The number of children struggling with their behaviour has risen in primary schools in recent years, with more children shouting and arguing, destroying property and running away. Some children are struggling with lack of self-belief, confidence and social skills and we are seeing more children suffering with anxiety and anxiety-based absence. These behaviours have increased since Covid-19 and we can see that the impact of such a difficult time is likely to be a contributing factor.

Another factor might be the increasing number of children who are struggling with adversity and trauma. Things like abuse, neglect and loss, or living with financial pressures, depression and alcoholism, should also be considered when addressing behaviour.

Additionally, we must recognise the amount of stress our fast-paced lives place on children: going to breakfast club, followed by a full day of school and then on to after school clubs and, for many, additional clubs during the week too!

When they are not busy, children often opt to play on devices and although this is a common pastime today, prolonged use of technology can also increase stress levels. This is due to the impact of the screen itself, the constant fast-paced stimulus and the content they are playing. If you spend four hours killing zombies, trying to win races, or fighting baddies then you are more likely to feel overwhelmed and anxious when you stop. In fact, children are having to use their survival part of the brain when playing on games like this, which means it is much more difficult for them to calm down and dispel the stress hormone afterwards.

When our bodies are stressed and overwhelmed, it has a direct impact on our brains’ ability to think rationally, manage emotions, problem solve, have empathy for others, reflect on situations and remember and recall information properly – all skills we expect from children in school.

These skills are rooted in our rational thinking part of the brain. Yet our bodies respond to stress with survival responses such as fight, flight or freeze, and that rational part shuts off. This explains why many of our children are angry, aggressive and argumentative (fight mode), or running off and avoiding school and work (flight mode).

We must consider whether the increase in stress and pressure is having a direct impact on children’s behaviour and recognise that many are not coming into school ready to learn. Instead, they are in a state of survival which often leaves them struggling to manage lower-level challenges, such as falling out with a friend or struggling to do their work.

When a child is responding with their survival part of the brain, they are often being led by their feelings. As many children do not know how to make sense of them, or manage them, they respond with fight, flight or freeze as a way of coping.

It is important to recognise that this is a developmentally appropriate response and children need guidance from caring adults to begin to learn how to respond differently and shift towards the rational, thinking part of the brain. They need us to help them make sense of their feelings, understand how that feeling has impacted their behaviour and then be taught how to manage it.

When we are faced with a child who is displaying challenging behaviours, we must shift our thinking from “this child is choosing to misbehave” to “this child needs my help.” Maybe a pupil is frustrated, overwhelmed, and feeling unheard, and is so consumed by their feelings that they have flipped into fight mode and are unable to control responses well. We must ask ourselves here, does it make sense to tell them off for struggling? Or is it our job as adults to help?

Responding to a child with connection, rather than disconnection, makes all the difference and that can often start with tweaking your initial response.

Focus on feelings

Rather than focusing on the behaviour, try focusing on the feeling first. Instead of, “Why are you sat outside the classroom?” try, “You are feeling overwhelmed, and it’s hard to be in the classroom right now…” or “It is difficult when things are hard…” rather than, “Come on Jack, answer the next question.” Step back, look at their behaviour and the situation and think about what that feeling might be, then tell them so they have insight and can develop their emotional intelligence. You can then follow this with a prompt or guidance, but connecting with feelings first will help the child feel validated and safe and will reduce their feelings of stress, helping them access their rational thinking skills.

Help them to regulate

If a child is angry and overwhelmed, they will not be able to calm down on their own. They will need help from an adult to model regulation and give them the tools they need to manage their emotions. Can they go for a walk, have a drink of water, have 5 minutes in a calm room, do some sketching or listen to music? These are not rewards but are tools to help them manage their emotional state and learn to calm down. Once calm, they are more likely to accept the consequence, make amends or re-engage because their brain is no longer feeling attacked.

These two small tweaks can help a child feel emotionally safe which improves behaviour and develops their emotional intelligence at the same time. Behaviour has always been, and will continue to be, a challenge in schools. It is hard work being a child and us adults need to be there to help guide and teach them.

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