the worry took over.”
- “Jack, when Liam nudged you, you thought he was pushing you and you felt attacked.”
- “Jack, you are angry and frustrated.”
Reflecting feelings creates connection which will begin to calm the brain and thus the rational brain will come back on.
Help them self-regulate
Before you set a boundary, you must decide if this child is ready to learn from this situation. If they are still in reptilian brain then they will not learn from anything you do as a response. They have to be calm enough and feel connected to you in order to learn from you. They also need to have different strategies to use next time they feel this way.
As such, if they are still shouting, angry, running away or argumentative then it is evident that they are not in rational brain yet. You need to help them get there.
Try offering them a chance to do some calming colouring or listen to some relaxing music. A good idea is to have a tablet and some headphones with calming music on it. Say: “You are struggling to manage your feelings, let’s have some calm time so you can help calm your brain.” Again, this is about helping and guiding this child. It is not a reward. It is essential to help them to learn how to manage their feelings in the future.
Set a boundary
If a child has hurt someone, swore or lashed out then they will need a consequence for their behaviour. If they are calm enough then they will be ready to take responsibility for their actions and be able to reflect on them. However, it is important that you think about what message you are conveying when you decide what consequence you give.
“Punishment” such as time out, losing something or being sent somewhere is not going to teach them much, other than the fact that people reject them when they are struggling.
Instead, try issuing a consequence that teaches them to take responsibility for their actions. Good ones are asking them to clean up the mess they have made (if they pulled down a display, for example), spending time with a peer they upset and doing something together like organising the paints, etc. Think about the life-skills you want to develop when you are asking pupils to make amends for their behaviour.