How to handle behaviour that comes from trauma 

We need a ‘warm demander’ approach that is consistent across adults, argue Leanne Forde-Nassey and Ollie Ward

Leanne Forde-Nassey and Ollie Ward

trauma aware practice

Every week in our school, we discuss pupil behaviour using the ABC+C model. 

We discuss: 

  • The “Antecedents”: what happened as a precursor to the event, which may have escalated the situation.
  • What we witnessed as the “Behaviour”.
  • The ”Consequences” of that behaviour, including how others responded and the eventual outcome for the pupil. 
  • the “Communicative function” – what was the behaviour trying to say, always giving this information in the form of “I” statements. 

It is this final step that often proves the most insightful in terms of understanding just why certain pupils respond the way they do in certain situations and thus helping to inform future practice. 

But sometimes, this final step is also the most difficult. 

Behaviour management

Sometimes, no matter how we try to problem solve each individual behaviour, there is something so innately primal driving it that it becomes really difficult to pinpoint the causes. 

Quick read: Eight tips for de-escalating behaviour 

Quick listen: What every teacher needs to know about the impact of trauma

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In cases where pupils are experiencing or have experienced deep trauma and they lack the coping strategies of emotional literacy necessary to effectively rationalise it themselves, we witness the symptoms of these internal scars. 

The saying “hurt people, hurt people” rings so true in these situations. 

These pupils are pushing away adults, noticeably trying to destroy relationships as a challenge to the adults. They want the adults to overcome the wall of challenges and prove themselves worthy of time and energy. It hasn’t worked out well before for these children, so there had better be a damn good reason why they should bother now.

No excuses?

When that final “C” can be tough to pinpoint, it is usually the above that you eventually find at the root. 

What does that mean for us in schools and managing behaviour of pupils in this situation? 

It is not particularly useful to excuse behaviour by holding the trauma entirely responsible. We need to maintain high expectations of the child. 

But in order to be empathetic to their needs, we must take this knowledge into account when we are looking to improve the toolkit of strategies that not only the pupil but also the staff can utilise during heightened moments. 

Consistency needed

So we’ve focused on preparing ourselves with a message for when the pupil does become dysregulated, offering a script that is consistent across all the staff. The script emphasises the responsibility of the pupil in making a choice regarding their actions. 

It sounds simple. And it can be frustrating getting the message across, boring even, as the process does take time. But it’s only with this repetition and consistency across all adults in the school that behaviour will start to change.  

As US psychiatrist Dr Bruce Perry describes: “Therapeutic moments are seconds long, not 45 minutes a week.”  

You might not believe that you are offering therapy per se, but for such vulnerable and trauma-affected pupils, showing them you care enough to challenge them as a “warm demander”, maintaining high expectations and showing, explicitly, that you care, is huge. 

It may not seem that what you are doing is making a difference, but persevere; seeing a young person modify their behaviour and progress from such a self-sabotaging stance is one the most powerful rewards a teacher can ever experience.

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Leanne Forde-Nassey and Ollie Ward

Leanne Forde-Nassey is headteacher at The Key Education Centre, Hampshire, in Hampshire. Ollie Ward is outreach lead at The Key Education Centre, Hampshire

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