Communicating with Difficult Kids in Difficult Times
In a recent Newsletter Personal Action in the Time of Crisis (7th September 2020) I outlined actions that should be taken to navigate this difficult time. In this Newsletter I want to focus more closely on the direct communication between the teacher and the student. This is the personal point of connection and influences what happens next.
In the first instance you need to check your own emotional state. It takes a special talent to withstand the force of a child’s aggressive attack when they don’t get what they want. You need to be aware you will be vulnerable so:
Check your own emotional condition. You may already be stressed from the day to day demands of the classroom
Calm yourself down and check you have your boundaries in place
(see Newsletters Boundary Considerations - 22nd October 2018 and Respecting Other’s Boundaries - 26th November 2018 for detailed descriptions of boundaries)
You need to remember that you are the leader in the classroom, you are the only adult and you are qualified to do this work – everyone else is a child doing the best they can at this time. You need to act professionally, that is you have to control the situation to ensure everyone is safe and you can get on with teaching.
The child who is acting ‘out of control’ will not be waiting to hear what you have to say but you do need to be heard. You need to get their attention in the appropriate manner, you need to portray authority. In the first instance your posture will be important:
Hold yourself in an upright, confident position, hold your hands on a non-threatening but non-submissive manner. but contained in your space. Don’t lean towards the student, that suggests aggression or away that indicates capitulation.
Hold a steady gaze on the student. Don’t glare aggressively nor avoid eye contact which can be seen as a weakness) and be sensitive to cultural differences regarding eye contact. Be guided by how they react. When you are speaking you should maintain contact about 70% of the time. This indicates that what you are saying is for them. The same should happen if they do reply to your communication. However, a good rule of thumb is about five seconds.
Once you have regained control (see Newsletters Dealing with the Exploding Kid – 7th September 2020 and The Crisis Response – 14th September 2020) you need informthe student:
Why their behaviour is an issue, this should relate to the needs of themselves and all others.
What are the consequences, on one scale the behaviour may violate the classroom rules and consequences should be clear however, the consequence might be more individualised, it may be that you need to explain how their behaviour impacts on other’s well-being. This is a time to use:
‘When you’ … this is when you describe their behaviour
‘I feel’ … tell them how their behaviour affects you and the other student
‘Because’ … let them know why it has that affect
These steps are fitting if the student has regained some self-restraint. If the situation is still unresolved and you have to get the message to the child then use:
‘If you’ … describe the behaviour(s) that will get them into trouble
‘I will’ … indicate the consequences that will definitely follow that behaviour
These are the steps that usually take place in the classroom and they should be taken with a 100% refusal to accept the inappropriate behaviour but most importantly a 100% acceptance of the value of the child. However, you can be sure the child will find it difficult to make the same differentiation between what they did and how they think you feel about them and you don’t take their anger personally. You need to take further steps to maintain the relationship. It is a tactic to have them stay back at the end of the lesson.
It is essential you give them a chance to explain their behaviour. You need to really listen to them, let them know you’re listening in a non-aggressive manner:
Let them tell their story without interruption. Make sure you really understand the issue and that they know you do. You can do this by making a summary of their main points and repeat this back to them. If they disagree on your interpretation seek clarification of what them mean. If possible, you need to reach an agreed understanding of the dispute.
Validate their emotions, you understand they are angry but explain that the anger may have triggered the behaviour it will not avert the consequence.
Take the complaint seriously.
You will get better at communicating at these difficult times if you follow these steps however, there are many mistakes you can avoid. The following are some of the traps you can fall into:
Don’t interrupt them as they are explaining their behaviour, they will only start again
Don’t jump to conclusions, really listen to them.
Don’t make excuses for what you have done. Your actions should deal exclusively with the behaviour.
Never use sarcasm or communicate from a position of ‘authority’, that is you are both equal in examining the situation but you do have different responsibilities.
Never fail to follow up if you have committed to do that. If at the end of this conversation you agree about what will happen in the future make sure it does happen. Your integrity is always being tested particularly in these cases.
Changes in behaviour for these kids takes time but it is these moments that combine to provide the pathway to a more successful way of behaving at school.
This is the ability to understand the experiences, desires and intentions of yourself and others. With theory of mind individuals can predict and interpret the behaviour of others and act in a way that can make use of this knowledge.
