What is this child trying to tell me?

What do you do if you feel upset, worried or have just had a bad day? As adults we have the ability to use language to express our thoughts and feelings about ourselves and our experiences. Children do not have the same language skills as adults and are therefore unable to communicate in the same way. They often express their thoughts, feelings and experiences through their behaviour. For example, if an adult is late for work due to the bus being delayed or their car not working they are able to talk about this and ask for support if they need it. If a child is late for school due to external circumstances it can be more difficult for them to translate this experience into words, but they may show us by their behaviour. The task of all adults is to try and work out what children may be communicating to us by their behaviour and then to respond accordingly. This is especially important for school staff who may be faced with a variety of behaviours throughout the school day.

Certain behaviour such as tantrums can be more easily understood, and may convey that a child is experiencing anger or frustration. However, behaviour such as hiding under a table or running out of school may be more difficult to understand and the feelings behind the behaviour less obvious to identify.  Some children may be living with challenging external experiences that can have a profound impact on their behaviour and ability to access learning and succeed at school. If a child is living with inconsistent and unpredictable parenting, domestic violence, abuse or neglect, these can all affect their behaviour and ability to feel safe and secure in the world. Feelings such as fear, worry and anxiety can all be triggered by these external circumstances and manifest in children’s behaviour. When children do not have clear and consistent boundaries and experiences outside of school, it can result in them displaying challenging and concerning behaviour in school. It can be useful to look at the possible reasons and feelings behind children’s behaviour as this can be crucial in being able to respond to their needs appropriately.

Kyle aged 7 lived with his parents and three younger sisters in a house dominated by conflict and drama. His parents would frequently shout at each other, blame each other for things and focus on themselves rather than the children. His dad would often leave home after an argument and return home a few days later. His mum had periods of depression and would demonstrate unpredictable responses to his behaviour, such as laughing when he had paint on his school jumper on one day and screaming at him when it happened on another day. Kyle learnt that adults were unpredictable and couldn’t be trusted, the world was a scary place and that objects were much easier to manage. At school his pockets were always full of bits and pieces he had brought from home or collected around school. He was always fiddling with things and would chew his jumper if the objects were taken from him by a member of school staff. He was often distracted, couldn’t retain instructions and would sometimes go to his drawer and just stand in front of it, unable to remember what he had been asked to do. He experienced any changes in the school routine as difficult, especially when his class teacher had her weekly preparation time.

Kyle’s behaviour was clearly indicating his high levels of anxiety and fear, and he was using the objects to self soothe and try and reduce his own anxiety. I suggested his class teacher provide him with a daily visual timetable which she can discuss with him to acknowledge any changes. I encouraged her to acknowledge his possible feelings by using comments such as “ Sometimes it can be scary when we don’t know what is going to happen”. This tentative exploration can help children to feel seen and their feelings validated in a gentle but reassuring way. I explained that for children like Kyle, their head can be so full of fears and worries from outside school that it can affect their learning. I thought it may also be helpful to just give him one instruction at a time, rather than several as that can feel overwhelming for a child whose head is too full already. I also encouraged her to give Kyle a small object, such as a plastic animal or figure for him to look after for her whilst she was out of class as this would reduce his anxiety about her leaving as he would be reassured that she would be back to collect the object. When a child lives with unpredictability outside of school, it is crucial that they are provided with structure, routine and consistency in school wherever possible to enable them to feel safe and have an alternative experience of the world.

Some children can find it extremely difficult to tolerate their feelings and they may try to get rid of them rather than accept and try and understand 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 and release that feeling. 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 articulate positive messages about feelings throughout the school day such as “Everyone feels cross sometimes”. This validates children’s experiences, acknowledges how they may be feeling and provides them with the emotional vocabulary to start expressing feelings themselves.  When children are able to understand and express their feelings more easily, this enables them to feel happier and more settled at school and therefore engage more fully with their learning.

As adults we may forget that we have the benefit of experience, developed language skills and the ability to articulate our thoughts and feelings if we choose to. We are able to rationalise experiences and know that we will survive them. We have strategies to solve difficult situations and the benefit of life experiences to know that things usually pass and life does not stay challenging forever.  We can choose to talk to people and get support if and when we need it. All of these are extremely difficult for a child to do.

As adults, the more understanding we can have of what a child may be trying to communicate to us through their behaviour, the greater the chance of the child being understood .Children are often very alone with overwhelming thoughts and feelings and this can be a lonely and terrifying experience. They need support from caring school staff who are able to help them to make sense of their feelings. The next time a child is displaying behaviour, ask yourself “what is this child trying to tell me?” Think about the possible reasons and feelings behind the behaviour to help you to identify how they may be feeling and what they may need to help them.

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