Children who struggle to manage their anger can be quite intimidating. Outbursts can be violent, self-harming, loud and laden with profanities. Tantrums and outbursts can lead to other parents coming in complaining about their child being the victim of violence or having to witness/listen to inappropriate behaviour. It is only natural that a teacher wants to shut down these forms of angry behaviour as quickly as possible for everyone’s sake – not excluding the angry child themselves who can become very stressed and upset. The question is how?
There are a couple of fundamentals that can help. Allowing anger is an important concept. Everybody gets angry and this is a normal emotion like happiness, sadness and fear. Trying to suppress anger can lead to a volcanic eruption when it becomes too much. I have often found that children who struggle with anger find it hard to comprehend that anger is okay. Once they are calmed down and a discussion occurs, they might make a wild promise like “I’ll never get angry again”. It’s important to separate the behaviour and emotion. It’s fine to get angry but to hit or swear or scream is not okay in a school setting. The Zones of Regulation program, social stories and SPHE lessons are great ways to discuss anger and explicitly teach this depending on the age group you are teaching.
If you are trying to reduce certain behaviour, it’s important that you are trying to replace it. If you’re telling a child that anger is okay but the way they are demonstrating it is not, then you must teach them a way that is appropriate.
Letters of Anger
Letters of anger is a strategy that I found beneficial over the past few years with children old enough to write. It’s a very simple and empowering strategy. The premise is that if a child who struggles to contain his anger has a forum to express his anger in any way they want. The child can write a letter to the individual they are angry at, to the teacher to explain why they are so angry or a diary-style entry to vent their frustrations. They can swear and speak their mind in their writing without fear of reprimand. They can show the teacher at the end if they wish or they can put it away once finished. They are not allowed to show it to other pupils, of course.
The benefits of this exercise are the implied message that anger is acceptable when projected in the right way and the expression of anger is encouraged in a child who struggles to manage it instead of attempting to push it down. Writing a letter is like slowly releasing the lid on an over-fizzed bottle of Coca-Cola. Releasing the lid too quickly can result in a mess.
There are also the benefits that writing a letter takes time which will help the child gradually self-regulate their emotions while if the teacher is allowed to read the letter, they will learn to understand the child’s perspective which could build rapport and help prevent further similar outbursts. In my experience, the children wanted me to read their letters and there was an instantaneous improvement when I introduced the strategy as if they were relieved that their anger was being accepted.
Give it a go if you have a child in your care who struggles to contain their anger and let me know if you find it as beneficial as I have. This is one tool to add to your behaviour management toolkit which could come in handy one day.
Hat tip to Winning without Fighting by Papantuono, Portelli and Gibson where I found this strategy.
Inclusion is amazing to watch. Watching true inclusion take place can spark so much joy in people as they watch someone who “shouldn’t” be participating thrive in an environment despite the potential barriers that could exist. People can have a narrow perspective of inclusion and others can have a wider lens.
If you ask someone with a narrow perspective what inclusion is, they might tell you about the importance of including a pupil who is in a wheelchair in physical education or how a child who is deaf can be included in drama. What they might not consider, however, is the wider perspective of including pupils with social, cultural, behavioural or emotional needs.
Inclusion can be considered the right to participate in everyday life. Children with behavioural, emotional and social needs can face challenging and invisible barrier to participate in day-to-day classroom life that might appear self-imposed whilst really deriving from a series of complex issues.
As these are issues which are extremely challenging for teachers and can be the cause of great frustration and upset, these children can be actively excluded through withdrawal, suspension or punishment or passively included where they are present in the room without meaningful engagement.
I have seen many instances of wonderful efforts and time being put into including these children but there are also incidences where these children are not included, and people feel it is either justifiable or are willing to turn a blind eye. Teachers should feel compelled to apply the same creativity and effort to include those with unseen needs as they are compelled to include those with physically visible needs.
Including children with physical disabilities can entail adding resources and removing barriers to ensure they can access and participate. Including children with complex emotional and behavioural needs can entail changing your whole style of teaching and communicating, your normal rules, your timetable and your reward systems along with many more factors.
If someone walked into my PE hall where a child in a wheelchair was sitting out because they couldn’t get involved with the lesson, there would rightly be uproar. Would the same uproar occur if a child with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties was left sitting out because they were unable to access the lesson without a meaningful effort by the teacher to include them?
The question should be framed when planning an activity as to why we shouldn’t include as opposed to why we should. The answers to why not to include may be solved by simple solutions, complex interventions or creativity and a can-do attitude. Maybe there is a valid reason, as there sometimes is. What’s right is the same effort and compulsion be provided for all, whether the need is visible or not.
