Is this child “having a drama” or is it a lack of resilience?

I observed some behaviour from a 10 year old this week which was referred to “having a drama” and overreacting, which made me wonder about how this child was feeling and what he may have been trying to communicate. He was told he would miss one minute of his golden time on Friday afternoon for calling out in class, which is a common occurrence for him. At this point he said “oh no” did a big sigh and put his head on his desk. His teacher talked to me afterwards about his “dramatic” behaviour and whilst I agreed it was a big reaction to the situation, I encouraged her to think about how what he was actually showing us was how little resilience he has, when losing a minute can seem like the end of the world. The next time you see a child having a big reaction to something small, stop for a minute and think about their level of resilience and how you can work with them to help them to develop it.

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From snatching to sharing…..the benefits of emotionally focused group work

When I first met Jake he was in the outdoor area of his reception class trying to negotiate with the teaching assistant why he should stay on the bike he was riding round and not let another child have a turn. His class teacher described him as very bright, but also demanding, manipulative and controlling. He found it very hard to share, would often take things from other children and had no friends in his class. Emily, on the other hand is the sort of child that can easily be overlooked in school. She is happy, compliant, has friends and is always happy to let other children have a turn on the bike…even if it is her turn. I decided that these two children together would be ideal candidates for me to model to a teaching assistant Donna, how to deliver a friendship group, as they are both polar opposites in terms of how their needs manifest in their behaviour, but both need help to make changes. Before starting the group I met with Donna and we discussed the changes we would be trying to help each child to make. We would focus on acknowledging how hard it is for Jake to share, listen to people talking, and not always be first and to identify and tentatively encourage Emily to do more of this, to be less complaint and eager to please and to start claiming some space for herself. We were both excited to be working with them, and eager to get started.

On the first session, Emily was very keen to please us, holding the door open for us on the way to the room and waiting to be directed where to sit, whereas Jake hurled himself down the corridor and burst into the room. After explaining to them both that our group was about being friends and helping them to practise things such as sharing and taking turns etc, we began our first activity. The children are encouraged to take turns with everything, with lots of acknowledgement of how hard this can be and validation of the child who is practising waiting. Emily is extremely good at this, and quite happy to sit and wait…and wait….unlike Jake who finds this very hard and is very articulate in his arguments as to why he doesn’t need to wait. “There are two pens Cath, Emma can have the green one because I want the blue one…” and so it began. After each session Donna and I would discuss in great detail every aspect of the twenty minute session we had just had, which would take us about forty minutes. I encouraged her to think about the minute details of everything, using the luxury of our time together to do this and she gradually became skilled at being able to do this herself.

We saw small changes with both Jake and Emily each week, as they became used to the sessions and had focused support from Donna and myself. Jake began being able to wait his turn, although he always made sure we knew that’s what he was doing as he proudly told us, and Emily stopped holding the door for us and instead began asserting her needs as soon as we left the class, “I think its my turn to go first this week” she told me excitedly as we went to collect her for their third session.

However, the activity on the fourth week saw the most dramatic shifts in both children. The activity is to build a model together with lego or bricks, quite a straight forward activity, but of course the group work activities are planned to get more challenging for the children each week and to enable them to keep practising the skills they are acquiring. Therefore, the activity involves them deciding together what they would like to make before they start, and then taking it in turns putting one brick at a time on the model. Some adults would find this activity difficult, let alone four year olds! I started explaining the activity and before I had finished Jake immediately said “boat, we want to make a boat don’t we Emily?” to which Emily shook her head and said “I want to make a house.”

Secretly delighted that Emily was voicing her needs, I acknowledged how hard it was when they wanted to make different things and wondered aloud about what we could do…”Make a boat house” shouted Jake excitedly, “Yes a boat house, a house with a boat on it “ shrieked Emily. I was once again delighted with the order she suggested, her idea of a house with Jake’s idea of a boat on it. Jake was so excited that Emily was beaming at him, as most children didn’t respond to him in this way, that he appeared not to notice, and so they began making their model. They started off really well, sitting watching each other as they took their turns and smiling at each other in excited anticipation, it was wonderful to watch and Donna and I beamed at each other like proud parents watching their offspring’s latest achievement.

