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This approach helped Jake and will help others like him who are often quiet, withdrawn and may not offer information in class.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.


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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Not making assumptions about children’s understanding 

I was talking to a pastoral worker who delivers group work interventions across school this week and she was talking about a year 6 girl who had been referred as she was always calling out, couldn’t sit still and found it very hard not to interrupt when other people were talking. I suggested the pastoral worker talked to the tow children at the start of the group and explain that this was an opportunity for them to develop new skills and practice things they found difficult. As she was explaining about practising the child looked anxious and unsure, so the pastoral worker acknowledged that it can feel strange being in a small group and maybe feeling unsure about what they were going to do. As the pastoral worker was explaining this to me after the session it suddenly occurred to me that perhaps this child didn’t know what practice meant. In schools and particularly in year 6 school staff are often talking about the children practising things. I suggested she start the next session by talking about practising and checking that both children understood what it meant. This child admitted that she didn’t know, and felt worried every time someone talked about practising things, but didn’t want to ask. The pastoral worker asked if she could pass this on to her class teacher to enable her to help her with this and the child agreed.

There has been a dramatic change in this child’s behaviour since then, she is able to sit still, wait her turn and focus on her work more easily. It made me think about how often we may make assumptions about children’s understanding of words that we use all the time.

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My needs don’t matter – the danger of children being people pleasers

Many children in primary schools may display a variety of behaviours that can cause concern. The children that are overly compliant and put their needs second,  may be harder to identify than more challenging behaviours but are of equal concern for children’s emotional health and wellbeing.

How children may develop this identity

There are a variety of reasons why a child may develop this behaviour and it can usually be traced back to being very young. When a baby is left crying in their cot for a long time, or ignored or ridiculed, this may result in them internalising a negative view of themselves. A baby who has been neglected and not had some of their basic needs such as being fed met by a caring adult on a regular basis, may learn that their needs do not matter and may become quiet and withdrawn. Children who live in families where there may be domestic violence or frequent conflict between their parents or other adults may learn to try and placate the situation or attempt to diffuse it and please other people. Parents who have drug, alcohol or mental health issues may also impact on their ability to be emotionally available for the child and result in children feeling and behaving overly responsible for people and situations at a young age.

Why it can be emotionally unhealthy

In school these children may appear to be very kind, thoughtful and helpful, but whilst this behaviour may appear on the surface to be positive, their responses to situations can become as emotionally unhealthy as a child who is unable to share. For example, if a child is demonstrating extremes of this behaviour such as bringing a bag of sweets to school and giving them all away to other children without having any themselves. In this situation it can be useful to acknowledge the behaviour, for example, “it’s really kind of you to let Amy go in front of you, but it’s important that you have a turn at being first in the line too.” This provides a positive acknowledgement of the behaviour to the child, but also reminds them that they are important too. Some children may try to buy friendships with other children by giving them things, being overly helpful or accepting bullying behaviour. These children can sometimes present as lacking in confidence and having low self -esteem, but equally may present as being confident. The underlying feeling for these children is often “I’m not good enough or I don’t deserve.” For these children, other people’s feelings and needs are always more important than their own and they may find it difficult to even know what they would like or need

 Case Study

Marcus aged 9 was a delight to have in class. He was always eager to help and offering to do jobs for his teacher. He was very easy going and never had conflicts with the other children and always let other people go before him in games and activities. His class teacher had no concerns about his behaviour until she saw him giving away his reward prize he had received in assembly for 100% attendance that term. She talked to Marcus about this and he insisted he didn’t want the prize and said “It will make Jake really happy if he has a new pencil case.”

Possible reasons for Marcus’s behaviour:

  • He was the oldest of five children and was used to giving his things to his siblings and looking after them when he was at home.
  • His parents had a volatile relationship involving lots of conflict and resulting in his dad frequently buying presents for his mum to repair the relationship.
  • He had learnt at an early age that other people’s needs should always come befor

When children have experiences like Marcus it can be very difficult for them to develop a strong sense of themselves and to know who they are and what they want. It is familiar for them to behave in a way they are used to and it can feel uncomfortable to change. I suggested that his teacher gently identify and focus on encouraging him to experience feeling good about the qualities he has. This needed to be managed carefully as he has learnt to measure how he feels about himself by how much he pleases other people. She started a book of positive things about Marcus and each day she identified one thing that he had achieved. For example, doing well in a spelling test in class. I suggested she affirmed to Marcus that he had achieved this by himself to enable him to separate the behaviour and good feelings that come internally rather than feelings that come from helping or giving to others. Gradually Marcus began to develop self esteem and a positive sense of himself enabling him to understand that his feelings and needs were equally as important as other peoples 


Strategies for school staff to implement

Children who behave like this need help from a caring adult to enable them to change their behaviour. School staff can try to be aware of children who are overly helpful and always want to do jobs, along with identifying children who may placate other children and always give in to them. It is also important to be conscious that children who have learnt this type of behaviour may also take responsibility for situations that are not their fault. For example, owning up to behaviour that another child has done such as breaking something. It is important that school staff make them feel special and important by stating their needs and providing them with lots of choices at regular intervals throughout the school day so they are able to identify and voice their own needs. These can be small choices such as “would you like a red or a green pen?” or “ It’s really important that you get an apple too at break time.” Using words like important can be a useful way of validating a child who is not used to being acknowledged or seen in this way. The impact of the powerful messages children who have learnt this type of behaviour can receive from school staff should not be underestimated and can play a vital role in enabling them to change their behaviour and develop more emotionally healthy ways of being.

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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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