Above all, a student’s ability to get along with others is the strongest predictor of their success at school, but too often kids present with challenging behaviours and this impacts both their prospects of academic progress and that of their fellow students.
In the past, teaching a large group of children, as well as parenting, often involved a strict disciplinary approach which may have led to greater compliance but not necessarily improved learning. Many of these approaches were not great for kids’ mental health and wellbeing.
“It’s possible that we’ve traded out compliance for defiance. Neither are ideal. We want kids to learn at school and feel a sense of belonging and respect. When we discuss this, we often end up focusing on the ‘what’ of the behaviour rather than the ‘why’. If we can better understand why these behaviours are occurring, we can seek to shift the circumstances,” says Australian Paediatric Occupational Therapist and best-selling author Dave Jereb.
“I think it’s crucial to recognise that our educational system faces the challenge of catering to the diverse needs of a large group of children. We need to work together to create an environment where children feel safe and engaged in the learning process. Achieving this will require a collaborative effort involving teachers, caregivers, and the school community, as well as the children, to ensure that each child's unique needs are met, fostering a sense of safety, engagement, and ultimately, improved learning outcomes.”
Children who feel emotionally safe to engage, ask questions, and connect with others are best prepared for school and the pathway to settling challenging students down lies in realising how everyone, students, teachers and peers perceive the situation.
Traditional approaches to behaviours often don’t work and do not feel right to the adult supporting the child. Just like the child, the adults supporting them are doing the best they can with the resources they have.
“Traditional approaches, such as rewards and punishments, often seem logical. They work in dog training, and they actually work with everyone when used in their extremes. If the reward is big enough or punishment severe enough, you can get anyone to do what you want. But at what cost. These approaches rely on the child being externally motivated to behave in a certain way.
“However, if we want lasting change and children who behave in a way that is supportive of learning and engagement, we need the motivation to come from an internal drive. Traditional approaches often don’t feel right to the adult enforcing the behaviour because they rely on overpowering or coercing the behaviour. Many of these approaches would be seen as abuse or harassment if done by employers in a workplace.”
American author and civil rights activist James Baldwin is credited with saying that “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” Compliance is not learning or connection. It teaches children to be submissive followers rather than tomorrow’s leaders.
“Letters, numbers, and colours can all be taught at school. However, children who are emotionally secure are best versed to be successful. For kids with additional needs, they may need support to tune into their bodies and feelings, understand their own body’s cues and the cues of others, communicate their needs and feelings, and understand what to expect as they approach school,” says Jereb.
This starts with understanding your own feelings as a parent or educator and recognising that the child may feel differently. If a child is safe and supported to tune into their feelings then they can, as Kim Barthel says, “feel their feelings, express their feelings” and eventually be able to “move their feelings”. This is the most important skill we can provide a child in school.
“It’s also important to recognise that children can’t do this independently and that they need our help. Communication and collaboration between caregivers and teachers is so important for ensuring that the child is supported in a caring and consistent way,” Jereb says.
Parents play a role in a child’s behaviour at school and more often than not they are doing their honest best to form strong relationships built on trust and respect, but parenting does not come with a manual.
“In terms of answering what they are doing wrong, I find that challenging to answer. In my experience, parents are doing the best they can with the resources they have. The same could be said for teachers, and especially for each child. However, I do think there are things we can do to better support children to engage in and enjoy learning. While many of the strategies are individual to each child, one thing is clear; it takes a village to raise a child, and that is particularly true when children have behaviours that we find challenging.
“Outcomes for children improve significantly when caregivers, teachers, and schools work together to support children. At our clinic MoveAbout Therapy Services, our key principle is that we support the people who support the kids. It’s important not to blame the child, blame the parent or blame the teachers but rather understand why the child is behaving the way they are and supporting the key people in their lives so that they can then better support the child.
“It’s valuable to recognise that our first interpretation is often based on our subjective opinion. We need to take a step back and look at the child with unconditional positive regard, meaning that they are doing the best with the resources they have. Then we should look at the behaviour objectively, considering the facts without our interpretation. Once we remove our interpretation and look at the objective behaviour, we can then begin to consider; why is the child behaving in this way? The answer may relate to what happened prior to the behaviour (the antecedent) or what typically happens after such occurrences (the consequence). It may also relate to aspects of their individual differences, such as their developmental level, language abilities or capacity to self-regulate. Every behaviour serves a purpose. When we can shift our focus from the ‘what’ of behaviour to the ‘why’ of behaviour, we can better support the child to no longer need to use behaviours we find challenging.”
