How would you respond? Dealing with pupils who can’t settle

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

In her articles this year, Shahana Knight spotlights common behaviours or classroom scenarios, looking at why they might occur and how we can respond therapeutically. This time, she looks at the pupil who is unable to settle and is distracting others...

In my regular articles for Headteacher Update, I have outlined many different aspects of my therapeutic teaching approach, offering trauma-informed and attachment-aware ideas and practices.

In my articles this academic year, I would like to close further the gap between theory and practice by spotlighting common behaviours or scenarios that you may come across at school and looking at how we might respond therapeutically.
As we know, increasing numbers of children are experiencing adversity. This might be in the form of trauma, such as domestic violence and abuse, parent alcoholism or loss. We also know that children are affected by things like growing up in poverty or even having inconsistent bedtimes and long periods of gaming.

Whether their experiences are complex and traumatic or not, there will be many different factors that affect the wellbeing and mental health of the children in your class not to mention their learning and social and emotional development.

So we must embed an approach that considers the child’s “why”. There is always a reason for a child’s behaviour because their behaviour is a sign that they are struggling with something; it is a symptom and an indicator that they need help.

Yet we often reject or punish them for struggling. We might send them out, put their name on the board, or even send them home. The message they receive is that their mental health and their feelings – their “why” – is not your concern and not something you are willing to help them with.

This can cause a child to lose faith in the system and their behaviour then escalates. It also fails to give them coping strategies, insights or life-skills so that they can cope better the next time they feel this way.

Instead, what if we consider the reason why they have behaved in a certain way, acknowledging that they do not have the skills to manage the feelings or responses that are linked to this. This approach puts us in a much better place to guide and teach.

Our goal should be to teach the child, helping them to:

  • Identify what has made them upset/caused them to behave like this.
  • Understand how their feelings/thoughts have affected their response/behaviour.
  • Calm down, self-regulate and learn what to do to manage better next time.

Developing good mental health is about the daily application of these three steps. The more a child has the opportunity to do these things, the better they will be at looking after their own mental health. Behaviour and mental health are linked and we cannot separate the two if we hope to see any significant change.

But how do we do this?

My articles this year will unpick some common scenarios and use the “why” to inform the response. When approaching a child who is struggling, 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?

Spotlight #1: Abdul

Abdul is in year 5, he is sat in English and is distracting others. You notice he is walking around the room, swinging on his chair and chatting. He has twice asked to go to the toilet and once to get some water.

Your usual response might be: “Abdul, go and sit down and stop getting out of your chair and distracting Rocco.” You might also go over and try to re-engage him by looking over his work and highlighting bits he needs to do again or reminding him of rules he hasn’t applied to his writing. You may become frustrated and use a sharp tone when he asks to go to the toilet a third time. You may be distracted supporting other children and so be half talking to him, half talking to others.

Further reading: Read Shahana Knight’s recent seven-page Best Practice Focus looking at trauma and insecure attachment behaviour in primary schools, how to respond in a therapeutic way, and how not to (September 2021). Click here for this free download.

Think about the why

What do you know about this child? You know very little about Abdul’s home life but you do know his dad is keen for him to do well at school and has mentioned grammar school. His big brother goes to the local grammar school. Mum and dad seem supportive and you have no concerns about his safety or wellbeing at home.

What is the child feeling? It is really important to consider feelings. Abdul seems to be distracting others, but I would argue that he is actually distracting himself. He is feeling overwhelmed with the work. It is English and he isn’t as strong in English as he is in maths. He is feeling unsure of himself, worried about failing and it is easier to distract himself from those uncomfortable feelings.

Leaving the room multiple times reduces the stress and anxiety he is feeling. It is a coping mechanism. You may find he is distracting the children who seem to be on task or who know what they are doing. This might be because he feels anxious watching them doing well and internally he is comparing himself to them. That makes him feel unsettled and so it is easier to distract them and remove that feeling.

What might their belief system/thought process be? He might be thinking “I am not good enough”, “what if I get this wrong”, “Dad will be disappointed”, “everyone else is better at this than me”, “I can’t do it”, “she is going to tell me it isn’t right”.

What do they need? Abdul needs someone to recognise his feeling and give him some insight into what is going on. He needs to feel emotionally safe enough to fail and know that getting it wrong does not mean that he is not good enough. He may be comparing himself to his brother or have expectations set by his father that cause a fear of “getting it wrong”.

Responding therapeutically

Remembering our three goals above as part of our therapeutic respond. You might try:

  • “Abdul, you are finding it a bit difficult, and it is making you feel unsettled, so you are distracting yourself.”
  • “You are struggling a bit with this work, so are distracting yourself.”
  • “You are feeling a bit worried about this work and you are avoiding it. I can tell because you have been to the toilet a few times now and are distracting others. I don’t think you are doing that to be silly, I think it is helping you to stop feeling so worried.”

Using one of these possible responses highlights Abdul’s feelings and links his feelings to his behaviour. You look at him, giving him the eye contact he needs because this is an emotional connection.

This response highlights that you understand his “why”, which means he isn’t left feeling unheard and unregulated. You might then offer a way for him to regulate some of those feelings by suggesting he take some deep breaths, saying some positive affirmations or reminding him of the strengths he has in English.

For example: “Whenever you feel worried about not getting something right, take a big deep breath and count to five. This will calm your mind and help you to focus your thoughts. Say to yourself ‘I can do this!’ and try again. You are brilliant at creating interesting characters and stories, don’t let the spellings put you off, you will get them in time.”

This response will calm his “survival brain” and help him access his thinking brain. It will also give him the insight he needs to understand his emotional state and manage it.


Keep a look out for my regular therapeutic school articles this year when I will tackle more common scenarios and behaviours. If you have a specific scenario you would like me to unpick then put a comment below or tweet me @shahana_tpc

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