How can you tell if a child’s challenging behaviour is a case of just being naughty or if it’s a genuine cry for help?
As if teachers didn’t have enough to do already without hurling psycho-social assessments into the mix. My mother has been a teacher her whole working life and, as such, is an expert at cutting through the complex professional dialogue and asking the important questions, like the one above.
These days, teachers are expected to play multi-faceted roles in schools. They need to know how to fill in for an absent Mum or Dad figure, how to teach (almost anything - from toileting to algebra) to a wide range of learning styles and, of course, how to manage challenging behaviour in the classroom.
A consequence of having to juggle these complex tasks is that teachers are often incredibly short of time. Between planning and marking, assessments and reports, when does a teacher really have the spare time to sit down and investigate what lurks behind an incident of challenging behaviour? Particularly if these instances of testing conduct occur several times a day and from a variety of sources.
Challenging Behaviour Dynamics
Is the challenging behaviour indicative of simply acting out, testing boundaries and being ‘naughty’? Or is there something more complex percolating under the surface, resulting in a behavioural cry for help? Educational psychologists and psychotherapists at One Education get asked this question frequently and in truth, it’s never straightforward to answer. In isolation, it can be almost impossible to tell what is triggering problematic behaviour in a child, especially if they have difficulties understanding or verbalising their feelings. Arguably, all types of behaviour can be considered as serving a function, but is the challenge here holding meaning for the child and if so, how?
In class, a teacher does not typically have the time or the resources available to pursue this – there is the rest of the class to think about, not to mention the lesson plan to get through and homework to give out. The demands on their time are acute and persistent. Amidst this environment however, teachers can be mindful that each incident of challenging behaviour is demanding that we offer our attention to the source of discord. It shouts out in class; ‘I am not comfortable/I need something/I feel emotionally charged’, and this demands a response.
Information gathering in schools
Discovering a bit more about what surrounds the child can be illuminating. Has anything changed recently for them? What’s home like? How are the relationships with family members? Has this child suffered adverse childhood experiences? These are big questions and can take a while to consider, particularly as research into the individual and their environment is required. Unfortunately, as alluded to earlier, most teachers are incredibly time-poor and so these enquiries can, without intention, slip off the radar.
Understandably, people often lack confidence when it comes to sharing information about the young people and children that they work with. The prominent culture of sharing on a ‘need to know basis’ can feel restrictive and limit the sharing done between professionals working within educational settings. This is one of the factors which can restrict the teacher’s ability to be sensitive to what may be happening in the inner world of the child when challenging behaviour is displayed in class.
Teachers, attachment figures and safety
My mother expressed this tension from the teacher’s position, stating with sadness that, “we [teachers] are not social workers or psychologists – we haven’t had that kind of training”. What is widely understood by teachers – particularly in primary schools – is that they provide an important figure for children to explore attachment relationships with.
As a rule of thumb, teachers are pretty constant figures and can create resulting feelings of security for the children. Many attachment dynamics are exercised within the classroom boundaries, however, these cannot (for a multitude of reasons) be the primary focus of the teacher.
What takes centre stage in school is the ability to conduct lessons in an orderly, encouraging and calm environment, having enough time to include all the diversity and differing educational needs of the children in the class.
Therapist involvement frees up teaching time
Although the work of a teacher is multifaceted, they should have referral access to psychological services, interventions and professionals who can support them and their pupils inside their unique educational setting. These professionals do have the time and the training to explore what might be happening in the inner world of the child; to assess the situation and attempt to formulate strategies to meet their needs.
Through the use of assessments and observation, registered therapists are able to recommend which individuals are likely to be exhibiting signs of trauma or distress and recommend appropriate interventions. If these provisions are available within the school (as both universal and targeted care pathways), then it is likely that a healthy and supportive culture, which places importance on emotional well-being will prevail, leading to a happier and more effective learning environment.
Using creative and expressive therapies to help with managing trauma
The use of creative and expressive therapies has long been employed to help manage stress, improve emotional well-being and work with alleviating the effects of trauma. There are a number of ways in which art-making can assist trauma sufferers to work through their experiences and begin the healing process.
Trauma-informed practice mixes neuroscience, developmental psychology, somatic approaches and resilience enhancement, all whilst using creativity and art-making as the fundamental methodology.
Trauma-informed creative therapies function by taking into account the following concepts:
1. Stabilising the body’s responses using a “neuro-sequential approach” via expressive arts therapies (Perry, B & Hambrick, E:2008)
2. Identifies the body’s reactions to stressful events and memories through trauma-informed evaluation and sensory-based activities using expressive arts
3. Responds to the body’s reactions to traumatic events through somatic and sensory approaches to self-regulation
4. Reinforces a sense of safety through reconnection with positive attachment and self-soothing
5. Builds strengths by using the arts to normalize and enhance resilience (Malchiodi, 2008; 2011).
What trauma fragments, creativity can coalesce
Those who have experienced trauma can struggle to place memories in historical context through language alone. Art therapy (and the other therapeutic interventions) combined with neuro-biological, somatic, and behavioural approaches, help in linking fragmented sensory memories and personal narrative. Trauma-informed art therapy roots itself in the idea that art expression reconnects implicit and explicit memories of trauma (Malchiodi, 2003).
Teachers need to exhibit empathy and make efforts (even if they are through referral to other professionals) to look beyond challenging behaviour. Trauma-informed practice acknowledges that these behavioural challenges can stem from the child’s need to assert some control after feeling the loss of security. These behaviours can be symptomatic of experience of trauma and become a coping strategy for the young person, rather than simply a pathology. Of course, it can take a great deal of time and patience to tease out these strands of psycho-social knowledge about the child, but only by doing this are we able to learn enough about them and their personal narratives to decide how best to intervene and help.
Goodyear-Brown (Ed.), Handbook of Child Sexual Abuse: Prevention, Assessment, and Treatment. New York: Wiley.
Malchiodi, C. (2003; 2012). Handbook of art therapy (1st & 2nd ed.). New York: Guilford Press.
Malchiodi, C. (2008). Creative interventions with traumatized children. New York: Guilford Press.
Malchiodi, C. (2011). Trauma informed art therapy with sexually abused children. In Paris
Perry, B.D. and Hambrick, E. (2008) The Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 17 (3) 38-43