How would you respond? Playground fall-outs

Written by: Shahana Knight | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Continuing her regular articles on responding therapeutically to common behaviour scenarios in primary schools, Shahana Knight looks at how we might respond when groups of children fall-out in the playground


One of the most common behaviour scenarios in the primary school is when groups of children fall-out at break time. This can disrupt the day for a child and leave them feeling dysregulated and unsettled.

Furthermore, it can often spill over into their learning time, especially if they cannot move past the incident.

Scenarios like this can involve multiple children and it can be hard to know how to respond to everyone in a therapeutic way. Common responses may include asking children to take turns explaining what happened, asking them to write down what happened, and/or asking them to apologise to one another.

Let’s look at why these strategies might not work and what you can do to tweak your response in a trauma-informed way to ensure children learn from incidents.

Remember, every behaviour is linked to an internal feeling and often children are not aware of this feeling. They do not know why they responded in the way they did and therefore will not know how to manage this next time.

Our job is to guide them through these moments and raise their self-awareness and emotional intelligence so that they can deal with these situations more effectively.

Our goal should never be to just stop the external behaviour. If we focus our attention on the external behaviour, we ignore the internal reason.


Spotlight: Charlotte

Charlotte is on the playground with a group of friends. They are making up dances together and practising steps. After a few minutes the children come running over to complain that Charlotte is being bossy and unkind and isn’t following the instructions.

Amy says Adam stuck his tongue out at her when she tried to tell him the moves. Charlotte is arguing that she has done nothing wrong. You are not sure what has happened.


Think about the why

When approaching children who are struggling with a behaviour incident, consider the following:

  • What do you know about this child?
  • What is the child feeling?
  • What might their belief system/thought process be?
  • What do they need?


1, What do you know about the child?

Charlotte is from a large family; her siblings have all been at the school over the years and you know that life at home can be chaotic. The house is loud and shouty and mum struggles to manage the children’s behaviour. Mum has had different partners and Charlotte’s own dad is in prison. The family get by okay, but you know that they struggle for money and the children’s routines at home can be inconsistent.

Charlotte can be quite controlling in school and likes to have the last word. She loves her friends but can struggle when she is not the “leader”. She complies with rules most of the time but can get argumentative when she feels things are unfair.


2, What is the child feeling?

Let’s focus on her feelings from a trauma-informed perspective. Break and lunch times can often be difficult for children like Charlotte. This is a time when there is no structure. The children are expected to independently navigate social situations that might be tricky, and the environment is loud and chaotic.

Charlotte experiences a lot of chaos at home and things can feel overwhelming for her. This causes stress and “triggers” her survival brain. When we feel threatened in any way, our brain can flick into fight, flight or freeze. Charlotte often goes into fight mode.

Fight mode is where you fight back to protect yourself – you might physically fight, shout, argue or need to have the last word. Charlotte frequently feels attacked and so her brain is constantly in fight mode. This helps her to survive the chaos at home and to feel like she has some control, however it can make things difficult at school.

The triggers can be small – like not feeling listened too, being misunderstood, or feeling rejected. That is what happened today.

The playground itself mirrors the environmental factors she experiences at home – loud, chaotic and overwhelming. There is no structure to help her feel emotionally safe. Paired with the added pressure of having to “hold her own” and navigate relationships, this increases her internal anxiety, stress levels, and sense of insecurity.

When she was doing the dances, one of the girls was teaching a dance move that was hard for Charlotte to get right. She felt like she wasn’t good enough and felt out of control. She wanted to take some control back to feel emotionally more secure, so she refused to do the dance and tried to take over. This then became a power struggle which forced Charlotte to stay in fight mode and fuelled arguments with the others.


3, The belief system/ thought process

Charlotte often struggles with self-belief – “I am not good enough” – “I always do it wrong” – “I annoy people” – “my ideas are not valuable” – “my voice is not heard”. She carries these internal beliefs around due to the experiences she has had in her life. These beliefs, when affirmed, make her feel attacked and threatened which send her into fight mode.


4, What do they need

The truth is, Charlotte wants to do the dances with her friends; she enjoys their company. Friends are very important to her, and she tries very hard to ensure she is part of the group.

But Charlotte needs to feel emotionally safe and connected to the people around her to be able to stay in her rational brain and manage her feelings. She needs to feel encouraged, nurtured and supported and she also needs to have a sense of control when things feel tough.

In this moment, she feels her friends are not listening and she is worried that she isn’t good enough to do the dance. Her friends are unaware of this and think she is just being bossy.

So, this is where your response should focus. Remember, Charlotte is from a big family, and she often feels unseen and unheard. When responding to the children, it is important to focus on the feelings, not the behaviours.

When responding to a group of children, it is easy to forget that every child in the group is battling with a feeling and most of them just want a bit of validation for how they feel. The actual scenario isn’t always relevant, and they will often go back to their game quickly if they feel heard.

The truth is the children have come over because they are all feeling dysregulated and are struggling with an internal feeling which is unsettling.

Coming over to tell you what happened is their way of seeking out some co-regulation to help them to manage their internal state.

As adults we are not always aware of this, and we think they are coming over because they want us to help them manage the situation or solve a problem for them. We then focus our attention on the situation, and we miss the actual lesson. The lesson is always in the emotions and thoughts the children are having.


Responding therapeutically

Instead of focusing your time on the behaviour and trying to solve the problem, pick out the children’s feelings. It is important you can recognise them in the moment, using the knowledge you have of the children and also the situation in front of you.

So, you might say: “Charlotte, you felt frustrated because you couldn’t get the steps and it made you feel a bit attacked when everyone kept telling you it was wrong.”

This addresses her internal emotional state and helps her feel heard and validated. You then highlight this to the group: “Charlotte just needed a bit of encouragement to help her feel supported. She felt as though you were saying she wasn’t good enough.”

Hopefully, this will help the other children to feel more empathetic to the situation. They will also know how to respond better next time.

You can do the same for the others in the group too: “Amy, you wanted to help teach everyone, but perhaps you forgot to listen to the others?” “Jack, you love a good dance and wanted to join in, but Amy was trying to help you and you were doing your own thing, so she got frustrated.”

Spend your time raising their self-awareness and highlighting their feelings and thoughts in the best way you can. You will be surprised how well the children respond once they feel heard and seen and how quickly they will go back to playing.


Further information & resources

  • Knight: How would you respond?When pupils get angry, Headteacher Update, February 2022: https://bit.ly/3B1I6UC
  • Knight: How would you respond? Dealing with pupils who can’t settle, Headteacher Update, October 2021: https://bit.ly/3dL6AXG
  • Knight: Trauma and insecure attachment behaviour in primary schools: How to respond, Headteacher Update Best Practice Focus (pdf download), September 2021: https://bit.ly/2VUtaYm


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