It was all going so well….until Jake having just had his turn, noticed a small brick shaped slightly differently to some of the others and started sliding it towards him, beaming at Emily as he moved it. I gently enquired whose turn it was to which he replied matter of factly, “It’s Emily’s turn, but I’m just saving this one for my turn.” I responded using lots of reflections about how hard it was to wait but in here we are practising taking turns etc and Jake responded by sliding the brick back to the pile. I acknowledged this and turned to Emily, encouraging her to have her turn. She put her hand towards the pile of bricks, hesitated for a second and picked up the same brick that Jake had just put down. “I’d like this one” she said. Jake immediately sighed, folded his arms, put his head down and turned his back to us. “I wanted that one” he said, his voice quivering but loud. I moved to sit next to him and started to talk to him, acknowledging again how hard it is, how disappointing and upsetting it is etc, with no movement from Jake for several minutes. I had been encouraging his class teacher to use lots of reflections about seeing him and commenting on his facial expressions and he had been responding well to these, so I decided to acknowledge and describe exactly what I had seen. He hesitated, let out another big sigh and then turned round. “It’s your turn Jake” said Emily and he picked up a brick and they continued building until their house with a boat on it was completed. Donna and I took them back to class feeling both excited and exhausted and returned to the room to discuss the session.

It was after that session that their class teacher started to notice some significant changes in both children. Emily was now becoming more vocal in class and Jake and her had started playing together more. However, we still had two sessions left of the group and Donna and I were keen to see if the positive changes continued. The activity on the fifth session involves each child decorating a butterfly for the other child and then giving it to them. Both children were excited to do this, and after an initial comment from Jake to Emily “But I don’t like purple” as she picked up some tissue paper to put on his butterfly, to which she responded, “I do, and pink”, both children worked well and were excited to give them to each other, dancing around the room with them on the end of a stick.

On the last session, I acknowledged the ending and talked about all the positive changes they had made as they looked at the contents of their folder and reminisced about each activity. Jake said “I like coming here” and Emma said “Me too” and we talked some more about the feelings we can have when things end. Since the group both Jake and Emma have remained friends, and their class teacher is really pleased with their progress. Emily is more confident, not letting other children take things from her and generally being more assertive. Jake is more settled, practising waiting his turn and gradually being able to share, making sure he tells his teacher each time he has done it.

Last week I walked past their class last week to see them both sat at a table playing a game of snakes and ladders. It all appeared to be going well…although I wondered what would happen if Jake landed at the top of the long snake and had to go down it…..

Cath’s third book “Understanding and Managing Children’s Behaviour through Group Work Ages 3-5: A child-centred programme” which contains the group work programme discussed in this article has been published by Routledge in April 2016. Please see her website www.therapeuticfamilyinterventions.co.uk for a discount voucher or for information about a whole days training on Friday 10th November in Hebden Bridge on implementing this programme.

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How to help a child who finds it hard to sit still on the carpet

I am constantly asked by teachers in school how to manage a child who can’t sit still at carpet time so thought it would be useful to share some ideas. I often observe children at this time and these children stand out immediately as they are easily restless and fidgety and distract themselves and the children sitting near them. Oh what to do with these children other than send them away from the carpet, which may be a short term solution but doesn’t help the child or support them to change their behaviour.

These children can activate a whole range of feelings in the adults that are trying to teach them, including frustration, annoyance, irritability and rage, all of which are perfectly understandable but none of which will help the child to change their behaviour. I have seen even the most patient of teachers rise to frustration as they are asking the child politely for the seventeenth time to sit still. You may be familiar with this yourself, you consider yourself to be quite patient and understanding and have good relationships with the children you work with, but having to manage children who show us this behaviour on a regular basis can be a challenge for anyone!

