Could threat perception help teachers manage behaviour?

Understanding the characteristics of a pupil’s threat response can aid us in behaviour management, finds Gemma Corby
3rd April 2020, 12:03am
A Pupil's Level Of Threat Perception Can Impact On Their Behaviour, Research Shows
Gemma Corby


Could threat perception help teachers manage behaviour?

Are you the sort of person babies like to stare at? If so, do you assume that it's because you are just naturally great with kids? Well, think again. Babies first start scrutinising faces in a meaningful way when they are just three or four months old, but they pay greater attention to what they perceive as negative social information.

By the time they are four to seven months, I'm sorry to tell you, they'll look at "threatening" faces for longer than "non-threatening" ones. The baby staring at you does not like you: it is scared of you.

This "threat-perception" process gets more developed as we age. During our school years, it is particularly sensitive, and it is therefore something teachers would do well to understand, particularly in terms of managing behaviour.

Let's start with the early years foundation stage. Preschoolers, like adults, detect angry or sad faces faster than neutral or happy ones. They are able to remember negative details as this helps them to predict and avoid future negative encounters. If little Tasha steals little Gemma's precision-cut pieces of Play-Doh and squishes them into a mound, well, Gemma won't be playing with Tasha again (true story - 35 years on, I'm still not over it).

As we get older, our threat-detection ability becomes more sophisticated but across the age groups, it is also variable between children. Individual differences towards threat perception are caused by a person's unique genetic inheritance combined with their personal experiences. And teachers have a front-row seat for watching how this plays out.

The majority of children will, in general, have similar reactions to similar threats: the prospect of an upcoming test or reading something unfamiliar aloud in class may cause nervousness or avoidance tactics. The presence of a bully waiting out in the playground will elicit fear. Being last in the canteen queue and watching all the food slowly disappearing every time that the line nudges forwards will cause anxiety. Individual reactions may differ in intensity but, broadly, the same stimuli will evoke similar responses.

Dropping the ball

Some children may, of course, be more worried about certain things than others. If you dropped a catch last time out for the rugby team, a high ball coming at you during PE will seem more of a threat than it will to your non-ball-dropping peers. Meanwhile, if you really struggle in maths, then that impending lesson will likely be more of a threat to you than it will to your friend who gets the top score in every test.

While these differences will be isolated incidents for most, some pupils will have a routinely different threat reaction to that of their peers. And this is where teachers really need more support, as such reactions can manifest as behaviour problems,

Let's start with pupils who consistently seem to overreact to mundane situations or overplay minimal threats. These pupils are likely to have a lower threat-perception threshold than their classmates and that can be caused by a few different factors.

Genetics, as mentioned earlier, is one element, but research carried out by Muris et al (2011) suggests that high levels of general anxiety are related to lower threat thresholds. This is backed by earlier research carried out by Barrett et al (1996), who found that anxious children aged between 7 and 14 are more likely to interpret ambiguous situations as threatening compared with generally non-anxious children.

As well as genetics and anxiety, though, trauma can be a factor, according to Pam Jarvis, a reader at Leeds Trinity University. If a young person experiences a challenging early childhood - for example, if they have been neglected or abused - then they may become mistrustful of others and feel unworthy of love.

In the classroom, these pupils can appear "hypervigilant" - seemingly aware of every sound, smell or motion - and constantly mindful of potential threats. For such children, something seemingly trivial could trigger a disproportionate emotional response.

Pushing the boundaries

At the other end of the spectrum are those who don't seem to ever perceive threat, or if there is one, they ignore it. If you teach a child or young person who consistently likes to push things that bit too far, a high threat-perception threshold may be at play.

Of course, teenagers in general are more likely to engage in risky behaviour than other age groups. Brain-imaging studies have shown that several areas of the brain make teenagers more sensitive to the rewards of peer relationships than adults, motivating them to consider their peers when making risky decisions.

But some teens will embrace risk more than others. That, again, can be down to genetic factors but some studies have found a link to the function of dopamine receptors - the effects of the pleasure hormone may be amplified for some children when threat is involved. Special educational needs and disability (SEND) can be a factor, too. There are some young people in particular who struggle to link cause and effect, for example, those with a diagnosis of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

How do you know if threat perception is a factor in the behaviour of a pupil? It's a tricky one to unpick as it may be part of several other issues, but having a good relationship with the pupil can alleviate some of the complexity. If you know about high anxiety or safeguarding concerns, or of SEND, then you have a better lens for interpretation. And if you can have a proper discussion with the young person before waving a behaviour policy in their face, you are more likely to get to the root of the outburst. Let them calm down, find a safe space to chat and get them to talk about why they react as they do.

This is not about letting children "get away" with disruptive outbursts, though. The research is clear that firm boundaries and consequences are important to offer security to the young person and also help them, with support, to work on their challenges.

For those with low threat-perception thresholds, where anxiety is a factor, it is important to seek mental health support. Barrett et al also emphasise the importance of getting families on board: "If courageous, non-fearful behaviours become part of not only the child's but also the family's repertoire, the child's chances of successful generalisation of such behaviours into other settings, over time, may be increased."

And for those with high thresholds, it could be useful to work individually or in small groups on pre-emptive social stories that focus on high-risk issues, such as sexting.

Younger teenagers may also benefit from opportunities to engage in safe, sensation-seeking activities - such as rock climbing or martial arts - or performance-based activities, such as drama or dance. These provide them with the chance to take risks within a relatively safe environment.

Wherever a child is on the threat-perception spectrum, though, the main message from the research is the importance of recognising that threat perception can be a factor in behaviour and that addressing it can help us better support young people who do find themselves in trouble more than most.

It's also important to consider our own threat threshold, too. Doing so may be useful in judging how scary taking 5B on a Friday afternoon really is.

Gemma Corby is a freelance writer and former Sendco

This article originally appeared in the 3 April 2020 issue under the headline "Tes focus on...Threat perception"

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