How children communicate through their behaviour

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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2 Responses to How children communicate through their behaviour

  1. Wow! I loved reading this! I have worked as a special education teacher for 15 years, and the child you are talking about is one I have encountered many times. My own two small children started displaying similar behaviors when I lived with their abusive father. I kept staying, hoping I was wrong, and that it wasn’t abuse. It was the behavior of my children that finally snapped me out of the fog and into enough of a moment of clarity that we could escape.

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