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The basics of classroom management are the basics for a reason: they work. Personally, a fundamental strategy for the younger classes that I use is call-and-response chants to get the whole class’ attention before I begin instruction. This is a very simple strategy that can prevent you from having to repeat instructions multiple times or speak over the class to get their attention.
To ensure this basic strategy works, I would advise (as always) explicitly teaching the expected behaviours attached to the call and response while praising any student who fulfils these expectations thereafter to maximise compliance.
Maintaining these consistent expectations and reinforcing regularly through praise or a reward system can ensure the listening skills in the room develop to a high level and students learn to really tune in to your voice when you use this strategy. Over-use can be detrimental to its efficacy and keeping it fresh will help ensure that it works systematically throughout the year.
To keep it novel, I suggest changing the call-and-response every month to ensure that children don’t become immune to it and to remind yourself to reiterate the expectations and continue reinforcing them. I’ve attached below a suggested call-and-response grid that might be useful for any interested teachers:
“Show me Five!”
“Eyes are watching, Ears are listening, feet are still, hands are quiet, you should really try it, you should really try it, listening well, listening well.” (To the tune of Frere Jacque)
Everything in the song is completed by the time the song is complete.
All children turn and point their finger towards the teacher (as if casting a spell) with their eyes on the teacher and their voice off.
The question in the title is a great conversation starter. I find that everybody has an opinion on this topic with merits to all sides. I believe there is no black-and-white answer but I do find that applied behaviour analysis (ABA) provides some great value and a great framework for discussing it. They provide food for thought and its important to note within ABA itself, there is a division over the use of punishment. Some of the points below might help you make up your mind about your use of punishment (or if you will use it at all!).
A Clear Definition of Punishment
This first thing I love is ABA clearly defines punishment. They discuss two contrasting types of punishment:
1. Positive Punishment
Positive punishment refers to the contingent presentation of a stimulus that decreases the likelihood of a behaviour. For example, the child performs a behaviour and the teacher verbally reprimands the child which reduces the likelihood of the child performing the behaviour again.
2. Negative Punishment
Negative punishment refers to the contingent removal of a stimulus that decreases the likelihood of a behaviour. Negative punishment typically refers to response cost and time-out. A standard example of this may be a student losing access to privileges, reward tokens or golden time etc.
While many discuss punishment as a cruel and old-school practice delivered in no relation to behaviour, punishment in ABA terms is strictly discussed as a procedure to decrease a behaviour. If it is not to decrease a specific behaviour, punishment is not used and if it is not effective at decreasing the behaviour, it can be adjusted or removed. This definition appears reasonable and gives a clear rationale for its use i.e to decrease behaviour.
How and When to Punish
As well as using punishment only to decrease a target behaviour, five key points struck me as thought-provoking when reading the literature. These were:
Punishment is discouraged unless it is considered to be the best way to intervene to cause a behaviour change.
Punishment should be used with reinforcement. If one behaviour is being decreased, reward the behaviour that would like to be increased.
Avoid punishment unless avoiding it would be of greater cost to the child than engaging with it.
Use the least amount of punishment that is effective (lowest intensity, shortest duration).
Punishment can be useful when the reinforcers (the thing that causes the behaviour) cannot be identified or controlled.
Should teachers punish?
To bring it back to the original question, I still think there is no clear answer. If you have tried positive approaches to cause specific behaviour change and it is not forthcoming, then there may be a case for punishment. Using the principles above, if punishment is being used, it should be the least amount of punishment necessary and the teacher should know what behaviour they should like to increase in its place while rewarding that behaviour when it occurs. If the teacher is cognizant of all the above points, I believe punishment may have a place in a teacher’s behaviour management toolkit.
It is said that most problems in life are because of two reasons, either we act without thinking or we keep thinking without acting. In some classrooms, undesired behaviour in the room can obstruct learning and cause upset or frustration. Teachers may reprimand or reward alternative behaviour as their training has taught them but experience little success.
Why is this?
Perhaps it is because teachers are trying to solve the problem with the wrong solution. Much like when trying to put out a fire, the source of the fire will decide what type of solution is needed. Throwing water on an electrical fire will not put the fire out, it can make things worse. Similarly, bringing out a reward chart to solve the wrong problem behaviour could exacerbate the situation.
This is why teachers should have an imaginary behaviour management toolkit. There should be lots of different strategies and interventions included based on alternative theoretical perspectives so they can use their nous or trial-and-error until success is achieved.