There are many reasons a child may become dysregulated. In general, this means that they do not feel safe and connected. Dysregulation can arise from how they respond to sensation, emotions, or expectations. When children are dysregulated, they are primed for ‘fight or flight’, or potentially ‘freeze’.
It’s important to recognise that when a child is dysregulated, they have less access to higher cortical levels of their brains which relate to thinking, reasoning and language processing. Their brains are focused on survival. As such, we need to do the thinking and reduce the language.
“If they are truly dysregulated, they may need space and time to recover. Connection is the key. If we can connect with a child who is dysregulating, or possibly dysregulated, our minds can support their minds to feel safe and more organised. This is because when we engage in shared social connection, oxytocin (aka the ‘love drug’) washes over our brains and can send inhibitory (calming) messages to our Amygdala, our fear brain, which has a very strong impact on dysregulation,” he says.
Significantly better than trying to deal with dysregulation is trying to predict when dysregulation may occur and supporting the child to feel safe and connected, proactively reducing the need for dysregulation. This may be through emotional connection or may also be achieved through the use of calming sensory opportunities tailored to the child, improving predictability, and providing activities that are meaningful and achievable to the child.
Children with challenging behaviours are typically dysregulated when those behaviours occur which means that they have limited access to thinking, reasoning, problem solving or language processing. They are not able to adjust their approach on their own. No one adult is with them everywhere they go, nor should they be, so again it is particularly valuable to have a collaborative approach between the child’s, teacher, school community, and caregivers.
“A strategy has proven beneficial in the schools of children I have worked with over the past two decades. Jenny makes great progress in supporting Henry to successfully participate in class without the need for challenging behaviours. Yet, Henry continues to get into fights on the playground. Through reflection with her mentor Mrs Hoo, Jenny engages the school community to understand Henry’s needs and support him on the playground. They do this by having Henry be responsible for delivering something, such as a whistle, to the teacher on duty, who is wearing a bright yellow vest. The teacher is then able to connect with Henry, remind him to find her if he has any challenges with his friends, and then watch where he goes so that she can keep an eye on the interactions. This strategy takes very little additional effort yet provides Henry with a feeling of responsibility, the support of a trusted ally, the opportunity to rehearse a plan to deal with challenges, and adult support if needed when things begin to escalate rather than only once they have fully escalated. Schools that see supporting each child as their collective responsibility are schools that are best equipped to support children with challenging behaviours.”
Children who are able to understand their own feelings are better able to tune into and respond empathetically to others. Well-meaning adults, using traditional approaches to behaviour management may attempt to teach children to be caring, respectful and confident, by rewarding them for such behaviours. It may be a sticker, a star on a chart, or a treat. However, this draws the focus externally to the child and may subtly convey that we should perform for others.
“Well-meaning adults could respond in a slightly different manner than would develop the child’s internal drive to respond in a caring way to themselves and others. Instead of providing a reward, the adult could bring the child’s attention to the experience, perhaps saying, “Johnny, I noticed that you just gave Rosie the red marker - I bet it felt good when she smiled and said thank you” or “Harry, you built that tower all by yourself, you should feel really proud inside.” When we support children to develop the internal drive to be caring and respectful to themselves and others, we create a lasting ability and confident, caring humans.
Perfectionism and impostor syndrome seem to be impacting young adults at pandemic proportions. There is little doubt that when we teach children to perform for others, we do little to support them to help them develop a sense of self and a sense of self-worth. In Dare to Lead, Brene Brown tells us that the mantra of the perfectionist is “Please, Perform, Perfect, Prove”.
“When our self-worth is rooted in what others think, we never feel good enough. Perfection is unachievable. Perfectionists’ lives get smaller as they avoid putting themselves out there and risking scrutiny. However, when children develop self-reflective capacities and are able to accurately assess their performance, their strengths and challenges, and their feelings, and they can separate their performance from their self-worth, they are able to become emotionally healthy adults. Their world gets bigger as they are confident to try, fail, try again and grow.”
Dave Jereb is a Paediatric Occupational Therapist with over two decades of experience, Co-Founder of MoveAbout Therapy Services and the author of 'Challenging the Story: A Surprisingly Simple Approach to Supporting Children with Challenging Behaviours’.
Image by Anny Patterson