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Behaviour management in schools – What has lockdown done to the brains of teenagers?

The COVID-prompted lockdowns have left teachers contending with teenage behaviours they’ve never encountered before – Katie Hill examines what the best response might be…

Katie Hill
by Katie Hill
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Lunch duty on the school field, on the first Monday back after lockdown 3.0. I don’t think I was the only teacher welling up behind my mask and misty sunglasses.

There was a sense of relief – a big sigh that we’d done it again – and overwhelming joy at seeing students playing football together, and sitting and chatting in their bubbles.

It felt like the valve had been loosened on two months of ever-increasing pressure; teenagers cooped up during the cold winter months, finally set free to roam in their natural habitat again, amongst each other. A sign of things to come for the rest of society? Let’s hope so.

Post-Covid effective behaviour management strategy

Despite the relief and joy that was so apparent, however, it’s with an air of caution that we have to talk about the mental health impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. A new unknown awaits us.

Don’t get me wrong, I certainly don’t believe that every child will be permanently scarred by the experiences they’ve had, but there are some huge issues to be understood and worked on to ensure that our young people can thrive in the coming months and years.

The main issue presently is the lack of teacher training around teenagers’ emotional needs.

We have metacognition in the bag. Work in this area has been incredible over recent years, producing much in the way of theory and practical application, but we now need to look underneath – at the foundations of our students’ attitudes, behaviours and characteristics.

We need to understand what our basic needs are as humans, and how we can support our students in ensuring these are met. We also need to understand what is happening to teenagers’ brains when they encounter perceived threats.

COVID has posed a huge perceived threat over the past year, causing the vast majority of us to become caught in a fear response. When we’re in this response, the most primal part of our brain (the amygdala) acts as a burglar alarm, shutting down much of our ability to think logically and rationally.

It’s a natural, human reaction, and therefore doesn’t mean we are failing in any way, shape or form. For teenagers, that logical, rational part of the brain is still a work in progress.

It won’t be fully developed until they reach their mid-20s, so their ability to think ahead is limited even further. Instead, their brains are busy deciding whether to leg it as far away as possible, freeze like Anna in Frozen, or fight as though their life depends on it.

Pupil behaviour – flight, freeze or fight

You’ll probably be able to categorise your students quite quickly into one of those three categories – flight, freeze or fight. Why is this useful?

Because when those moments occur, we know it often isn’t because students are ‘playing up’, but because they perceive threat, whether it be the threat of a contagious virus, their best friend kissing their girlfriend or an assignment they can’t begin to comprehend.

So how should we tackle these flight, freeze and fear moments? The key is in soothing the amygdala and meeting emotional needs. If we’re able to calm that primal part of the brain, we leave space for the strategic part of the brain (the pre-frontal cortex) to develop more effectively.

If we look at the five emotional needs developed by Dr Gerald Newmark (founder of The Children’s Project), the two that stand out as most lacking over the past year are ‘control’ and ‘belonging’.

As a society, we’ve lost huge swathes of control and become disconnected from our tribes, the latter of which is acutely apparent among teenagers.

Teenage brain development depends on them being able to develop independence and break away from parental bonds to build their own social networks and attachments.

We know this if we look back at the powerful, intense bonds that many of us developed at a similar age (however fleeting they may have been!).

Disruptive behaviour and brain bandwidth

This lack of control to make decisions, and the restrictions placed on being able to join a tribe, will have left a potential gap in our students’ essential development.

We might see this expressed in ‘low-level disruption’ (or a need to connect and socialise); loud voices in the classroom (or the need to express a desire to belong to the pack); and ‘inappropriate behaviour’ (or the need to relearn the structures and guidelines involved in being part of that tribe).

We’re likely to see such behaviours for many months to come.

Alongside these issues, we can’t forget the overload that many of us experience when our ‘brain bandwidth’ is at its full capacity.

If we consider, as Nicola Morgan (AKA The Teenage Brain Woman) does, that every mental and physical action takes up some bandwidth, and that this bandwidth is finite, we can acknowledge the sensations we feel of being overwhelmed when we’re approaching capacity.

Tasks we’re very familiar with, such as walking, take up very little bandwidth. New challenges, such as adjusting to extended hours of screen time and conducting online conversations, can take up a lot.

If we apply this understanding to the transition our students have made over the past couple of months, it’s hardly surprising that the ‘brain bandwidth burnout’ is very real.

We also know that if emotional needs aren’t met, the likely consequence will be a long term impact on mental health that could manifest as anger, anxiety or depression. There’s no clear, linear explanation for how or when these issues arise.

There’s still much to be done in the world of neuroscience. But what we can do in the meantime is spread awareness among ourselves and our students – by which I mean more than just one additional form time session dedicated to teenage brain development.

Behaviour strategies to help school staff nurture wellbeing

What we’re suggesting is to include a whole school focus on emotional wellbeing in school development plans, assemblies and PSHE lessons. Engage students in the physiological and psychological impact of stress, and pledge to prioritise wellbeing for your whole school community.

At a cultural level, this might mean normalising the struggles we all encounter as humans, acknowledging that resilience isn’t something you’re good or bad at, and defining what exactly we mean by ‘nurturing wellbeing’.

In more practical terms, it might also mean providing more opportunities for whole school mindfulness, creativity, sport, fun and community cohesion.

It may involve devising ways of engaging parents as vital players in the school ‘tribe’, providing more opportunities for students to connect with each other and socialise and spotlighting the power of gratitude – because ‘thank yous’ go a long, long way.

As teachers, we’re tasked with filling in gaps, providing safe spaces, inspiring life-long learning and being a constant source of support for our students. We are held more accountable than ever for students’ grades, and the burden of unknowns weighs heavy.

And yet we also have more power than we realise to embed new cultures in education – because learning is nothing without the substructure of fulfilled emotional needs.

5 steps to post-COVID wellbeing and positive behaviour

  1. Organise discussion and training around the ‘fear response’, brain development and how we respond mentally and physically to stress
  2. Integrate the inherent need for ‘control’ and ‘belonging’ into everyday school life
  3. Give students and staff the space and time to switch off from activities that lead to ‘brain bandwidth burnout’
  4. Prioritise ‘wellbeing’ as more than a tick box exercise; ask staff and students what they really need and listen
  5. Acknowledge the power we have as a collective to make this wellbeing an educational priority

Katie Hill is a teacher in Cornwall, the founder of Mindful Magic and co-founder of Shine Bright Training CIC, providing training for teachers and students on emotional wellbeing.

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