Behaviour should be viewed as communication. Anyone who performs a behaviour is trying to communicate some kind of message. Children who engage in undesired behaviour can be doing so because of a number of reasons such as:
To communicate how they are feeling.
To obtain the desired result such as having a tantrum to be removed from the room to avoid work.
They do not know what the expected behaviour is.
Unreasonable expectations have been set for them.
May have a challenging home situation.
There is a myriad of reasons to explain behaviour and depending on the explanation, a different intervention is needed. If a child is acting out because they don’t know what the expected behaviour is, teaching and rewarding the expected behaviour is a great strategy. If a child is coming in and misbehaving because they are tired and hungry, however, is teaching and rewarding the expected behaviour the most suitable intervention? I do not believe so.
When a teacher is faced with challenging behaviour and little success. Think about why and what the child is trying to communicate. Think and then, use observations to identify patterns or anecdotal records to see if there is an underlying cause that can be addressed. Think and then act.
As teachers, we can often end up mediating conflicts or handling crises throughout the day. Successful management of these situations where tensions or emotions may be running high does not need to be a win-lose scenario where the teacher wins and asserts their control while the student or students back down, or worse, when the student wins and the teacher backs down! Anger is an emotion that adults can struggle to deal with when children are in a full tantrum or heightened state. However, meeting anger in a child with anger from the teacher is a bit of a hypocritical response when you think about it. Managing these scenarios most effectively can result in a win-win for everybody as the situation is de-escalated and the student is offered a way back that is respectful of their anger, yet, assertive that there are other ways to deal with it.
The I-Assist model is a great strategy for diffusing such situations and ensure that everyone feels safe. It offers the student an avenue to avoid making a difficult situation worse in a few clear steps.
Isolate the situation: Get the student on their own by either removing them or removing the other pupils present. This should be done in a calm manner rather than authoritative or accusatory. Managing a conflict in front of an audience can make it hard for both the teacher and student as nobody wants to be perceived as “losing face”.
Actively listen: Listen to the student and paraphrase back to them how they are feeling to demonstrate you are listening and understanding. Take the focus away from blame and insults and put it on their emotions and feelings.
Speak Calmly: Using a calm tone of voice despite what might be being said about you or others is important in ensuring the situation doesn’t escalate. It is very hard to argue at somebody who won’t argue back.
Statement of Understanding: Use statements like “I understand you are angry with _____ or because of _____, however, there might be a different way to deal with these feelings”.
Invite them to consider positive outcomes: Ask them what might happen if they were to calm down and deal with this a different way. Offer them a way out rather than trying to talk them down or impose a solution on them.
Space to person to consider: Give them physical space to think about their next step. We’ve all been angry before and having an individual rushing us or in front of us when we are trying to calm down does not speed up the process I think we can agree.
Time to think: Once you have made a request or given them choices, let them have some “wait-time” to decide. Pushing them can lead to further inflammation or escalation that we want to avoid.
There are steps here that we might already do in our classrooms as it is but the nice thing about the I-Assist strategy is it puts a nice consistent structure for dealing with conflict or anger outbursts to ensure that the teacher responds in a structured manner when situations arise and the children will learn what to expect if they are to react a certain way. If you incorporate this strategy, it can easily be shared with others who come in contact with your class so there is a consistent method used. It is a calm approach to a difficult situation that I am on board with.
Credit to the Therapeutic Crisis Intervention programme developed at Cornell University, New York for the idea.
In every classroom, there is a formal curriculum the teacher teaches. Certain skills are taught, certain processes and certain subjects. Everyone knows what it is, and it is there for all to see and assess. However, what about the hidden curriculum? What are you covertly teaching unbeknownst to yourself? This can be known as the hidden curriculum.
The hidden curriculum is considered the beliefs and attitudes that are taught to children indirectly. Children learn through watching and interacting with their environment and through being present in the classroom and watching the teacher’s actions, words and body language, they can learn this hidden curriculum.
A simple example of this is the relationship between teacher and students. The student learns what the dynamic of this relationship is through watching how the teacher interacts with pupils, what is appropriate to say and when and what is inappropriate. The teacher may not sit down and explicitly teach the children this dynamic, but it is indirectly taught as part of the hidden curriculum.
Where the hidden curriculum becomes particularly important is where we start to tie it in with the concept of inclusion. Here are some questions to consider:
Does the teacher use the correct language and tone when speaking about minority groups? Does their body language demonstrate openness and effort to including children with various needs?
Does the teacher display pictures on the wall of white “normal” children only or is there a mix of children with physical disabilities, different ethnicities, same-sex parents etc?