Firstly, it can be useful to think about why a child may be showing us this behaviour. For me, any behaviour from a child is trying to communicate something to us, and it is our job as adults working with children to try and work out what that is. As adults, we can choose to ask for support when we need it, we can reassure ourselves when things are difficult and we have an understanding that difficult things pass and tomorrow is another day and things may feel different then. Children however experience the world very differently; they do not have the same language skills as adults or the same level of cognitive understanding and have not yet developed the skills of positive self talk and self soothing. Children show us how they are feeling and what they need through their behaviour and therefore children who are happy, settled and feeling safe in the world are able to relax, concentrate, sit reasonably still and engage with their learning. There may be a range of possible reasons why a child finds it difficult to sit still at carpet time including:

  • Feeling anxious or worried about something at home or school
  • Not having enough sleep or being hungry
  • Preoccupied with relationships with parents or carers

Strategies:

  • Show the child how to sit, this may sound odd but it works, so sit on the floor with a child and show them how to position their body in a way that’s comfortable and enables them to sit easily.
  • Consider practicalities such as where the child is sat, can they see you easily, can they hear you, are they near distractions, have they got enough physical space.
  • Show the child on the clock or give them a timer so they know how long they are expected to sit for, how many of us have been in situations where its hard to listen and we become preoccupied with how long it will last and thinking about our escape.
  • Make the child a carpet mat to sit on, let them choose some coloured card, cut out a circle large enough to sit on easily and decorate it if they wish. Give the child the responsibility for getting the mat and putting it away. This has worked well with many children as it shows them the parameters of space that is theirs, very helpful with children who find this hard. Show the child how to sit on it and keep their arms and legs inside the shape.
  • Acknowledge even the smallest of successes, for example, “I can see you are trying so hard to keep your legs still, well done for trying.” Sitting still on a carpet is a task that many adults, myself included would find very difficult, so consider how long the children need to be sat for and how realistic it is to be expect them not to move. The whole class, including those who can manage to sit still would benefit from moving their arms and stretching at least every 5-10 minutes. Good luck, practise patience and perseverance with anything new you are trying.
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Responding to and helping children after yesterday’s Manchester bomb attack

My heart goes out to all those affected by last night’s bomb attack.  I have been working in a primary school in Manchester all day today and listening to staff and children trying to make sense of last night’s event, expressing their confusion, fear and grief.  Staff have been asking me how best to respond to children who wish to discuss things and I am aware that in some of our schools staff will be working with children who have been directly affected by what happened.

I think it is important for us to remember the difference in how adults and children express their feelings. Today the adults in school have been talking about how they feel, expressing their concerns and fears, which is how we as adults are able to deal with our feelings if we choose to. Children on the other hand often use their behaviour to communicate how they feel as they may not have the language skills to express their feelings. This has been evident in school today as there has been a general feeling of anxiety and unease. Some of the older children aged 10 and 11 have been asking questions such as will the school be next, the younger children have appeared more unsettled, some have appeared unaffected as they may not know of the events, but may just have a sense of things feeling a bit different by picking up on the adults anxiety.

For those of you looking for answers on how best to support our children I would encourage you to let the children talk and ask questions if they want to. It’s important for us as adults to think about how the children may be feeling about what’s happened, and to help them feel safe. For staff in school this involves providing a consistent and predictable routine and allowing children to ask questions and talk about their feelings if they want or need to. For parents, it’s being aware that children may feel more unsettled and anxious than usual and looking out for signs of this in the child’s behaviour, such as being more clingy or finding it harder to sleep.

As adults we often feel that we need to do something at times like this, whereas for children the best thing to help them feel safe again is by keeping things as consistent and routine as usual. Allow the children to have their feelings of sadness, fear and confusion and support them with this.

The news is full of the tragedy of this event but also the amazing ways in which people are supporting each other and demonstrating basic human kindness.  This is something we can help our children learn too.

Finally, look after yourselves.  This tragic event has had an impact on us all and we will all need time to process our feelings and grieve.

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Giving children permission to make mistakes

I was talking to a year 4 teacher this week who has just started with her class and was telling me a  lot of the children find it hard to get started with their maths. I explored with him whether this may be about them being worried about getting things wrong and making mistakes and as I know some of the children I thought this may well be the case. I encouraged him to talk to the whole class about making mistakes and how that can feel in order to give them permission to feel like this and give the message it’s ok to get things wrong. When I saw him later in the day he shared how he had talked to them about him failing his driving test four times and how embarrassed and upset he had felt about this. The children started to share with him times when they had felt like this and were very open and honest. The teacher felt he had made a break through in his relationships with them as I pointed out there has to be a certain amount of children feeling safe and trusting the adult in order to sage when they have let vulnerable. Then teacher used this as an opportunity to talk about perseverance and sticking at something that we find difficult, a really good example of the importance of talking to children openly and honestly about feelings.

