This article was originally written for Head Teachers Update
It is so easy to see a child’s struggle as misbehaviour or a choice, when in fact every difficult behaviour is a result of an internal feeling, thought or experience that the child is finding hard to process and manage.
They are not sure how to identify why they are upset, how to regulate themselves or manage the feeling and their responses to it. Our job is to find the “why” behind the behaviour and to have enough insight and training to be able to guide them through this, helping them to figure it all out. But how do you do that when you are faced with a child who is angry and aggressive? Our goals should be to teach the children to be able to:
- Identify what has made them upset or caused them to behave like this.
- Understand how their feelings and thoughts have affected their response/behaviour.
- Calm down, self-regulate and learn what to do to manage it for next time.
Jack has come into school in a bad mood, he was late and missed the register. He has struggled to concentrate on his work and spent a lot of time distracting others and you have had to remind him about his behaviour a few times already.
It is break time and Jack has been outside for less than five minutes when you are asked to come and help calm him down. He has fallen out with peers during a game of tig and has pushed over another boy. He is now inside shouting and walking away from the lunch supervisors who have told him he can no longer play. He is angry and getting volatile.
Your usual response might be: “Jack, no thank you we do not kick the doors. What has happened? Why are you so angry? Calm down and talk to me. Jack if you carry on I will have to call Ms Jones and tell her you are hurting staff. Calm down and talk to me. Come on Jack, it’s PE next, you love PE.”
Think about the why
When approaching a child who is struggling, consider the following:
- What do you know about this child?
- What is the child feeling?
- What might their belief system/thought process be?
- What do they need?
What do you know about this child?
Jack’s family life is difficult, he has a large family with a new baby on the way and his mum and dad split-up. Birth dad was taken to prison and Jack now lives with mum’s new boyfriend who is the birth father of his younger brother and new sibling. Mum’s new boyfriend drinks a lot and can get confrontational with people. Jack’s family is being supported by social services.
Jack has had an unsettled morning. You know that mornings are hard for Jack and it is likely mum was telling him off a lot and it is unlikely he has had breakfast. He was not sure what the work was because he missed the initial input and he did not have a chance to settle into the day.
What is the child feeling?
Let’s focus on his possible feelings from a trauma-informed perspective. In the morning he was likely to be feeling anxious and dysregulated. He will have a high level of stress hormone. He may have been hungry and tired.
It is likely he has not had a hug or a chance to calm down his feelings with a caring adult and then he has come into school to meet further challenges and expectations. He may have seen everyone else getting on with their work and felt inadequate. He needed to distract others to help reduce some of this stress around having to complete work he didn’t really understand.
This helped him avoid the difficult feelings and intrusive thoughts he was having, but it led to being told off more, which made him feel like he was failing – failing to meet the expectations of everyone around him.
This repetition of being told he wasn’t doing the right thing, from both mum and now school, increased his stress levels and made him feel attacked.
By break time he was overwhelmed and disconnected from everyone. He was worried about whether anyone would play with him (he doesn’t think people like him). He expected to be rejected and left out by his peers and he had been left out and rejected enough already. Although he was glad to be able to play and join in, the anticipation of being rejected was overwhelming and so he began to self-sabotage as soon as there was a trigger.
Someone tagged him and he began to run toward people and they all ran away. This perpetuated the feeling of not being liked. Finally, the stress of the whole morning became too much and his brain responded with “fight”. His natural survival coping mechanisms kicked in and he began lashing out and shouting. This is the only way he knew how to respond to the internal feelings and the only way his body could release the stress.
Their belief system/thought processes
Jack is thinking: “I’m not good enough. I’m always doing the wrong thing. I can’t do the right thing. I’m a failure. I let everyone down. Nobody likes me. I’m unworthy of love and positive affection. Everyone will leave me at some point. Good things are always ruined. Nobody wants to be my friend.”
What do they need?
Throughout this whole scenario Jack needs someone to notice how he is feeling. In the morning, when he came in late, he needed help calming down and to be given some self-regulation tools before he was expected to get on with his work.
He needed someone to check in with him and emotionally connect in a way that made him feel seen, heard and noticed. As things progressed, he needed to feel emotionally safe and secure as his “big feelings” took over and to have someone help him feel in control of these thoughts and feelings.
Our usual response puts all the focus on Jack’s behaviour which communicates that your primary concern is not about how he feels. It communicates that he must conform to yet more expectations regardless of his internal state – meeting the needs of everyone else when his own needs are not being met.
For many children, this causes them to disconnect further because nobody is acknowledging them. Using phrases like “calm down” suggests that he has the power and control to manage his overwhelming feelings and the skills to self-regulate. This fails to acknowledge that he has been hijacked by his reptilian survival brain and that when that happens he needs help from a caring adult to calm himself and get back to his rational thinking brain.
Children cannot just “calm down” with no help. Asking him questions when he is visibly dysregulated and angry fails to consider that he is in survival brain. Right now, he cannot reason, reflect or problem-solve, and he won’t be able to until he is calm enough to be in his thinking, rational brain. Finally, trying to distract him from his feelings with PE or incentives sends a silent message that it is better for him to supress his difficult feelings and avoid them. This is not a good lesson and can lead to mental health problems later.
Remembering our three goals, we might try the following when engaging:
- “Jack, it has been a really tricky morning and you are feeling overwhelmed and attacked.”
- “You had to come in late, you didn’t know what was going on in the lesson and then you felt like everyone was running away from you.”
- “It all got too much and you lashed out at Timmy and pushed him over.”
At this point, consider whether Jack is now calm enough to carry out a consequence/boundary or does he need time to self-regulate. Perhaps in this case, he remains very unsettled and won’t be able to make amends for what he has done without some more time to calm down. Telling him to calm down isn’t enough, he needs to be given the tools to do this. So continue:
- “You are really struggling to calm down. Have a few minutes to yourself, take some deep breaths. You can come to the calm room and listen to some music too. That will help.”
- Then when he is calm: “You were really cross and overwhelmed and you pushed Timmy. He was really upset about it. I would like to see you do something nice to show him you are sorry.”
This might be helping him with a job, playing with him for a few minutes or saying something nice – this is much more effective than making him say “sorry” or sending him out of class for the afternoon. This therapeutic response will allow Jack to feel heard as well as help him to calm down, get out of reptilian survival brain and into his thinking brain. It also allows him the time to self-regulate and ensures there are secure boundaries around his behaviour. If repeated often, he will develop self-awareness, emotional intelligence, and heathier coping mechanisms.