How are pupils grouped in the class? Are they streamed according to their literacy ability?
Does the teacher use a different tone of voice when speaking to a child who has a disability?
Does the teacher go the extra mile to include children with differing needs into lessons?
The answer to each of these questions contributes to the hidden curriculum the teacher is teaching whether they like it or not. What is missing can be as important as what is there!
For those interested in creating an inclusive classroom, there are six different elements to contemplate which can contribute to a hidden curriculum any teacher could be proud of. These are:
Ensure the classroom is suited and adapted to the needs of all children in the class. Children with physical disabilities should be positioned with clear access, for example, or if a child is blind, covering the room with as much brail as writing to create equally print-rich environments. Display pictures of all ethnicities, minorities and abilities around the room to provide balance and normalise them to the students.
Differentiate the curriculum to ensure success for all students in the classroom. This can be as simple as adjusting expectations for the children at both ends of the ability spectrum in the room. When teaching physical education to a class who have students with physical disabilities, there can be more preplanning involved but with the internet, there is a wealth of ideas to aid you if you want to be inclusive.
Teaching and Learning Strategies
Ensure that a wide variety of teaching methods are used to achieve successful learning objectives. Including choice in how children can respond to stimulus. Perhaps the children can orally give their response to a story on occasion or pictorially? Freeze frames and other drama-based strategies can be great ways to stoke the imaginations and creativity of children and those who have weak literacy skills can thrive.
Demonstrate care and empathy is a great way to promote well-being. A nice way to do this is by displaying red, yellow, red and blue chart paper on the wall (as per the zones of regulation) and get the children to stick a post-it or clothes peg on the zone they’re in. Red can depict anger or upset. Yellow for excited, silly, frustrated or other slightly heightened states. Green is happy, calm or okay. Blue is sick, tired or sad. It can help you adjust your interactions with the children while also showing the students that there can be lots going on in other’s lives that they may not know about.
If you are differentiating your teaching, it can make sense to differentiate your testing. This can be done by giving extra time, resources, fewer questions, more questions or orally answering the questions. Thinking outside the box is key.
As the popular quote goes, fairness is not everybody getting the same but everybody getting what they need. Different children can require different behaviours being tolerated. Children understand this quicker than adults at times and allowing extra wiggle room around rules for the children that need it is a necessity at times to be truly inclusive.
The concept of the hidden curriculum is something that caused me to reflect a lot on my practice in the classroom. What was I teaching indirectly and was this the message I wanted to convey? In lots of ways, I was happy with the answers but there were one or two gaps that I will strive to improve on. Take a few minutes to answer honestly how inclusive you are in your practice, attitudes, behaviour and language around inclusion and your hidden curriculum will start to reveal itself. A truly worthwhile activity.
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I have attended three workshops over the past few days and committed to making a post on each workshop about the key facts and actionable steps that I considered important having digested the information that was relayed. To give a wider context, I have recently switched roles to teaching in a special class for teaching children with autism. So the three workshops are tied into improving my teaching in topics related to this. I will break down my first workshop on Verbal Behaviour into theory and practice trying to be as simplistic as possible to give you a general sense of what it is and whether you’d like to research it further.
The cliff notes around the theory were:
Language is learned in response to the environment. The elements that influence language learning are motivation, reinforcement, extinction and punishment.
N.B. Punishment is meant in the applied behaviour analysis sense as something which decreases a behaviour.
When thinking about language and communication, consider the antecedent, behaviour and consequence.
E.g The child sees a biscuit is the antecedent.
The child says “biscuit” is the behaviour.
The child gets the biscuit is the consequence.
In this instance, the behaviour (the child speaking) is likely to increase as they got reinforced through getting the biscuit. Consider the inverse of this, if a child takes your hand and drags you to the biscuit and you give it to them, this is the behaviour that will increase.
With language, we can consider form (grammar, syntax) and function (why they are speaking). When working with children with language delay or who are emerging speakers, function is equally – if not more – important than form so they can communicate needs and requests.
Skinner defined eight kinds of “verbal operant” which is in layman terms, forms of verbal behaviour, these are:
Echoic – repeating back words, parroting
Imitation – Repeating back actions, very important it is part of any verbal behaviour programme.
Mand – Asking for what you want. Obviously, this is critical.
Tact – Labelling what you see, hear, smell, taste and touch.
Intraverbal – Conversation, finishing off a rhyme or song, giving a description etc.
Receptive by feature, function and class aka RFFC – Allows children to respond to questions like “what has a tail?” or “What can you do with these items?”.
