Managing change and uncertainty in school

I have been really aware this week that there is a lot of uncertainty and change in routine In schools. One minute children are in class doing numeracy the next they are in the hall practising their performance. In the schools I’ve been working in teachers are having lesson observations and writing reports. It is also the time of year when children start wondering who their next teacher will be and teachers may also be wondering which year group and class they will have in September. All of this can create lots of stress and anxiety for school staff and children, especially those who may live with lots of change and uncertainty in their lives outside of school.

It can really help if all of this can be acknowledged to children. School staff can do this by acknowledging, describing and naming potential feelings.  For example, saying something like “we are going to be having lots of changes at school today and this can feel difficult and may feel scary”.  It can help to share with the children exactly what is going to be happening during each day and identifying anything that is  different from the usual routine.  For example “normally after break we do literacy but today after break we are going to the hall to practice our performance.  It can feel really hard when things keep changing all the time, so I am going to make sure that I always tell you when we will be doing something different.” Ensure you do this frequently throughout the day as many children, particularly those who have experienced trauma will not be able to retain this information. This  can create more anxiety for them. For example “normally after break we do literacy but today after break we are going to the hall to practice our performance.  It can feel really hard when things keep changing all the time, so I am going to make sure that I always tell you when we will be doing something different.”

You may have children in your class who are finding the change of routine difficult, have perhaps become more unsettled or their behaviour has changed in other ways. They may be trying to tell you that they are struggling with this, try some of the suggested examples to see if it helps.

Here are a couple more suggestions:

“Sometimes when we are doing lots of different things in our day it can make us feel more tired.”

“Sometimes doing our performance can make us feel scared and anxious. It can be frightening doing something new.”

 

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Reflective language – free resource

I’ve developed a free online video resource which introduces reflective language, a simple and effective behaviour management tool that supports children’s emotional well-being. This is a technique I teach staff on a daily basis and which has had a big impact in the schools I work in. By watching the video you will learn:

  • What is reflective language
  • Why it might be useful
  • Examples of reflective language in use
  • The impact of using reflective language
  • How you can use it in your work
  • Examples for you to try yourself

Watch video

I hope you find it useful.

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Enhancing children’s well-being and supporting behaviour

I wrote my Making a Difference Guide to try and provide easy solutions to help school staff enhance children’s well-being and support their behaviour.  I’ve made a short video discussing how you might use it in your own work, along with colleagues and to provide evidence.

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Sometimes it can be hard to ask for help…

Jake age 9 was a quiet child who was often disengaged and would stare out of the window for long periods of time. His class teacher had moved him away from the window but this didn’t improve his attention span, instead he just stared into space. She knew the work was appropriate for his level and was unsure what to do.

I suggested she tried using reflective language “I can see you looking out of the window, I wonder if you are unsure how to start, perhaps it would help if I explained it again” and also with the whole class “It can be hard to ask for help but we all need help sometimes” I also suggested she consider sharing a story of times that she has had to ask for help.

This approach helped Jake and will help others like him who are often quiet, withdrawn and may not offer information in class. For these children, the fear and uncertainty of starting a piece of work can be overwhelming and they often just need the support of an adult to get them started

Simple strategies like these can make a big difference to the children we work with. For more examples see my new book Making a Difference.

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Making a Difference guide

My Making a Difference guide is now available for purchase online.  Based on many conversations with school staff over the last few years it is a resource to support staff in understanding and supporting children with their behaviour and emotional well-being.  It has been designed to provide you with easy to implement tips and strategies that have been proven to be effective and an opportunity to record the strategies that work for you.

I’ve made a short video showing you the book and telling you a bit more about it.  You can also read more about it here.

 

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I’m so excited…

I spent Friday afternoon at our local printers seeing the first draft of an exciting new project being born.  My Making a Difference guide is a new resource for people working in primary schools to help them support children with their emotional well-being and behaviour.

This week is all about proof reading and making any final changes and I plan to launch it next weekend.  Watch this space. And if you want to be sure to hear about it you can always sign up to my mailing list on my home page.

 

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The importance of not shaming children at school

A child who has poor self-regulation and impulse control can find it extremely difficult to change their behaviour and not do things. For example, if at home a child has to interrupt other people and talk over them to be heard then it can be difficult not to act in the same way at school. A Year 5 class teacher recently used the phrase “whose being rude” as a way of managing a classroom situation. The child went red and looked ashamed. He could have said “remember we all need to listen to each other.” This different approach that would not have targeted and shamed the child could have been and could have achieved the same result in a less direct way.

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Try alternative ways to respond to children’s behaviour

In my work I am always encouraging school staff to try different strategies to deal with children’s behaviour. It can be easy in life to keep doing things the way we’ve always done them and harder to be brave enough to experiment with another way. However, the significant relationships between school’s staff and children that can occur in school settings enable both children and staff to experiment with this concept. The more that school staff can get to know and understand the children in their care, the more they will be able to develop appropriate responses to behaviour to meet the child’s needs.

Case study

Hannah aged 6 found it very hard to sit on her chair. She would lean from side to side, sit up on her knees and rock on it, occasionally falling off.

Teacher response

Her class teacher understood that this was something that Hannah found difficult and needed help with and acknowledged this to her by saying “I can see it’s really hard for you to sit still on your chair, I’m wondering if we should spend some time together to see if I can help to make it easier for you.” The teacher spent time showing Hannah where to put her feet so they could be settled comfortably on the floor and explored with her how this felt.

Result

Hannah responded to this help from her teacher by becoming more aware of how she was sitting and with gentle reminders such as “I’m wondering if you need a bit more help with your chair?” was able to manage sitting at the table more easily.

