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Use Behaviour Problems as a Chance to Build Relationships with Vulnerable Children

We need to reframe behavioural issues as opportunities for building relationships with vulnerable children and unlocking vast potential for learning, says Deirdre McConnell...

  • Use Behaviour Problems as a Chance to Build Relationships with Vulnerable Children

Is there a connection between fear and behaviour problems in school? Fear, for traumatised children, can be the hidden catalyst behind how they behave in some situations.

Lemn Sissay’s Channel 4 programme Superkids last November revealed the thoughtfulness of such children, who are too often misunderstood.

If children are seen as ‘behaviour problems’, rather than survivors of abuse who are using innate strategies to defend themselves, we lose rich possibilities of relationship-building, unlocking their talents and vast potential for learning.

We know from research that early trauma can manifest later as behaviour based in well-understood fight, flight or freeze responses to fear. This is not deliberate ‘misbehaviour’, though it may appear so.

Behaviour management systems with punitive solutions are experienced as persecutory by such children, and re-traumatise them. Subsequent behaviour can spiral further downwards, leading to fixed-term, then permanent, exclusions.

Recently in a school where I worked, a Y5 child needed to know that people understood what he experienced when anyone shouted at him: the fear and stress this caused was intolerable for him as it brought back feelings linked to his past experiences of abuse.

Massive outbursts would follow. When teachers understood the pattern, changes were made, voices kept calm. The change in the child’s behaviour was dramatic.

As a staff member, when you see behind the behaviour and fear responses, you see a vulnerable child in front of you.

Your school may be the safest place of belonging that such a child has ever known. As trusted adults who know and compassionately care about these children, listening attentively to them is key, in order to understand what needs to happen so each one feels safe.

There are resources available to help. In the UK, Education and Health departments have issued guidelines that include trauma-informed and attachment-friendly approaches to wellbeing and mental health.

Ironically, staff anxiety around bringing mental health awareness into school can be acute. But thinking of mental health as a neutral concept, like physical health, can help with this.

We can have good or poor mental health, as we can have good or poor physical health, though of course it’s more nuanced than that. We are all on a continuum and move along it from time to time, in either direction. None of us has optimum wellness all the time.

There are many ways of reframing ‘behaviour problems’ as opportunities to explore meaning in terms of wellbeing and mental health.

Richard Jackson, headteacher of Hill View Primary School, Runcorn, says a trained dramatherapist coming into school helped address the complex emotional and behavioural needs of children with family trauma or living in difficult circumstances.

The arts therapies allow children to work creatively to process trauma, stored in the mind, brain and body – the non-verbal memory.

Richard told me: “It’s really important that you have a specialist in school, if you want the children to talk about their innermost feelings and their emotions and you want to find out what those are to help you manage their behaviour in school”.

Such work involves creating a safe space, a new set of boundaries and rules for the child, so that she or he can build confidence to address traumatic memories, directly or indirectly through story, imagination and other creative means at their own pace.

Where they had no words before, the children develop ability to discuss their own feelings.

As more children gain these skills it has a huge impact by generating a whole-school attitude towards social, emotional and mental health issues, resulting in school staff spending considerably less time resolving problems between the children.

As Richard says, when children are “involved in situations that have been difficult in the past for us to solve in school, we’re able to talk about how they felt individually and how this has had an impact on others”.

Surely this is the direction we need to go in, the mind-shift we all need, so that children are given the time, space and tools to express themselves safely, engage in discussion and develop critical thinking.

Instead of being labelled an unmanageable ‘behaviour problem’, the child will reveal their true nature as a thoughtful ‘superkid’.


Deirdre McConnell is an artist, teacher, trainer, published author and One Education emotional trauma support team leader.

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