Textual – Reading, this is social when learning and for pleasure when proficient.
Transcription – Writing what is heard.
The key points for me on the theory were thinking about how language and the speed at which it is acquired is affected by motivation and reinforcement. Children will learn when they are motivated to or rewarded for it. This can be done through ensuring they need to speak or by rewarding them with a truly desirably object when they do. If you took nothing else from this post, this would be the one fact to ruminate on.
There was so much information given in the workshop today but I boiled it down to four actionable steps which I will be taking with me as I progress:
In a classroom where the goal is to increase the children’s ability to request an item they want using verbal behaviour, consider spending the first half an hour of the day working on this. Have items which the children like out of reach and visible around the room. Give the items to the children for a number of minutes when they use the word/point at the picture in their PECS book/sign the word or however they are communicating. This session starts the day off on a positive note if you are in a special class as the child and adult will find it easier to establish rapport.
Manipulate the classroom environment as there are not enough scenarios in a day to motivate the children to request items. For example, give children a yogurt with no spoon. Start an art task with missing supplies. The idea here is that the children use the language to request the items. It was emphasised that the children are not ignored if they are struggling, they can be prompted to repeat the work after you if that is the level they are at, for example.
Use shaping, reward the child for making successive attempts at getting closer to the desired result.It was recommended to have just a list of ten core words for this. If they want a bottle, for example, the first day they might say “BaBa”. On subsequent days, the child shouldn’t be reinforced by getting the bottle until they get to that same level or to a slight improvement. If they say “Ba”, this should not be reinforced. Prompting the child and encouraging repeating the word will help.
Use the Verbal Behaviour Milestones Assessment and Placement Programme (VB-MAPP) to help assess and guide your teaching of verbal behaviour. This is an extremely comprehensive programme which will help you identify where the child is at and how to get them to the next stage with suggested tasks broken down step-by-step. I couldn’t even start to breakdown this programme in a few words but it is extremely impressive and is something I will definitely be recommending to teachers teaching children with autism or language delays.
Skinner’s theory on language and verbal behaviour is extremely interesting and easy to grasp. I really think the concepts are worthwhile and intriguing. The actionable steps that are borne from the theory are pretty simple to incorporate in the classroom and I will certainly be using the VB-MAPP to guide me in assessing the children’s current position and planning the way forward as it is so comprehensive.
A really worrying point was made today that language acquisition is being delayed in some children as they don’t get as much motivation and reinforcement for using language in the early developmental stages as children used to years ago.
Adults are spending more time on their phones than attending to their child.
The last thing I would suggest reflecting on is if you have a child who is a selective mute or an emerging speaker, have you ever fulfilled the need of the child before they have to speak? When you see them struggle to reach something silently, do you walk over and hand it down? I know I have and with this workshop in mind, perhaps this kind of reaction borne out of kindness is actually hindering the child’s acquisition of language. Lots to consider!
Tim Ferriss specializes in interviewing successful entrepreneurs, athletes and investors. He collated all these interviews into two books called Tool of Titans and Tribe of Mentors. Both books are a great read and in the latter book, Tim asks everyone the question if they had a billboard in a prominent place that they could write any message on, what would it be? What a great question this is and the answers that are given provide great insight into the mindset of the interviewee. I know if I am ever presented with this opportunity, I just want three words printed in black bold font:
DEFINE THE PROBLEM.
Such a simple statement with a simple meaning. It is as applicable to life as it is to behaviour management and especially helping meet the needs of children with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties. Yet, I feel it is a very simple step that can be overlooked because it is nearly too obvious. Of course, I know what the problem is. Everyone knows what the problem is. Or do they?
The Problem with an Undefined Problem
From my experience, teaching children with behavioural difficulties can be stressful and challenging for everyone involved. The principal, parents, special needs assistants, special education teachers, class teacher and classmates as well as the child themselves can become frazzled, frustrated and disillusioned if progress is not forthcoming.
Stressful situations can lead to a blame game. Parents may believe the problem originates in school. Schools may believe the problem originates at home. The problem may be perceived as the teacher is not good enough. The problem may be perceived that they’ve got a diagnosis of ADHD, ADD or ODD etc. Or my personal favourite, the problem may be perceived as the child is just “bold”. What do all these problems have in common? They’re all pretty much useless.
Truly defining the problem is simple but not easy. It requires the class teacher to sit down and reflect on what they are seeing and hearing whilst discarding emotions and perceptions or, even better, it requires all the parties involved to sit down as a team and coherently decide what is the problem they are trying to solve. If you find yourself using phrases like “they always do it”, “they’re annoying” or “they never do it”, you may benefit from taking the time to pause and reflect as these statements are often factually incorrect and driven by emotion and frustration.