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Being aware of children’s internal dialogue

Some children may have learnt to respond in a defensive way as a coping mechanism to manage the feelings of anxiety and fear that situations evoke in them. The child may present as feeling the opposite of this, for example, not scared and not bothered, but he may have learnt to do this as a way of not feeling pain. ‘If I pretend I don’t care then I can’t be hurt or feel pain.’ For this child the silent pain of feeling unwanted or unloved can result in them feeling isolated, confused, frightened and alone. They may feel that everything that happens is their fault and have an internal dialogue that asks ‘Am I a bad person? Am I unlovable? Why do I get it wrong all the time? ‘Why can’t I do anything right?’ When children have this internal belief system and are convinced that they do not deserve anything good, they may go to extreme lengths to prove it.

The combination of their feelings of low self-worth along with a negative internal dialogue not surprisingly may result in challenging and disruptive behaviour as the child tries to bury their feelings and silence their internal voice. They may also actively try to sabotage situations to recreate the feelings and experiences that are familiar to them. Children who have a negative internal dialogue may believe that adults do not like them when they reprimand them. These children may find it difficult to hold on to positive thoughts about themselves as they do not have an internal view of themselves as a good person. School staff can play an essential role in helping to rewrite their internal scripts in to a positive dialogue. For example, ‘If Mrs. Hawkins thinks I’m a kind person maybe I am.’ It is crucial that we focus on the positives for these children, no matter how hard this may be to implement and sustain

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Being aware of children’s internal dialogue

Some children may have learnt to respond in a defensive way as a coping mechanism to manage the feelings of anxiety and fear that situations evoke in them. The child may present as feeling the opposite of this, for example, not scared and not bothered, but he may have learnt to do this as a way of not feeling pain. ‘If I pretend I don’t care then I can’t be hurt or feel pain.’ For this child the silent pain of feeling unwanted or unloved can result in them feeling isolated, confused, frightened and alone. They may feel that everything that happens is their fault and have an internal dialogue that asks ‘Am I a bad person? Am I unlovable? Why do I get it wrong all the time? ‘Why can’t I do anything right?’ When children have this internal belief system and are convinced that they do not deserve anything good, they may go to extreme lengths to prove it.

 The combination of their feelings of low self-worth along with a negative internal dialogue not surprisingly may result in challenging and disruptive behaviour as the child tries to bury their feelings and silence their internal voice. They may also actively try to sabotage situations to recreate the feelings and experiences that are familiar to them. Children who have a negative internal dialogue may believe that adults do not like them when they reprimand them. These children may find it difficult to hold on to positive thoughts about themselves as they do not have an internal view of themselves as a good person. School staff can play an essential role in helping to rewrite their internal scripts in to a positive dialogue. For example, ‘If Mrs. Hawkins thinks I’m a kind person maybe I am.’ It is crucial that we focus on the positives for these children, no matter how hard this may be to implement and sustain

 

 

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The importance of positive staff relationships

The quality of the relationships between staff in school impacts on their ability to work together effectively and to model positive relationships to the children. The relationship between the class teacher, teaching assistant and support workers in their class need to be harmonious to ensure they are able to work together effectively. The relationship between staff working in the same

class needs to incorporate open and honest communication along with mutual respect and appreciation. This can be demonstrated in front of the children so they are able to experience the impact of relating to other people in this way. When children have experienced living with disharmony and conflict they are more receptive to noticing this in other relationships.

If the relationship between staff is one of mistrust, resentment and animosity then this may be witnessed by the children through verbal and non-verbal interactions. When a child feels there is conflict between staff they may become preoccupied with trying to resolve this, rather than engaging with their learning. This may occur if a child is familiar with playing the role of peace maker and negotiator at home. Some children are very tuned in to relationships and will recognize atmospheres and behaviours between staff that can make them worried and anxious. Children need school to be a haven where they feel safe and protected and any negative feelings between staff and a difficult atmosphere will prevent this from happening. There are opportunities to show children how to manage feelings and conflict between people through the relationships between all staff across the school.