The development of theory of mind is a gradual process from birth and it is complex. Prior to its emergence, in very early life there is little separation of the self. It has long been held that the child believes that everyone knows everything they are experiencing. However, there is no direct evidence of this, they don’t ‘know’ their mother shares their thoughts it’s just that they believe she does.
However, the child does experience things on a personal level, the beginning of a sense of self. Between five to seven months they experience fear and anxiety and this relates to ‘them’ being under threat. This development of separation continues and between 15 and 24 months at which stage they can pass the ‘spot test’ a process that confirms the child knows it is them in the mirror. This is achieved by putting a mark usually a dot of colour on their forehead, when they know it reflects themselves they will touch or try to remove the spot, they know it should not be theirs. Prior to that age they don’t firmly see their reflection as being of themselves and don’t comprehend that the mark should not be there. This test is extensively used to measure the same occurrence of theory of mind in animals.
The classic test is the false belief task. This involves telling a child a story about two children, say Sally and Anne who put a toy in a basket. When Sally leaves the room, Ann hides the toy in a box. The child passes the test by reasoning that Sally will look for the toy in the basket when she returns. However, a more telling confirmation of a child having a real sense of ToM is when they know they can tell a deliberate lie and/or keep a secret. This is evidence that they can keep their thoughts and desires private and others have no access to these.
It is postulated that the acquisition of theory of mind is developed in stages and I suspect this is the same as other developmental stages such as the arrangement of hearing and sight all part of building a repertoire of activities that define the individual. The particular stages dealing with theory of mind are:
The understanding that someone might want something, they perceive other’s desires. This is why a two-year old is unable to share or take turns unless directed.
Understanding people have different and diverse beliefs about the same situation. Even adults, when asked to describe a scene, say an accident will have a different perspective. It is a mature response to accept these differences but unless this ability is established people will refuse to see a different point of view.
Accepting people have a different knowledge base, they may not comprehend or understand that something is ‘true’ even though you ‘know’ it is real. The same conflicts outlined in stage 2 will also apply.
Appreciate that people can have false beliefs about the world. This. Of course, should include themselves. How many wars are fought over the failure of populations to achieve to acquire this state of understanding.
People can hide emotions or may act one way while feeling another. This is a sophisticated skill for a child. They learn to do this as a protection for themselves and accept others may well be doing the same thing.
It is a waste of time expecting infants to share, consider others or take turns until they develop theory of mind and this happens through experience, modelling and shaping behaviour.
Another concept that is an extension of theory of mind is mentalization. This is more about the application of theory of mind and how behaviour is used to realize our needs, how the implicit self and the explicit other are entangled and that this relationship will guide actions. Mentalization can be automatic, that is, actions are processed without delay, they are reflexive with little conscious effort. Contrarily, decision making can be controlled, requiring effort with full awareness of the situations.
The optimal use of decision making occurs when there is an ability to mentalize one’s own state of mind as well as that of the ‘other’. Imbalance results in a skewed assessment of the situation, that is if the individual has too much focus on self and is less consideration of the other, their actions are unbalanced and less effective. The converse is equally true, too much consideration of the other will also result in less than optimal behaviour.
The emergence of theory of mind is linked to the health of the environment in which the child is raised, specifically their attachment to their caregivers. The balance between the needs and perceptions the ‘self’ and that of the ‘other’ depends on the security of that attachment. If the child develops a healthy understanding of the gap between their internal world and the outer world they can make effective life decisions. However, if there is an insecurity in the attachment then there will be an imbalance with the child either giving too much consideration to their perception or conversely to the external situation. Children whose early experience with caregivers includes abuse and/or extreme neglect will develop a severe imbalance that results in extremely dysfunctional behaviour.
Until they achieve theory of mind infants should be directed in their behaviour. It’s appropriate to tell them to pack-up their toys, etc. and then thank them for doing so. This is a joint experience between the carer and the child, an example of the child learning through modelling and experience. Until they are unable to consider the other person’s emotional state, it is unreasonable to expect their respect. The presence of mirror neurons, a distinct type of neurons that allow an individual to copy whet they see. If you poke your tongue out at a new born child there is every chance they will return that gesture.