Whilst this teacher response may not have had the same effect with other children, if school staff are able to think for a minute before responding to behaviour, they may be able to adapt their responses to meet the child’s individual needs. This may result in the child feeling more understood and have a positive outcome for both staff and child.

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Supporting a child who is always angry

Jamal aged four had regular angry outbursts where he would shout, scream and sometimes throw things. He was very fragile and would get upset very easily if he got something wrong, was asked to do something he didn’t want to or he wasn’t chosen to do an activity. This sometimes resulted in him lying on the floor kicking his legs and screaming. The staff at his nursery were finding his behaviour increasingly difficult to manage and were worried about the impact on the other children. Jamal’s tantrums were becoming more regular and he was getting very upset afterwards and taking a while to calm down and settle back in to the nursery day. His behaviour was unpredictable and he would often lash out at other children, seemingly for no reason. He had started to tell tales and blame the others children for things and would say “he did it” pointing at another child, rather than admitting to his behaviour. Some of the other children in nursery had begun to be wary of him and move away when he approached them. He was also becoming more disruptive at carpet time, calling out, and had begun challenging the nursery staff when he was asked to do something.

It is not uncommon for children of Jamal’s age to still be having tantrums, although this is a more appropriate developmental stage of a two to three-year-old, but some of the other behaviours such as being controlling and arguing may be more usually associated with an older child. However, the level and frequency of Jamal’s anger indicates that his behaviour is a concern, along with his lack of resilience and poor relationships with the other children.

There may be a variety of reasons for Jamal’s behaviour and it is essential that the nursery staff explore this his parents rather than just reprimanding him or trying to get him to change his behaviour. When children are happy, settled and ok in their world they are usually happy, settled and ok in the setting. When a child is showing us behaviour like Jamal’s, they are very clearly communicating to us that they are not ok and it is our job to find out why.

The nursery staff need to explore some of the possible reasons for his behaviour and try and understand how he is feeling. When children are always angry, they are often feeling upset, anxious and scared as well. It is crucial that the staff try and help him with all these feelings, not just focus on the anger. It is worth considering his home life and sensitively exploring his parents approach to managing his behaviour at home, discussing areas such as boundaries which may be inconsistent or lacking.  Staff can also explore if Jamal is used to being in control at home and whether his parents just give in to him, maybe because they think it’s easier to do this. Finally, it would be useful to know if he witnesses or hears conflict or violence between adults in his family or if he watches or plays inappropriate computer games?

All staff need to use a consistent, predictable and positive and nurturing approach with Jamal to help him feel safe and secure at nursery. This can be reinforced by them using affirmative language and saying things like “at nursery we share our toys etc”. This will help him to understand the difference between nursery and home in terms of expectations of behaviour in case there are some differences. As children are often unable to understand and express their feelings he will need help to put his feelings into words and staff need to provide him with the vocabulary to be able to do this. The staff can try and ensure they attune to the intensity of what he is feeling with the appropriate tone and facial expression to show they really understand the strength of what he is feeling. For example, ” You really wanted the banana with the skin on, it made you furious when I took it off”.

When a child is locked in rage, they cannot find the words themselves and will be experiencing the feelings as a bodily sensation which can be overwhelming and frightening. Jamal is not yet developmentally capable of finding the words to express his feelings and he needs help from a caring adult who can provide him with the words, e.g. “I can see it made you really cross when you couldn’t be at the front if the line, but remember we take turns at nursery. It is important that the staff don’t try and persuade Jamal out of the feeling, instead affirm and acknowledge it so he no longer feels alone with his feelings and remember that children express their feelings through their behaviour.

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The importance of good working relationships

I spend a large part of my job supporting staff in developing strategies to manage challenging behaviour in children.  I also spend a significant amount of time supporting senior staff in managing challenging behaviour from other staff members. In my experience, although the behaviour may differ, challenging children and challenging staff have a lot in common.  The vast majority of people do not choose to present difficult behaviour, and in the same way as children are communicating through their behaviour so are adults. When children are challenging adults, refusing to do things and being difficult, they are often feelings scared and anxious, and when adults show similar behaviour, the feelings are often the same. So, how can we respond to adults and create a positive working environment, especially when some of the staff may display difficult behaviour?

The importance of a positive working environment can not be underestimated. Ensuring people feel they belong and are needed and valued, along with dealing with negativity, blame and gossip so that people feel happy and experience job satisfaction is crucial to an effective workforce. The quality of the relationships between staff impacts on their ability to work together effectively and to create an emotionally safe environment for the children. The relationship between staff 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 positive impact of relating to other people in this way. 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 which can result in them becoming anxious and their behaviour changing.

It is essential that staff look after and support each other’s emotional well-being and are able to identify positive ways to manage their stress. If staff are feeling fragile, stressed or vulnerable, this can impact on their ability to develop and maintain relationships with the children.

The experience of high quality inspirational training is of paramount importance for all staff and opportunities to access additional training relevant to their role needs to be available to everyone. Good training can impact on the whole team by motivating individual staff and by providing opportunities to share good practice, encourage new ideas and initiatives.

The staff need to feel valued and supported in their work in order to be productive, and the morale of the staff can impact on the children in a positive or negative way. All adults have a responsibility to create a happy and relaxed atmosphere for children, or to decide what they can do to change it. Working in schools can be a demanding and exhausting but rewarding and enjoyable job. In order for staff to work most effectively and give their best to the children they need to feel happy, supported and fulfilled. It is important they feel they are making a difference and that they are an essential cog in the wheel of school life. The setting needs to be emotionally safe for staff in order to be emotionally safe for children.

In order for the setting to be most successful it is crucial to nurture, support and empower the staff in the same way as you do the children. When staff feel valued and happy there is less likely to be conflict which will have a positive impact on staff, parents and children, resulting in a more harmonious place of work.

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