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Behaviour Management

2 Styles: How Do You Communicate With Kids?

Paul Watzlawick was a family therapist and communication theorist. As part of his work, he detailed five principles of communication to consider. One of these was the idea that there are two types of interactions between people. Relationships and interactions can be symmetrical or complementary. I find this to be interesting when contemplating which one works best for children with emotional or behavioural needs.

A symmetrical relationship interaction involves two individuals mirroring each other’s behaviour or emotions. The two parties minimise the differences between each other. A practical example would be when a student gets angry, the teacher responds by getting angry or vice versa. Alternatively, a teacher may be indifferent about a topic of conversation and a child mimics this indifference. When this is the prevalent dynamic of a relationship, behaviour and emotions can escalate. Have you ever had a symmetrical relationship with a child in your class? What about a colleague or friend?

A complementary relationship or interaction results in the two parties having two distinct roles. One person is in the “one-up” position and one person is in the “one-down” position. In a complementary relationship, one person’s persistent aggression would lead to the other’s constant withdrawal. Equally, one person’s habitual negativity could lead to the other’s consistent positive outlook. 

Is symmetrical or complementary better?

Naturally, a teacher may feel that a complementary relationship is best where they are in an assertive “one-up” position while the student is in the compliant “one-down” position. However, neither a symmetrical or complementary relationship is productive all the time. Different children and different teachers require different interactions and relationships dependent on the context. Problems can arise when a relationship becomes stuck in one style of interaction.

For example, if a child has persistent aggressive, angry tendencies and a teacher is habitually meeting this with a symmetrical response of mirroring the emotions through confrontation and reprimanding, it may be time to consider a complementary approach. Take the “one-down” role when they get angry and adopt a calm demeanour and style of interaction. Will this de-escalate the situation?

Equally, a parent may be passive about a child’s behaviour which is being mirrored by the teacher. The relationship may be positive but are the changes that need to occur happened? It could be the perfect opportunity to switch up the style of interactions to complementary and inject some urgency.

The answer nobody wants

If there were black-and-white answers to supporting children with social, emotional or behavioural difficulties, they wouldn’t exist. Like everything we consider, it is trial-and-error and a reflective process. If you’re supporting a child, working with a parent or just interested in communication, consider which of the two relationships you have and contemplate whether it is productively serving you or in need of a change.

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Categories
Behaviour Management Inclusion parenting Special Education

What are SEBD, EBD, BESD & SEMH?

What exactly are social, emotional and behavioural difficulties (SEBD)? Many definitions exist and even the overarching term is interchanged with others. You may hear the same difficulties referred to as emotional & behavioural difficulties (EBD). You could potentially hear the term behavioural emotional and social development (BESD). The most recent term that also pops up is social, emotional and mental health (SEMH).

All of the four terms above can be defined in similar ways. The definition that I prefer encapsulates how many children could fall under the umbrella of SEBD:

“difficulties which a young person is experiencing which act as a barrier to their personal, social, cognitive and emotional development. These difficulties may be communicated through internalising and/or externalising behaviours. Relationships with self, others and community may be affected and the difficulties may interfere with the pupil’s own personal and educational development or that of others. The contexts within which difficulties occur must always be considered and may include the classroom, school, family, community and cultural settings.”

(Source here)

I chose this definition because it encompasses the wide variety of difficulties that children may face. It avoids falling into the pitfall of just defining the most severe and shocking elements of SEBD that usually gain the most attention.

It highlights how a social, emotional or behavioural difficulty can impact relationships. Perhaps their relationship with themselves and their self-esteem is severely damaged? Maybe, they can’t build positive relationships with their peers or family because they have trouble regulating their own emotions. They could even be isolated in the community as they explicitly or implicitly can’t access local clubs and amenities because they are seen as different, challenging or strange.

Externalised behaviours get a lot of attention as they are very hard to ignore in a classroom. You may also hear these behaviours referred to as “acting out behaviours”. These include behaviour like defianceaggression, vandalism, bullying, swearing, shouting and running away.

Internalised behaviours can get less attention. These behaviours are easier to ignore or miss altogether. They can also be called “acting in behaviours”. Internalised behaviour may present as withdrawal, depression, passivity, anxiety or even self-harm. 

I also like how this definition highlights the importance of context. It is worth observing where these difficulties occur. Are they just in school and not at home? Vice versa? Perhaps these difficulties manifest in certain places and not in others. 

So if someone says that a child is dealing with SEBD, EBD, BESD or SEMH, you will need to ask them to be more specific. Are their difficulties being communicated through externalised behaviour or internalised behaviour? In what contexts are these difficulties occurring? Which relationships are being impacted? Avoid the trap of thinking that a child who has an emotional or behavioural difficulty must automatically be presenting a certain way. Remain curious and dig deeper.

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