Not only do these neurons allow the child to copy they also interpret the intentions of what they witness. The classic study is exposure to a dinner setting. If the table is set in anticipation of the meal being served a particular set of neurons are excited. However, if the conditions on the table indicate the meal has been finished and it is time to clean-up another set of neurons fire. This underlies the importance of modelling desired behaviours. If you want the child to clean-up then teach them to do it through modelling and the shared experience.
It must be emphasised that theory of mind in the first instance and then mentalization evolve in an environment and the specifications each individual takes as the foundation of their ToM and mentalised state will reflect that environment. When a child moves from one environment to a contrasting one the familiar problems arise. Theory of mind is really the emergence of self!
Every teacher will one day be confronted with a student, or students whose behaviour is so uncontrolled it will pose a threat to themselves, others around them or the school equipment. In some cases, physical intervention becomes the only response open to the teacher. This professional obligation to keep everyone safe has always raised deep concerns for teachers. These concerns are based on the fear of being accused of assaulting the child both physically and sexually. The latter category, sexual assault is particularly problematic and is often cited as the reason for such a shortage of male teachers in the infant and primary aged schools.
Of course, this abuse does exist and is not to be tolerated on any level but the fear of a false or malicious allegation is difficult to defend and many teachers, especially males refuse to touch students for any reason. This fear should not be taken lightly but there are times when it is appropriate to touch a student. Remember it is not illegal to touch a pupil and there are occasions when physical contact, including reasonable force, with a pupil is proper and necessary. Examples of where touching a pupil might be proper or necessary:
Holding the hand of the child at the front/back of the line when going to assembly or when walking together around the school;
When comforting a distressed pupil;
When a pupil is being congratulated or praised;
To demonstrate how to use a musical instrument;
To demonstrate exercises or techniques during PE lessons or sports coaching; and
To give first aid.
Physical Restraint Physical restraint means the use of physical force to prevent, restrict or subdue movement of a student’s body or part of their body. Students are not free to move away when they are being physically restrained. Physical restraint should only be used when it is immediately required to protect the safety of the student or any other person. In some limited circumstances, it may also be necessary to restrain a student from imminent dangerous behaviours by secluding them in an area where such action is immediately required to protect the safety of the student or any other person.
The use of restraint should only ever used as a ‘last resort’ intervention when all other techniques have failed or the situation is immediate and dangerous and is necessary to keep everyone safe.
Situations that may require physical intervention include:
students threatening other students or staff
students putting their own safety at risk
fights between students
students attempting to leave the school premises without authorisation and in circumstances that put their safety at risk
students attempting to leave the premises in a heightened state of anxiety, where they may be unable to recognise risks to their safety.
There needs to be a ‘age appropriate’ consideration to be applied. Fights between late secondary age students may pose a very real danger for the teacher. Every attempt should be made to defuse the altercation without direct physical intervention but the only course of action is to make sure other students are safe.
Restraint should not be used as a routine behaviour management technique, to punish or discipline a student or to respond to:
a student’s refusal to comply with a direction, unless that refusal to comply creates an imminent risk to the safety of the student or another person
a student leaving the classroom/school without permission, unless that conduct causes an imminent risk to the safety of the student or another person
verbal threats of harm from a student, except where there is a reasonable belief that the threat will be immediately enacted
property destruction caused by the student unless that destruction is placing any person at immediate risk of harm
Types of physical restraint which must not be used include:
any restraint which covers the student's mouth or nose, and in any way restricts breathing
the application of pressure to a student's neck, chest, abdomen, joints or pressure points to cause pain or which involves the hyperextension of joints
holding a student's head forward, headlocks, choke holds
take-downs which allow students to free-fall to the ground whether or not in a prone or supine position or otherwise
wrestling holds (including 'full or half nelsons'), using a hog-tied position or straddling any part of a student's body
basket holds, bear hugs, 'therapeutic holding'
When applying physical restraint in the limited circumstances set out above, staff must:
use the minimum force required to avoid the dangerous behaviour or risk of harm
only restrain the student for the minimum duration required and stop restraining the student once the danger has passed
The decision about whether to use physical restraint or seclusion rests with the professional judgment of the staff member/s involved, who will need to take-into-account both their duty of care to their students, their right to protect themselves from harm and obligations under the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006.
