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Solve Primary Behaviour Issues with the COMPASS Approach

Children’s behaviour issues are invariably symptomatic of an underlying anxiety or problem. The COMPASS approach can point you in the right direction, says Sue Gascoyne...

  • Solve Primary Behaviour Issues with the COMPASS Approach

Working with children as a play therapist and sensory engagement specialist is a bit like being an ‘emotions detective’, in the sense of trying to put yourself in a child’s shoes to better understand what they might be thinking, feeling and needing.

We all have three fundamental psychological needs that underpin our wellbeing and openness to learning new things. The need to belong (relatedness), the need to be, do and explore (autonomy), and the need to feel ‘I can’ (competence).

For children, behaviour is invariably a symptom of an underlying anxiety or problem, which if left unaddressed can spark a chain of misunderstandings and disappointments.

Working therapeutically in schools with children experiencing behaviour issues, the COMPASS approach provides a tool for focusing on:

  • children’s behaviour as a recognised means of COMmunication
  • the importance of People-friendly environments
  • positive Attachment with significant caregivers and
  • Sensory approaches to caring and learning
  • developing Self-regulation.

The COMPASS Points

At the heart of this tool lies the four compass points of noticing, exploration, structure and warmth. Looking at each of these in turn, we start our tour with N for noticing.


Just as finding north is key to taking accurate readings on a compass, noticing is essential for understanding the child, their actions and needs, the impact of the environment, and adults’ own impacts.

The COMPASS approach starts with noticing as this is not only fundamental to understanding children, but experience has shown that simply by noticing we can convey to a child their value and sense of worth.

Working as a play therapist has certainly sharpened my focus on noticing the children with a history of trauma, social, emotional and behavioural difficulties that I work with.

Stepping back from firefighting and classroom ‘management’ affords the luxury of observing and really noticing children, as if a fly on the wall, a lens which yields surprising insights and richer understanding of children’s behaviours and needs.

Exploration, structure and warmth

The remaining three compass points are closely interrelated. In many ways exploration and structure are two sides of the same coin as it is only when children feel safe from consistent boundaries, routines and structure that they are able to engage in and explore the environment around them.

Given a secure foundation of attachment (essentially structure and warmth), children are naturally curious sensory beings, hardwired to investigate and explore with their body and senses.

Warmth prevents structure from feeling harsh and overly restrictive, as well as being an essential component of developing a strong foundation of attachment between young children and their caregivers.

Messy play

Containment (another form of structure) is a key theme of messy play. As the following vignettes demonstrate, sensory engagement can be essential for maintaining children’s connection with learning.


For Rebecca, aged seven, touching sensory materials literally breathed life into her (noticing). Initially, touching sand, dried rice or shredded paper with just her hands was not satisfying enough and she needed to climb into the tray, engulfing herself within it. With continued sensory experiences within ‘special time’ (the name given to play therapy sessions), simply immersing her toes within dry sand became enough for engaged conversation and sparkly eyed interest (exploration).

By the time she was ready to end special time, running her fingers through an ice-cream tub of sand on her desk was sufficient to keep her engaged and focused on her work. With support from teaching staff she was able to notice her need for sensory support (warmth) and self-regulate. Exploring the sensory media provided the essential connection Montessori and Jung refer to between the body and mind, imperative to children’s learning.

The containers gave the structure necessary and warmth was provided not just in the careful noticing and therefore provision of resources, but also from the sensory and calming qualities of the resources themselves.


Eight-year-old Jacob was in a mainstream school when I started working with him therapeutically. In care, he had experienced a range of trauma and neglect, and a combination of parental addictions and absences had resulted in a lack of attachment.

An extremely clever but hyper-vigilant child, he struggled to remain in class for lessons and was quick to temper, with destruction of the class environment commonplace. Spending more time out of his class than in it, he was at risk of exclusion. Time spent observing Jacob and discussions with teaching staff and carers at home identified priorities for action.

With boundaries volatile and change often experienced as something negative and out of his control, it was important for Jacob to be able to experiment with and transform materials within the safe and non-judgmental environment of special time (exploration, structure and warmth).

Noticing his need to explore within safe boundaries, I initially provided containment (structure) through plastic table covers, the provision of containers and locating messy play over the lino floor.

Over several months, he was able to mix together sand, water, clay, glue and washing-up liquid, noticing how it changed in between sessions, choosing what to keep and what to discard, and ultimately transforming these materials. This often resulted in materials being kept in the numerous containers which I’d provided.

Several times, liquid overflowed these pots, flooding the floor in the process, but as Jacob had opportunities to experiment with the materials and develop a sense of relatedness to these and myself, he began to find ways of containing his own creations, a transition reflected in his ability to stay within his classroom to engage in learning too.

For this child and his chaotic uncertain life, a lack of containment was scary and so it was important to try to accommodate his need to express himself, develop mastery and gain sensory feedback while also safely containing him and accepting his ‘mess’.

Exploration, structure and warmth went hand in hand in providing the sensory feedback he’d missed out on as a younger child and it was important to plan opportunities for these that did not introduce potential shame.

Gradually, I was also able to help transition the sensory benefits evident in his sessions to the classroom environment, as together we created a safe sensory den next to his desk to retreat to.

Once safely contained within his class, Jacob was better able to access his learning and move from a position of surviving to thriving in school. A transition made easier for this child and school, and countless others, by the focus on the four COMPASS points.

Sue Gascoyne is author of Messy Play in the Early Years. She works throughout the UK and internationally as a trainer and writer on sensorial and therapeutic play provision for children across the ages. Find her at playtoz.co.uk and follow her on Twitter at @PlaytoZ.

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