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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
- 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.
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.