The school social worker: why positive attention is crucial in behaviour management
The room was full – it was the first in a series of parenting classes I was running for one of the schools I work with and the attendance was excellent. Emily's mum stood up first. She choked back tears, composed herself, and then told us that she no longer liked her child.
There's a stigma to a statement like that. There was an intake of breath in the room. Yet I was not surprised. I knew the backstory here, as I had been working with Emily through the school. And although you might not think it, this feeling is incredibly common.
Emily was 6. Her behaviour was incredibly challenging in school, which is where I came in as a school social worker. What I discovered was that she was just as challenging for her parents. She refused to go to sleep at night and she would throw tantrums, often in public places.
Emily's mum told us that she was at the end of the line, that she hated spending time with her child, and that she felt extremely guilty for what Emily had become.
Don't play the blame game
It is all too easy to blame parents. As a teacher, I slipped into the habit. Yet we have to remember how difficult a job parenting is. Instead of blame, schools need to support parents. I set up parenting groups because when relationships between parent and child improve, children often become more settled in school. The reason for this is that children often feel happier as they gain more positive attention from the people most desire it from: their parents.
Over the following 12 weeks, I worked with Emily's mum on skills to build a positive relationship with her. She soon found that as she gave Emily positive attention, which is the foundation of the entire programme, the negative behaviour began to gradually go into decline. Emily loved it and she excelled spending quality time with her mum.
This gave Emily's mum the opportunity to begin putting boundaries in place. She was dreading this experience, but she found that now Emily was receiving the attention she was missing, she settled into the new routine much easier than had been anticipated. This led to a much happier home environment. Emily's mum remembered every positive quality about her young daughter and suddenly noticed developments she had been missing and what a lovely young person she was: kind, thoughtful and sensitive.
Praise is the greatest gift
Emily turned to her mum one day and asked "Mum, why did you not used to love me?". Her mum was devastated. She asked her what she meant.
"You used to tell me off all the time when I was trying to help you, play on your phone and ignore me when I wanted your help with homework. I wanted to be in your bed at night to get cuddles not because I was afraid to sleep on my own."
Emily's mum suddenly saw things through her daughter's eyes. She realised how negative her behaviour had been to her daughter.
This is something I have to reiterate so often to teachers and parents alike: praise and attention really is the greatest gift you can give a child, and a lack of it is usually the reason for bad behaviour, not any innate desire to play up.
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