Therapeutic schools: Dealing with behaviour incidents

Written by: Shahana Knight | Published:
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Why do we tell children off? Because we are trying to teach them something. Shahana Knight says that this is best achieved with a therapeutic approach to behaviour incidents

Anyone working with children in education will have to deal with regular behaviour incidents. When I say behaviour incident, I am referring to absolutely any situation in which you feel it is appropriate to approach a child about their behaviour. It might be because they have spoken to somebody in an unkind way, dropped something and have not picked it up, become angry and hurt another student, or not listened to you when you were speaking.

But why? Why do we tell children off? Think about it for a moment. There is always a reason why you approach a child about their behaviour. Usually it is because you are trying to teach them something to help them to reflect on what has just happened, process their behaviour, feelings or thoughts – and adapt them. It is about teaching, guiding and supporting.

But in that case, why do children often do the same thing again and again? Why can it seem like they are not listening or taking it in. Why do some children become angry or annoyed at our attempts to help them?

Often this is because many children are struggling with external difficulties such as adverse childhood experiences (known as ACEs) –these might include attachment disorder, living with a depressed parent, being in care or experiencing domestic violence. Other factors can include not getting enough sleep, spending too much time on technology, or growing up with a lack of boundaries.

As a result, many children are living in a constant state of stress. They are more likely to be anxious, to struggle with low self-esteem/self-concept and, most importantly, to be working from the fight, flight or freeze part of the brain rather than the rational reflective part.

This means that for many children, being “told off” can reinforce internal thought patterns about not being good enough, being bad, unwanted and unloved. It can make them feel threatened and unsafe, resulting in their brain shutting down and turning off their thinking brain which allows for rational thought, processing and reflection (the very parts of the brain we expect to be active when we are trying to teach them about their behaviour). Instead they become angry, run away, argue, freeze and cannot listen, they struggle to be empathetic for others, and their memory is turned off.

So, if you want to teach children about their behaviour, I encourage you to come at it from a therapeutic teaching approach. The aim is to teach by creating connection rather than disconnection, thus keeping that rational brain turned on. How?

Focus on the message

Avoid using the words “no”, “don’t”, “stop” and “can’t” and focus on the message instead. What are you trying to teach?

No, don’t, can’t and stop are buzz words that drive disconnection and are easily interpreted by a child as threatening, flicking their brain to reptilian mode rather than rational.

So focusing on the actual learning objective. Ask yourself, why you are telling this child off in the first place, what are you trying to communicate?

  • “Stop running” becomes “I want to keep you safe...”.
  • “Do not kick Adam” is really “We look after each other…”.
  • “We look after our things” is better than just “Don’t rip your book”.
  • “We listen to each other” instead of “Stop interrupting”.

By removing the buzz words and replacing them with the actual message you are trying to teach, it is more likely to reach the children’s rational thinking brain, resulting in them feeling safe and learning from the situation instead of shutting down.

Once you have communicated the message you can follow this up with further guidance about their behaviour because now their brain is more likely to accept it.

Use the word ‘we’

As above, using the word “we” helps the children feel connected and promotes a feeling of togetherness. Many children feel isolated and singled out when they are being spoken to about their behaviour, which reinforces the feeling of disconnection and can reinforce negative self-talk or self-belief. The word “we” helps communicate that you are all growing, developing and learning together and that it is a normal part of being a child, increasing feelings of safety, resulting in less chance of the reptilian brain going into survival mode.

Use ‘next time try’ statements

I often hear blanket statements as a follow up to dealing with a behaviour incident, like “I want to see kind friends”, “use kind words”, or “play nicely”– but what does that actually mean? We cannot assume that pupils know how to change their approach. We need to be empowering children to understand how to deal with the situation better next time. Give them specific, word-for-word examples of how they can behave differently next time.

For example, Tilly has just ran off crying shouting “I am not your friend” because Lilly isn’t listening to her ideas and is being a bit overpowering. At the end of talking to the girls about it, add in your “next time try” statement: “Tilly, next time try saying, Lilly, I really want to play with you but if you’re not going to listen to my ideas or be kind to me, I will go and play with someone else who is kind.”

This approach gives her an actual, tangible approach to use next time. “Next time try” statements are a great way to empower children to adapt their approach and are very effective. Once one child begins to respond like this, the others will do too. Soon you will have a class of emotionally intelligent children navigating their way through difficult situations.

Another example might be the child who is struggling with their work and who gets up to leave the room, saying: “I am not doing it!” Your response is “James, next time try taking five deep breaths, tell yourself that you can do it. Find me and tell me ‘Mrs Smith, I am struggling and it is making me feel frustrated’.”

  • Shahana Knight is director at TPC Therapy, a mental health service for children. She also sits on a foster care panel, is a school governor and a clinical play therapist. The advice offered here is linked to her Therapeutic Teaching Programme. Visit www.tpctherapy.co.uk and read her previous articles for Headteacher Update via http://bit.ly/2yRMvdf


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