There is an old adage that if you don’t have a goal, you can’t score. The same can be said of a problem. You can’t solve a problem you can’t define.
Defining a Problem: How To
Gather as many of the people as deemed possible or necessary and set the goal of the meeting as defining the problem. This could cause surprise should the child in question be receiving a high level of support already or perhaps, is already subject to several different interventions. It is worth undergoing this process, however, as there is a body of literature to back up the assertion that defining the problem leads to more successful outcomes so persevere.
Asking a group this question could result in a few different responses. This is a great demonstrator of how different perceptions exist. Perhaps the responses are like the ones I touted as unhelpful above. Perhaps, they are extremely helpful but different from the other peers at the group. I would suggest that it is rare that everyone at the table will have the exact same answer. Different problems need different solutions and if everyone is trying to hit a different target, you could well end up hitting none. One could surmise that it is best for the group to focus their aim on an agreed first target before moving on to a second. The power of the many exceeds the power of the one. A group all pulling in the one direction will get to their destination quicker than a group pulling in different ones.
Below is a list of questions that I would make sure the group can answer clearly before leaving the meeting:
What is the problem?
Why is it a problem?
When is it a problem?
Who is it a problem for?
Where is it a problem?
If you can’t write a simple, two or three sentence answer to each of these questions. You haven’t defined it simply enough. Applied behaviour analysis recommends limiting behaviour as anything that can be seen or heard and creating operative definitions that are crystal clear and upon reading them, the reader would be able to accurately repeat the behaviour. This is worth keeping in mind when following through these questions.
Following this process can be helpful as it starts to clear your mind and narrow your vision. Suddenly, it might not be “always” as it’s only during math and science or in the afternoons. Maybe, the behaviour is only present when a teacher is assigning silent individual work. Potentially, the problem might only occur when they are sitting beside a certain classmate. The problem may not be spoken about anymore as they have ADHD which doesn’t help as much as when it has been clearly defined as “banging their pencils and shouting out when the teacher is issuing instructions”. Answering these questions can create a eureka moment for a teacher without any further steps as they recognize patterns and can start to experiment with interrupting them. If the problem arises during prolonged silent deskwork, maybe try ensuring that an energetic lesson has preceded it to see if it will help them settle. Ask them to do small jobs every few minutes to get them out of their seats before they realise they need to disrupt the class for their usual break. It may still be trial-and-error but with a clearly defined problem, at least it is clearly known how to gauge success.
This process proved beneficial to me previously as a five-year child I had was renown for jumping on tables and chairs. I had inherited the information from a previous teacher to keep anything that may be desirable up high as it needed to be kept out of his reach. This problem continued for quite some time with no success. I tried reward charts, social stories and other incentives along with stern words to no avail. It was only when I took my advice and sat down and clearly defined the problem, I realised that he jumped on tables and chairs to get to and see the stuff that needed to be kept out of reach. The following day, I removed all the objects from high places and stored them in locked presses. The child who “always jumps on tables and chairs” was no more.
A simple tip: define the problem. I always think when I read this, that I know this already. But do I do it? There is a difference between knowing and doing…
Social, emotional and behavioural difficulties appear to be becoming a prominent issue in schools today. Many classrooms and schools have high levels of needs in this area where there seems to be an increasing number of diagnoses of conditions such as ADHD, ODD, ADD and EBD among others. As well as these children, there are many more waiting to be assessed or have not yet got to this point but are presenting with complex needs that a teacher needs to address. Separation, family bereavements and other domestic issues can also influence a child’s behaviour and a teacher needs a diverse range of strategies to successfully navigate the wide-ranging issues a modern-day classroom can present. All these issues can leave teachers, parents and the children themselves frustrated, stressed or feeling overwhelmed.
Styles, methods and behavioural perspectives are aplenty as a result of this growing issue with new academic research, programmes and initiatives emerging annually to help teachers meet these needs. Depending on your experience and academic grounding, you may take a behaviourist approach to manage your classroom and incorporate something like a token economy system to manage behaviour or you may view and engage with behaviour systemically and follow a strategic problem-solving approach. The number of options can be somewhat overwhelming due to the stress of challenging behaviour as teachers may begin jumping between different approaches if not met with success instantly or struggle to see a starting point at all.
