Being in a room with a troubled child who is in a state of crisis can be a challenging experience.
If there is a charged atmosphere, or a risk of someone getting physically hurt, adrenaline can kick in. I recognise that the number of factors I can focus on shrinks, and it becomes easy to forget to see what is happening from the child’s point of view.
Such experiences can be draining and disorienting, even if the threat of violence does not become a reality. It is important, however, that the chaos and heightened emotions that the child is feeling do not become the decisive factors which determine the nature of the shared meanings that are constructed between teacher and pupil. It is important that the teacher is able to keep the interaction safe and productive for everyone at all times.
To ensure that the shared meaning has the characteristics which we desire, it is essential to monitor and manage our own levels of arousal. When two people are in a room together, their arousal levels will eventually match. If I am calm with an angry child, one of us is going to adapt our mood. This means that I very rarely shout or raise my voice.
This emotional matching is quite well-known, but less recognised are the other undesirable ways in which we can allow the pupils to affect the nature of the interaction. When I am interacting with a friend there is a degree of mutual regulation about what constitutes acceptable talk and behaviour. With a troubled child, that lack of regulation from your interlocutor can leave one’s own internal structures exposed and vulnerable.
There is a risk that the adult, instead of ensuring that the shared meaning is fair and morally structured, allows what the child is bringing to the interaction – chaos anarchy or something darker – to shape the nature of the shared meaning. When I first started teaching, a considerable number of colleagues seemed to have internalised some of the anxieties, angers and resentments that the children were feeling. Like the children, they were using ill-advised and self-defeating behaviours. Some were acting very much like the children themselves, using ‘strategies’ such as:
Devaluing the experience
‘It’s rained all day, so the kids haven’t gone out, or had a proper break. Let’s just have a pool competition this afternoon.’
This is usually a vote-winner with the children, because they are rarely thinking long term. Furthermore, an adult who has fun like this instead of doing ‘boring work’ is showing that schoolwork can’t be all that important, right? Such adults were rarely the ones who the children went to for help.
Threats of physical force
‘First I’m going to ask you nicely to do something, then I’m going to tell you. Then there will be a consequence.’
This approach is particularly favoured by anyone with resentment or anger issues of their own, or anyone who feels that they have not been listened to in their life. It is a fairly draconian way of ensuring that the meanings in the classroom are the ones you want to create. Even if it is balanced by a very sensitive childcentred approach, it runs the risk of being counterproductive and can lead to a spike in the number of challenges and even restraints.
‘How many times do I have to tell you?’
This is the rhetorical questioning of someone trying to exercise their personal authority when there is none left. The only effect of words like these is to underline the speaker’s ineffectiveness. Telling someone does not mean that they have listened. Why is the adult just repeating the same behaviour over and over again? Isn’t that what is irritating them about the child’s behaviour? Shouldn’t someone look at the bigger picture here? Nagging is, in effect, teaching a child that there are times when it is acceptable not to listen.
Threats of verbal bullying
Some staff coped by becoming leaders of the pack, creating hierarchies – among both pupils and some staff – with themselves at the top. These were based on sporting prowess and occasional physical aggression, with ‘banter’ often the means by which status was assigned and maintained.
These days there is much more support, accountability and regulation than there was when I first entered the classroom. Despite this, with some staff there is still a sense of disparity between what they agree in training sessions is best practice and what they actually do. Some seem locked into styles of interaction that are self-defeating, that limit their effectiveness in creating productive shared meanings with the children.
Our behaviours can be difficult to change, even when we want that change, because they are a result of our thoughts and feelings, which are shaped by previous experiences. There is a link, therefore, between our behaviour and our core beliefs. Learning techniques to change our behaviour may not work if our core beliefs remain the same.
Unless staff change their core beliefs about children, about teaching and learning, and often about themselves, there is probably little chance that they will put techniques for improving the shared meanings they make with pupils into effect. They will likely continue to make mistakes, such as:
‘You need to sit down!’
Not true. In fact, I, the teacher, need you, the pupil, to sit down, please.
Demonising the child
‘He knows exactly what he’s doing!’ ‘She’s so manipulative!’
While it is true that some children do deliberately undermine, disrupt or hurt, and that they know exactly what they are doing, it is important to bear in mind that they do not understand why they are doing it. They need help to learn to meet their needs through more socially acceptable behaviours.
‘You knew exactly what you were doing – it was your fault.’
The pupil is being stupid, unfair, disobedient or hurtful, and they are breaking the rules. This may be true from your point of view, of course, but from the pupil’s perspective, there will be another interpretation.Once you have made everyone safe, it is your job to try to work out the meaning behind their actions. You cannot do that if you have written them off.
‘Oh, he’s just like his brother/father/mother!’
This is a nice way of avoiding engaging with a problem and the feelings tangled up in it. Discount anyone who tells you myths about ‘children being cruel’, ‘boys being boys’, or ‘girls fighting meaner than boys’. What pupils need is for you to help them by working out why they are behaving in such a way, not to be dismissed as the embodiment of a stereotype.
Here there is no external speech, just an anger towards the pupil who, you feel, is making you feel shame because you do not seem to be able to manage this pupil as well as other colleagues do. This is another example of focusing on your own feelings, rather than those of the child in the interaction.
‘Yes, he spat in my face, but that’s alright. He was upset, so I understand.’
Removing boundaries makes everyone feel unsafe. There is another form of denial, which is simply being poor at listening to children or noticing their needs.
Seeing play and learning differently
‘If only you’d pay as much attention to your work as you do to that game.’
Some people seem to have a core belief that learning is always a serious matter. They do not realise that, for children, one of the prime motivators for play is the learning they get from it.
I have made many of these mistakes along the way, and continue to refine my approach. It is important for staff to revise their core beliefs and their behaviours. If they do not, why should the children?
Peter Nelmes has worked with children with challenging lives and challenging behaviour since 1990 and taught and researched in a variety of settings; this article is based on an edited extract from his book Troubled Hearts, Troubled Minds, published by Crown House Publishing