Learners who struggle with their mental health or who have experienced trauma
can exhibit behaviours that are often deemed ‘unacceptable,’ ‘disruptive’ or ‘aggressive’ by schools.
As a result, these learners often face punitive consequences such as detentions, isolation, exclusion or in some case restrictive physical intervention as a result of their behaviour.
Mind’s inquiry, ‘Not Making the Grade’ (June 2021) identified that 48% of young people surveyed had been disciplined at school for behaviour related to their mental health and 25% of staff were aware of students being excluded from school because of their mental health.
One of Mind’s recommendations was that ‘All teaching staff should take action to understand the causes of young people’s behaviour.’ I’ve lost count of how many times I have heard staff describe a significant incident as ‘It just came out of nowhere; we couldn’t have seen it coming’.
All behaviour is communication
All behaviour is communication and when a learner is involved in a serious incident, they are often communicating that they are extremely distressed. It’s highly unlikely that this has not ‘come from nowhere,’ it’s more likely that the adults have missed those earlier signs of a learner trying to communicate their distress.
The Crisis Development Model
is a series of recognisable behaviour levels that an individual may experience in an escalating crisis and identifies attitudes and approaches that staff can use at each level to de-escalate a crisis moment and prevent the situation from escalating.
When a learner is communicating their distress through their behaviour and this is not addressed it can result in the situation escalating into a crisis. Whilst staff cannot control how a young person escalates or de-escalates in a situation, they can control their own responses. How adults respond, what they say and what they do can have a significant impact on the outcome of a situation.
Anxiety is the first level of behaviour in the Crisis Development Model and is identified by a change in an individual’s typical behaviour. Although that sounds easy to identify, learners express themselves in many ways and it is not always easy to recognise the emotions underlying their behaviours. In a busy classroom some of these changes can go unrecognised, which then becomes a missed opportunity to de-escalate a potential crisis situation.
Whilst all learners may experience anxiety at some point, it will be particularly prevalent amongst young people who have experienced trauma or are suffering with their mental health
. This makes the model an important tool in reducing those punitive consequences that learners suffer as a result of behaviours which are deemed to be ‘inappropriate’, ‘disruptive’ or ‘aggressive’.
Changes to typical behaviour can be broadly categorised into three types of behaviours:
Learners may become agitated quickly, irritated by things that wouldn’t normally affect them, impatient towards others or find it difficult to concentrate. They may have worries or irritational fears when asked to complete everyday activities.
Learners may withdraw and become disengaged from classroom activities or social times, avoid eye contact and refuse to communicate with anyone. They may be rude towards staff and use inappropriate language.
Learners may complain of feeling unwell, suffering from headaches, nausea or upset stomachs or stomach ache. They may start fidgeting, pacing, swinging on chairs or choose to leave the classroom.
The above changes are not an exhaustive list and it is important that staff are aware of a learner’s normal behaviour so that any noticeable changes can be identified at an early stage. For example, swinging on a chair maybe the usual behaviour for one individual learner but when they start pacing around the room staff recognise that is a sign that they are entering the anxiety level of the Crisis Development Model.
For another learner, pacing might be their normal behaviour. If staff misinterpret the behaviour, they may use an incorrect attitude or approach which could result in an escalation of the situation.
When staff notice a change in typical behaviour at the Anxiety Level of the model, it is essential to intervene early to prevent the situation escalating. Initially staff need to be aware of their reaction to a young person’s behaviour.
It might be helpful for the adults to change their mindset. Instead of thinking about what’s wrong with an individual, it is often more helpful to think about what’s happened to that individual. Adults need to remain consistently calm and this starts with their own emotional regulation.
An adult who is dysregulated cannot calm a distressed learner. Young people are not born knowing how to self-regulate, it is a skill that they need to be taught, and they develop it by watching the adults around them. When staff are emotionally regulated, they can model the behaviours they expect to see.
Once the adult is in control of their own emotions the recommended staff attitude is to be supportive. Supportive means offering an empathic, non-judgemental approach. This can be as simple as letting the learner know that you have recognised the changes in their typical behaviour by asking if they are ok or if there is anything that you can do to help.
At this point it is extremely important to remain non-judgemental, give the learner your undivided attention (which is often hard to do in a busy classroom), listen to any facts or feelings that the learner may disclose, allow time for silence and reflection and paraphrase your understanding of the situation.
An empathic, non-judgemental approach will allow learners to feel that they are being listened to and will give staff the opportunity to meet their needs.
The impact of an emotionally available adult being available to a young person in distress, catching them before they have fallen can be powerful and long lasting. It can make the difference between a young person feeling anxious and over-whelmed and escalating into crisis or feeling calm, safe and secure. Can you be that person?