The combining issues of rising needs and rising literature on how to meet these needs have sparked an internal conversation in my head. On a brief number of times, I’ve been asked what I would do in a situation regarding challenging behaviour. I find this an impossible question to answer as without knowing the whole, 360-degree context of the situation, it is foolhardy to think I can give accurate advice. It is only one person’s perception I am hearing which means everybody else could have a completely different view of the situation and my advice may be completely different upon hearing all sides of the story. Yet, offering no help is definitely no help. I want to be able to provide some value in these instances which got me thinking about rocks, pebbles and sand.
There’s an old metaphor about prioritising your life as you would prioritise putting rocks, pebbles and sand in a jar. Put the sand in first and there will not be as much room for the pebbles and rocks. Put the big rocks in first, pebbles in second and the sand in finally and you will fill the jar with far more success. What if we viewed behaviour management through this guise? What would the big rocks be? What would the pebbles be? What would the sand be?
I’ve been playing with this metaphor in my head for a while and using my own classroom experience, college experience and personal experience, I have settled on six big rocks that I believe should go in first into anyone’s behaviour management style. My six rocks are desire, clarity, consistency, positivity, ethics and patience.
My six rocks are:
This is the very first rock I would put in my jar. A teacher who wants to improve the behaviour of a class or a pupil. This is a non-negotiable in my eyes. A half-hearted effort at improving behaviour will beget half-hearted results. A teacher who does not believe behaviour can be improved, will generally not improve the behaviour. If a teacher truly wants to improve behaviour, they have a far greater chance of doing so because they will channel their efforts and time into ensuring it happens. Having the desire to improve means the teacher will be persistent in the face of setbacks and will decline from giving up on the child.
During a visit to a school in Demark that specialised in inclusion years ago, I was given a tour of the facilities and showed how they appeared to use technology to include children with a wide range of needs. I asked at the end of the tour how would the rest of schools manage this standard of inclusion if they did not have the money? I will never forget the response because of how it struck me (and I wrote it down);
“It is possible to be inclusive without money through time and people with the desire to include. Money is still important, but it is always possible to get money. Without desire, it is impossible.”
Being clear in what you are trying to achieve and how you are trying to achieve it is critical. Defining the behaviour that you want to increase, or decrease is an important first step that is so obvious that it can often be overlooked. What is the problem? Who is it a problem for? When is it a problem? Where is it a problem? Why is it a problem? These are all questions that should have clear answers based on observed and agreed facts. Having clarity is especially important when there is more than one adult in contact with the child. If a class teacher views the problem as one thing and a special education teacher views it as another, it can be fair to assume that this will slow down progress at best and make it impossible at worst. Carving out some time for all the adults involved with the child to meet and clearly define the problem and clearly define the approach that will be taken should give a higher chance of success.
To enhance the chances of clarity, I would forgo the use of diagnoses when defining the problem. Often, in my experience, when labels and other factors like homelife which are largely out of our control are left aside and the actual problem is discussed and defined, it does not seem as intimidating anymore. The problem could simply be that the child will not sit in their chair during certain subjects or the problem could be that the child will not use their hand to speak if they wish to tell the class or teacher something. With a clarity of vision, a problem can reduce in size and strategies can appear more obvious.
This rock sits snugly beside clarity. Dealing with behaviour effectively needs consistency. This is required on a micro level and a macro level for maximum effect. On a micro level, consistency can be seen in the teacher keeping routines throughout the day and week, so the expectations are known. Also, in the classroom, the teacher needs to be consistent in how they deal with a child’s behaviour. They need to be consistent in their approach whether the teacher is tired and frustrated at the behaviour or whether they are feeling particularly relaxed coming up to the end of the term. Understandably, a child will quickly increase or reduce a behaviour if they realise the behaviour gets a consistent response. For example, if a child learns that raising their hand to speak will elicit a positive response consistently, they are more likely to do it. Conversely, if a child realises that every time they shout out, they will consistently lose a point for their group, they are more likely to cease the behaviour. Inconsistent reinforcement of behaviour can lead to children testing the waters or being confused as to what standard is expected.
On a macro-level, a child may need consistency in how they are managed across the school. If a child’s behaviour is being catered for effectively at a class level using an approach or with allowances, these may need to be consistently applied for the child throughout the school. For example, if a child’s challenging behaviour is managed effectively by giving him consistently positive attention and praise in the classroom, the swim instructor, principal and drama teacher may benefit from implementing this approach also. Implementing a known successful strategy in external contexts can prevent misbehaviour before it arises, and an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Consistency is a big rock.