Staff should ensure the type of restraint used is consistent with a student’s individual needs and circumstances, including:
the age/size of the student
gender of the student
any impairment of the student e.g. physical, intellectual, neurological, behavioural, sensory (visual or hearing), or communication
any mental or psychological conditions of the student, including any experience of trauma
any other medical conditions of the student
the likely response of the student
the environment in which the restraint is taking place
At all times the staff should monitor the student for any indicators or distress. Staff should talk to the student throughout the incident, making it clear to the student why the physical restraint is being applied. Staff should also calmly explain that the physical restraint will stop once it is no longer necessary to protect the student and/or others.
The staff member(s) involved in the incident must immediately notify the principal of the incident.
A written record of the incident should be kept and should include:
the name of the student/s and staff member/s involved
date, time and location of the incident
names of witnesses (staff and other students)
what exactly happened, for example, a brief factual account
any action taken to de-escalate the situation
why physical intervention was used (if applicable)
the nature of any physical intervention used
how long the physical intervention lasted
names of witnesses (staff and other students)
the student’s response and the outcome of the incident
any injuries or damage to property
immediate post incident actions, such as first aid or contact with emergency services
details of contact with the student’s parent/carer
details of any post-incident support provided or organised.
Schools need to take their own decisions about staff training. The headteacher should consider whether members of staff require any additional training to enable them to carry out their responsibilities and should consider the needs of the pupils when doing so.
Some local authorities provide advice and guidance to help schools to develop an appropriate training program.
Much of the content of this Newsletter has been taken from school systems across the western world in order to provide a common-sense approach to physical touching particularly restraint. However, it is important that that all schools know the formal policies of the Departments who employ them. These guidelines define the limits of the intervention and the responsibilities all members of the organisation.
In the previous Newsletter (3rd November 2020) we discussed the need to teach in a calm environment. There are four fundamental components in our model of a Learning Environment and these are pedagogy, structure, expectations and of course, relationships. These have been discussed extensively in previous Newsletters and underpin all our work.
The critical component for the child is the expectations presumed for the lesson and the assumed behaviour the teacher expects. The expectation covers all aspects required including explicit demands of the child, the contents of the lesson, the equipment, time considerations and the like. These are the ‘learning instructions’ if you like. They also cover those implicit expectations, the social interactions in the classroom. As pointed out last week, this is where teachers can spend their time managing rather than teaching.
There are two ways to address any situation that is not meeting the expectations of the lesson and these are acknowledging when the child is meeting the objectives set or correcting their behaviour when they are not.
It is probably impossible to maintain a balance between expectations, acknowledging and correcting strategies all of the time; it is a moving point. However, when there is a prolonged imbalance between expectations, acknowledgement and correction and one begins to dominate your management style you lose your effectiveness. The following are three typical imbalances which increase the likelihood of teachers spending too much time managing and too little time teaching.
This is when the teacher gives inadequate information about his or her expectations (as indicated by the broken line around the triangle). This is problematic because students will be unsure about the limits and boundaries of the classroom and what tasks they need to be doing.
Too Much Acknowledgement
This is problematic because students are not being corrected appropriately. This is often the result of teachers trying to manage through friendliness. They believe “If I am nice to the students they will like me and behave themselves”. This imbalance may also arise when the teacher lacks assertiveness.
Too Much Correction
Students become resentful and continue to act inappropriately due to a lack of acknowledgement and encouragement. In this imbalance a teacher may not intend to be negative, but has developed the habit of only attending to inappropriate behaviour. In most cases where a whole class behaves inappropriately, this is the evident imbalance.
This imbalance creates problems because the teacher provides corrective feedback when students are disrupting, but fails to acknowledge students when they are on-task. Overcorrection is typical in such cases.
This can trigger a “disruption, correction and resentment” cycle that has the potential to seriously damage working relationships between teacher and students.
This is arguably the most common and, therefore, the most problematic of the behaviour management imbalances.
In this model the amount of acknowledgement is critical. Using praise is hazardous unless it is used appropriately, that is strategically (see Newsletter ‘The Danger of Praise’ 12th August 2018).
