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Seeing “behavioural problems” as a form of communication

8th March 2019

Yesterday I read yet another article discussing a child with autism left without a school place for 12 months following his exclusion for behavioural problems (link to article).

The irony of this situation is that “behavioural problems” are a form of communication. Whilst teacher training appears to focus on being able to motivate learning to meet the needs of different learning styles, teachers aren’t being taught to understand their pupils through the many forms of communication they will present.

Too often, primary schools rely on compliance in order to teach without having the skill set to adapt the environment and conditions under which they expect children to learn. This can result in children using behaviour to gain control of a situation they are struggling with. One child might sit and cry, another will ask to go to the toilet, another may tip their desk over and run out shouting. Each of these scenarios elicit very different teacher responses that will reinforce the behaviour in that child.

The child crying is likely to be consoled, told not to get upset and encouraged to ask for help – next time they are struggling they may look sad, not cry and approach the teacher for help. So long as the help is positive the child will learn that they don’t need to be sad to gain help.

The child asking to go to the toilet as a way of leaving a situation may initially work as a strategy as the teacher will likely grant permission and make no other demands. It is at the point that a teacher goes looking for the child who has been in the toilet for 10 minutes that will define whether the child uses this strategy again. How are they bought back to the class? Is it more motivating to be in class or out in the toilet?

The child who has tipped over their desk and run out shouting is likely to have been collected within the hour by their parents at the request of the senior leadership team – effectively being excluded for the rest of the day. Their behaviour has been reinforced, they have a strategy to go home and to get away from the situation they were struggling with. If that situation is writing or going to assembly or being asked to sit still etc. then this will happen every day.

It seems that the essential communication skills needed to enable children to manage their anxieties and their behaviours, are not being taught or developed in schools, yet are often the underlying cause of exclusions. The resounding effect of exclusion is low self-esteem, a reinforcement of behaviours that enable a child to avoid school, increased family stress impacting on their resilience and decision making and a society in which others observe that it is acceptable to simply hide issues by removing them. Nobody appears to be stopping to ask the questions “why is the child displaying that behaviour?” or “what are they trying to communicate?”

There are solutions as our partnership work with Southwark is proving. Our Outreach Team have been working with a primary school and Southwark council in supporting a young pupil back into mainstream education after a period of exclusion. His mother has seen a dramatic change in his feelings about school:

“Before, my son would say I don’t want to go to school, he didn’t want to learn, but now I think its improving, especially with the support and training for the school.”

If we could all remember just one thing – behaviour is communication.

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