Tips for handling post-lockdown behaviour problems

After the ordeal of the past few months, many pupils will be feeling unsafe – and this may be reflected in their behaviour. So how can schools strike the right balance between giving support and re-establishing boundaries? Mary Meredith suggests ‘three Rs’
11th September 2020, 12:01am
Tips For Handling Post-lockdown Behaviour Problems

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Tips for handling post-lockdown behaviour problems

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archived/tips-handling-post-lockdown-behaviour-problems

This quote has been in my mind a lot over the past year: “When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.”

I have thought about these words from leadership expert Alexander den Heijer while I have been meeting with a group of educators to discuss Dr Bruce Perry’s iconoclastic The Boy who was Raised as a Dog, a study into childhood trauma and recovery.

We began our chapter-by-chapter journey months before the pandemic, but when the coronavirus struck, suddenly this felt like the book - along with the quote above - that every leader should be reading to ensure schools provide the best possible environment for post-pandemic growth and recovery.

Of course, not all pupils will have returned to school traumatised. Some will have been buffered completely from the ravages of lockdown. But we must remember that behind all of those headlines about family breakdown, bereavement, poverty, mental illness, alcoholism and domestic violence caused by the coronavirus there are millions of highly vulnerable children and young people, feeling far from safe.

This will have a neurobiological impact, which will sometimes manifest in behaviour. On return to school, many children will need patient support and understanding, at least temporarily, to rebalance their capacity for self-regulation, reflection and learning.

School leaders’ duty of care to them must ensure that they are not caught out by any blunt behaviour management machine that is incapable of responding in a respectful way to their needs. We must find a way of safely holding and containing distress, rather than compounding it. And Perry’s three Rs - regulate, relate and reason - are the perfect vehicle for this.

1. Regulate

Highly sensitised, chronically “on edge”, traumatised children and young people are frequently activated by apparently inconsequential stimuli and this is the root of their manifest difficulties in school.

As Perry notes: “Eye contact for too long may be perceived as a life-threatening signal. A friendly touch on the shoulder may remind one child of sexual abuse by a stepfather. A well-intentioned gentle tease to one may be a humiliating cut to another, similar to the endless sarcastic and degrading abuse he experiences at home. A request to solve a problem on the board may terrify the girl living in a home where she can never do well enough. A slightly raised voice may feel like a shout to the boy living in a violent home.”

Every adult within school, from site manager to headteacher, should be ready and willing to ground and regulate a fellow human being in distress. This needn’t be difficult, though it does require self-regulation.

Perry is clear that one of the best ways to help another to become calm and centred is simply to be present for them and be calm and centred ourselves. Emotional contagion means that the reverse is also true, of course - dysregulated adults dysregulate children. This is why staff wellbeing is such a high priority within the school that prioritises high-quality pastoral care.

However, we obviously want children to develop strategies that they will be able to draw upon to regulate themselves, too. Self-soothing techniques, if you like.

These need to be introduced and practised when children are calm. Emotionally intelligent school communities will share the learning with all pupils, not least so that they are in the best possible position to support their struggling peers.

A quick search for “grounding and regulating strategies” will throw up resources, from deep-breathing exercises to muscle relaxation. Every child is different and will benefit from a different approach, so it’s important to practise a range, possibly as brain breaks within lessons.

Thought also needs to be given to the school day itself and whether it is biologically respectful. I have felt myself becoming just a little less regulated when I haven’t found time for my mandated hour of exercise during lockdown. We are not designed to be still for long periods.

There’s a strong case for continuing the Daily Mile activity that many schools have introduced as part of their current childcare offer. Stress-reducing classroom brain breaks, not to be confused with the discredited “brain gym”, are also strongly supported by evidence. From bilateral scribbles to deep breathing, they have been shown to stimulate areas of the brain that pay attention to novelty and curiosity while also promoting emotional regulation in the more primitive and reactive lower regions.

2. Relate

As articulated quite brilliantly by clinician and author Kim Golding, “connection before correction” is another way of framing the “relate” stage of the three Rs.

Connection with a distressed child creates relational safety, so that reason is possible. There is a handy script that psychologist Karen Young has published on her blog (see bit.ly/YoungCorrect). It starts with this reaction to an incident: “I know you’re a great human. I know that for certain. That decision you made didn’t end so well, but I imagine there was something that might have felt OK about it at the time. What made it feel like a good idea?”

Then, in response to the person’s reply: “I get that. I’ve felt that way myself. How do you think it went wrong?”

And finally: “What might be a better thing to do next time? Is there anything I can do to make it easier for you to do that?”

A key feature of scripts like these is validation of feelings - a child needs to feel seen, heard and understood (“I see you are angry and frustrated and I can understand why”) and empathy (“It must be awful to feel overwhelmed like that”).

Of course, within inclusive schools, adults understand the importance of making connections with vulnerable and insecure children throughout the day - not just at times of crisis. We are a deeply social species, our survival having once depended upon group membership.

If we don’t relate to children, and create within them a sense of belonging and acceptance, then our efforts to reason with them will always be futile because they will feel threatened and activated within a school environment that isn’t psychologically safe.

3. Reason

The three Rs are sequential. Having been through stages one and two, it is now possible to reason - to set limits on behaviour. The question is not whether but how to do this; the three Rs are not about being permissive because that would not be safe. Psychological safety is the goal here.

Sensitivity and skill are needed at the boundary-setting stage, underpinned by respect for the individual. Perry observes that: “If we want our children to behave well, we have to treat them well.” This suggests that radical change is needed to the approach that is too often taken within our highly pressurised system.

This cannot mean that rules do not apply, and there will inevitably be occasions when it won’t be possible for pupils to remain in class. But a reliable three Rs plan is needed for such occasions. This would typically involve going to a safe base within the school where thought is given to repair. For example, “When you’re ready, let’s go and pick up your maths book and repair it with some Sellotape. We can then make a small apology card for Sir.” Because Sir is trauma-informed, he’ll accept the apology graciously and ensure that the child knows that there is no rupture to the relationship.

Safe bases don’t need to be spare classrooms; perhaps it’s the clay room for one (thinking now about my youngest daughter) or an office for another (mine was always exactly this).

What we need for our schools to rise to the challenges of this pandemic age are not new resources or new services but a new approach, rooted in the science.

Trailblazing leaders are already proving that their schools are capable of holding, containing and healing children who have been impacted by trauma and adversity. We must hope that others follow them as they prepare to meet the huge and mounting societal challenges of this pandemic age.

Mary Meredith is service manager for inclusion at Lincolnshire County Council and a former senior leader

This article originally appeared in the 11 September 2020 issue under the headline “How to handle post-lockdown behaviour problems”

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