On the other hand, the language of correction is not easy, students who have a history of abuse are hypersensitive to criticism and pointing out their faults reinforces their lack of self-worth. This occurs when:
Correction is not given at the appropriate time – the closer you provide feedback for any behaviour the more effective it becomes
Correction is given with emotional engagement – this personalises the feedback; it should always be just about the behaviour
Corrective responses are often unconsidered reflex reactions
Over correction is harsher than necessary – it personally confronts the child
It is delivered in a sarcastic manner
Consider the following tactics when providing feedback to the students: Less is more – even if the class is really out of control don’t try to correct everything at once. Pick out one or two problems that you need to or can correct quickly and when you have achieved this move on to the next problem.
The certainty that you follow through has more impact than the severity of the corrective response.
If possible, correct the child in private, that allows him/her to maintain their dignity.
Displays of your adult power will only be effective in the short term. Eventually they will challenge your authority and if your practice is not underpinned by an acknowledged management plan your will have nowhere to go.
Taking the moral ‘high-ground’ might make you feel good but this is not a competition, you don’t need to be ‘better than’ a child who has a history of abuse or neglect. Remember, you are their teacher and you need to create a professional relationship with the child.
Some teachers get some self-satisfaction from correcting others, this is a covert form of the previous point. The kids will soon get sick of this and disengage from the lesson resulting in disruptive behaviour.
Over time, effective classroom management that promotes cooperation will initially increase rate of acknowledgement with a corresponding decrease in the correction rate. This reflects an imbalance but under these conditions there is no need to find little things to correct to regain balance. In optimal conditions the students embrace their learning and the need to acknowledge is dissipated so balance is maintained with very little management.
Applying the Techniques of Classroom Management to Teaching
The philosophy of our work is underpinned by the understanding of the neurological processes that drive the brain’s activity and that is to maintain a condition of homeostatic equilibrium a sense of calmness where the physical, social and intellectual needs are being satisfied – they are calm. Children will prioritise their need to be physically and socially contented first as failure to do so presents a threat to their survival. This means that to access the child’s cognitive, intellectual thoughts requires the satiation of those lower-order needs leaving the non-life-threatening drive to solve the problem of what is puzzling them; classroom motivation.
In the classroom it is predominantly social threats that will distract the student and these will be in the form of some sort of attack on the child’s security, either a threat to their safety or their being excluded from the group. Social distraction is manifested in the form of overt or covert dysfunctional behaviour.
A central competence teachers must possess is the management of these social threats, that is managing the behaviour in the classroom. If this is not achieved then the effectiveness of any lesson presentation is seriously compromised. This emphasis on classroom management is of critical importance in delivering lessons but is not afforded the significance it demands in teacher training.
Appropriate Teaching Responses to Managing Behaviour in the Classroom:
Understand the importance of a predictable, stable learning environment
Understand the effects of emotions;
Understand dysfunctional behaviour and emotions learned in early childhood will emerge in stressful situations
Understand students need to operate in a state of calm to learn; and
Being able to identify and respond to dysfunctional behaviours and emotions
The contents of this Newsletter are applied to all students and provides a ‘democratic’ template for the whole class however, they are of most use for those students who have suffered abuse and/or neglect who provide the highest demand for this management. The key components for any effective learning environment are:
The curriculum and the pedagogy of the lesson – the content of the lesson and how it is delivered
Structure – this is the rules of the classroom, the establishment between actions and consequences, that is if a student does ‘X’ they will get the same consequence for their action as everyone else
Expectations – this is the definition of just what is expected, the detailed description of the action
Relationships – this is the establishment of supportive, professional boundaries between the student and the teacher. This is managed by the teacher for the benefit of the student. This paper does not directly refer to the formation of relationships but the behaviours described underpin their effectiveness.
Teachers only have a finite time with their class and the time spent dealing with students’ behaviours takes away from that available for teaching. This explains why two of the top inhibitors to effective learning (according to Hattie) is the absence of disruptive students and the classroom environment, that is there is a minimal amount of time distracted from learning! This time budget is illustrated below (This is taken from the work of Christine Richmond).
In very difficult classrooms a teacher may have to spend most of their time managing behaviour, they are minding the class while on the right most of their conversation is about teaching the lesson. It’s not difficult to see why disruptive behaviour is such a drain of student learning.
The key to developing a calm environment is illustrated in the diagram below:
It is a mistake to assume the student knows what you expect