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Understanding and Supporting Children’s behaviour

Always a very controversial discussion and with the newly published DfE guidance on ‘Behaviour in School, July 2022, landing in the inboxes of schools across the country in the last week of the summer term, it’s certainly timely to take a deeper look at the current messaging and strategies being adopted by schools and early years settings to ‘manage’ children’s behaviour.

Is behaviour good or bad?

“Good behaviour in schools is central to a good education. Schools need to manage behaviour well so they can provide calm, safe and supportive environments which children and young people want to attend and where they can learn and thrive”. DfE publication July 2022 Behaviour in Schools.

My question to the DfE and schools leaders, is what is good behaviour? Can we truly define what this looks like or is this subjective and based on so many contributory factors that it’s a definition that is far too open to interpretation to have placed in a document or policy? And schools ‘managing’ behaviour, what does this look like exactly?

There are obviously behaviours, based in law that are ‘bad’ and it’s clear that the behaviours that impact others physical or emotionally, destroy property or abuse others, is very clear, its not acceptable and not the way human beings treat each other.

However, from my very recent experiences, many behaviours seen as ‘inappropriate’, ‘bad’ or ‘not acceptable’ within schools and early years settings are based on children not conforming to expectations placed on them by the educators without a deeper understanding of the reason behind the behaviour, or the child’s response to the environmental stimulus and therefore, for that child, in that moment, their behaviour is totally acceptable to them.

The DfE guidance states that schools ‘require a clear vision of what good behaviour looks like’ and the Statutory Framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage states ‘providers are responsible for managing children’s behaviour in an appropriate way’. Let’s determine what this means, what this looks like and how we can better understand, support, guide and enable ALL of our children to feel emotionally safe and secure, validated and understood within education.

I wonder why?

All behaviour is a form of communication so when we are supporting a child who is feeling or presenting as dysregulated our first question should be why and what can we do to remove or reduce the stress, not what sanction needs to be placed on them for them to conform.

Behaviours for the most part come from a place of an unmet need or the need to get away from something, this could be a personally perceived physical, emotional or sensory danger. So, our job as educators is identify what function the behaviour serves - what do they want, what are they trying to escape from, what are they trying to gain in order for us to effectively support the child to move back to a more regulated state that allows them to feel calm, safe and in a preferred state for learning?

Our Neurodivergent Children

For our neurodivergent children the sensory stimulus that they are faced with day in day out is exhausting. Just getting through the day can be an achievement in itself, then add in the pressures of nursery or school and you can see right in front of you the impact on their nervous system unable to help them manage their stress, anxiety and emotions.

Even the impact of stimulus before they even get to the building in the morning will have an impact, a potential lack of breakfast, the rush through the noisy bustling traffic, the weather, the anxiety of a different teacher or room leader that day and then a fire engine speeds past with its sirens on.

Consider their energy levels on arrival - not happy, full of energy, ready to learn as we would think.

We therefore need to consider how we support the transitions on arrival, time aside in a quiet area or sat with a weighted blanket or toy where they can regulate before the day starts, time for a walk with a member of the team to chat and prepare and plan for the day, use of visuals to explain how the day is going to be to remove any further anxiety, then regular check ins throughout the morning with a trusted adult.

What could it be?

We can do this by first knowing our children as individuals and not by assuming all children will respond in the same way to situations, stimulus, directions, or expectations. Understanding causes of behaviour is crucial to increase engagement and participation in any classroom or early years setting.

· Have they been sat still for too long?

· Are the expectations too high?

· Are they bored?

· Are they being asked to complete small group work where they don’t feel heard or understood?

· Are they hungry or thirsty?

· Is the environment too bright, or overstimulating?

· Have they been given an example of what you are wanting them to achieve?

· Is there a new adult in the room that they don’t yet trust?

· Are they too hot/cold?

· Do they feel heard?

· Do they have the tools, skills to effectively communicate their emotions?

Enabling self regulation

Children’s behaviour being ‘managed’ by adults must be reframed and more understanding and use of co-regulation that enables self regulation, needs to be understood and strategies used widely within education.

Self-regulation is the ability to manage your emotions and behaviour effectively given the demands of the situation, including being able to emotionally fight off highly emotional reactions to unwanted stimulus, to use calming strategies when you get upset, to adjust to a change in expectations, and to handle frustration without dysregulation.

But we are not born with self regulation skills, we learn them from trusted, consistent and emotionally available adults, starting the process of co-regulation.

· Providing a calm, responsive, emotionally accepting environment

· Trusted adults who know their children and their triggers

· Helping children to name their emotions and strong feelings

· Modelling effective strategies

· Responding and acknowledging children’s feelings

Self regulation strategies to help children manage their own behaviour

· Mindfulness activities and breathe work – teddy time, blowing bubbles

· Sensory/movement breaks

· Going for a walk

· Stomping and shaking the body

· Beating the ‘drum’ – wooden spoons and a bean bag

· Fidget toys

· Calm music in a calm space

· Naming emotions and discussing the physical responses

· Providing a place of enclosure/escape

“In my world there are no bad kids. Just impressionable, conflicted young people, wrestling with emotions and impulses trying to communicate their feelings and needs the only way they know how”. Janet Lansbury

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