There is a quote from Nel Noddings, who lectures on care theory, that I love for its simplicity: “Children will not learn from someone they do not like”. I love it mainly because I can relate to it from my own experience. I had teachers that I clashed with when I was in secondary school and what I learned from those teachers was far less than what I learned from the teachers I had a positive rapport with. Being positive and cultivating good relationships with your students is an important step in managing behaviour. This is not to be confused with being their friend. Positive rapport can be built through ensuring that you show interest in the student beyond the realm of their academic work. Listening to their stories, sharing your own stories and inquiring about their interests are small gestures that can make a big difference along with ensuring the other big rocks are present in the room. A child who has a good rapport with their class teacher will be more likely to try reciprocating the respect that has been shown to them. It may not always be reciprocated but I feel that it will happen a lot more than a teacher that has no relationship with their student.
Positivity is also a key ingredient as there will be ups and downs when dealing with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties. I believe having a positive mindset is critical for a teacher’s self-care. Being positive that you are doing your best. Being positive and identifying the minuscule or major progress that has been made despite this setback. Being positive that you keep persevering and keep trying, that progress will be inevitable.
This should go without saying but being ethically sound in your approach is a non-negotiable in how a teacher manages behaviour. Approaches should be consistent with the rights of the child and not causing undue upset, embarrassment or angst in their lives. In the case of punishments, for example, if a teacher were to use such a strategy, they should strive to use the least amount of punishment necessary to cause the desired effect and phase it out as promptly as possible. A teacher should proceed with caution when using punishment procedures to ensure that they are in line with school policy where appropriate. Strategies used should keep the child’s dignity intact and not seek to embarrass the child or damage their self-esteem. Although this rock is not a glamorous one, it is a keystone.
Patience most certainly is a virtue. Patience can go a long way when striving to make progress with children who have behavioural difficulties. Patience is needed in scenarios where you are engaging in tactical ignoring to deny an attention-seeking behaviour the oxygen it desires. It is also needed when a child who struggles with their anger on the yard has an outburst and assaults another child on the yard. Patience is needed when you have invested an abundance of time and energy into a child and they let you down with a bang. There will be many times where your patience will be tested. A teacher will be tired, upset and stressed throughout the year but being patient will aid the teacher make measured responses and strategically communicate their message. To understand the importance of patience, think about a time that you lost yours. It rarely results in a productive message being conveyed, a good decision being made or the issue disappearing permanently. Often, losing your patience can leave a situation worse than it started. A teacher who has patience will understand that an issue may not be resolved overnight and depending on its size – may not even be resolved in the year.
A social media marketer by the name of Gary Vee uses the phrase “micro speed, macro patience”. Although he applies this to a business setting, it is also applicable to dealing with children with behavioural needs. Being impatient and putting lots of time into the day-to-day preparation that’s helpful and necessary to achieve progress with a child who has complex needs, however, having the patience to understand that the progress will not be as quick and may even be glacially slow.
From my own early professional experiences, I have experienced the helplessness and stress of feeling that I was failing a child who had severe behavioural difficulties in my classroom. It affected my self-esteem as I felt other teachers were judging me (tip: they’re not) and I felt I only appeared to be making the situation worse. On reflection, and with years of experience, I now realise that I was overwhelmed. I realised that I was looking at the big picture instead of clearly defining what the problem behaviour was and moving on from there. I was panicking and jumping from one reward chart to another without having any patience or consistency. I was being negative with my instructional language and with my mindset.
It was only when an older teacher took me under their wing and guided me through how to take the first steps in managing the behaviour of this child more efficiently that I began to see progress. I regained my composure, used the academic knowledge that seemed to abandon me when stressed and started to implement strategies based on the six core rocks I have identified above. Progress started to emerge, and I established a passion for all things behaviour.
In my view, if a teacher showed up to work every day and ensured the six rocks of desire, clarity, consistency, positivity, ethics and patience were present, they would cultivate a positive climate where children could thrive and develop. Children would be motivated to behave and learn, and challenging behaviour could be minimised. There are always exceptions and there will always be children who need extra support but starting with these six rocks is be a great foundation. In my opinion, elaborate academic experience, impressive visual displays and the latest strategies and initiatives come in second place behind these fundamentals. Paperwork is necessary but I don’t believe it to be a rock. These may be the pebbles in the jar. There can be times when these may cloud your vision and you may put these into the jar first and forget about your rocks. I believe you can manage without the pebbles, even though they are beneficial, but you certainly cannot manage without the rocks.
This is definitely not an exhaustive list. What have I missed? Am I mistaken to exclude paperwork, evidence-based approaches or something else? Let me know if you feel I’m missing a rock or perhaps included one you don’t agree with.