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Positive ways to respond to behaviour

Children do not want negative comments or attention for challenging behaviour, but some children may have learnt that any attention is better than no attention and therefore may evoke negative reactions from adults. Children who seek attention in the form of disapproval because they believe they will not gain attention in the form of approval may be showing us they have low self-esteem and may believe that other people are unable to see the good in them. For example, a child that constantly calls out in class may be doing this behaviour to ensure that they stay noticed. It is a guaranteed way of ensuring that they receive attention and are remembered. This may tell us about the child’s experiences outside of school, why do they need to ensure that they are noticed and remembered at school? Do they have a different experience at home? When children are happy and settled they do not need to ensure that adults notice and remember them, if they do this it is an indication that they need additional help and support.

It can be hard for some children to tolerate their feelings and this can result in them trying to get rid of them rather than accepting and trying to understand and process them. For example, a child who is unable to manage feeling angry may hit another child or throw something as a way of trying to get rid of that feeling. When a child picks on or bullies another child it may make them feel big and powerful and can be an opportunity for them to feel strong, albeit for a short amount of time. Children need help and support from adults to realise that it is natural to have feelings and that they can be helped to understand how to recognise and express them. It can be useful to integrate positive messages about feelings throughout the school day such as ‘All feelings are useful as they tell us something is wrong’. This validates their experiences and normalises how children may be feeling. Some children have little resilience to cope with their feelings and events that can happen during the course of a school day can feel too difficult for them to manage, such as losing a game or not being at the front of the line. I recently heard of a seven year old who burst into tears in assembly when another child from her class was presented with an award. Experiences such as these can be interpreted by children to mean that they are special, important and good enough. For children who have a fragile sense of themselves it can feel overwhelming to imagine someone else being chosen instead.

This following activity can be integrated in to the school day and carried out with the whole class to help them settle after break or lunch time or when they are anxious or unsettled. It can take about 5 minutes but can be longer or shorter to suit the time available. If children laugh or mess about they may be showing that they feel uncomfortable and it can help to acknowledge this by saying ‘ This may feel a bit strange at first but let’s practice it as I think it will help us feel more relaxed.’ If this behaviour continues they are showing you they need more help with this so could practice it in a smaller group with an adult.

Staff strategy – a grounding activity to help children feel settled

Ask each child to find a space by their table or on the carpet and stand with their feet slightly apart. They can choose whether to have their eyes open or closed. Ask them to focus on their feet, noticing how each toe feels and guide them through this, how does your left foot feel, focus on your little toe, then the toe next to it etc. Now focus on your left knee, notice how it feels, then your right knee, now your stomach, left arm, right arm, left hand, each finger, left shoulder, right shoulder, neck, left ear, right ear. Ask the children to notice how it feels after you have named each body part.

Use a quiet and gentle voice throughout the activity

End the activity asking them to do a very gentle stretch with both arms and smile.

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Using emotional vocabulary during the school day

During the school day children may be asked to experience situations that adults may not feel comfortable experiencing, such as being vulnerable and sharing things about themselves which adults may find difficult to do. For example, asking a child to identify things they struggle with or find difficult. In class an adult may randomly choose a child to answer a question, thereby exposing them in a way we would be uncomfortable as adults. How many of us have attended training where we would feel uncomfortable if the facilitator randomly singled us out to participate?

Reflect: Would this feel comfortable?
•         What do we ask children to do?

•         How may it feel for them?

•         How would I feel if someone asked me to do this?

•         How can we change this to make it feel easier and less intimidating for children?

There are many opportunities during the school day to introduce and familiarize children with emotional vocabulary. It is essential to use this as often as possible so it becomes a recognized way of interacting and avoids children being asked to do something without naming and explaining it. For example, if a child hits another child and is asked why they behaved in this way, it is not realistic to expect them to explain if they are not provided with the appropriate vocabulary to be able to do this. The school staff ensuring they use regular opportunities to introduce emotional vocabulary to children can assist them with this.

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