Graham Chatterley is a regular guest blogger for Axcis. As a school leader in an SEMH setting, he knows all about how “challenging” behaviour can be a mask for other SEND needs. His new app aims to help other professionals to identify the roots of challenging behaviours and ultimately assist us in providing the best possible support. Read more about it here.
The origin of the ROASA App and why I hope it will make a difference
I do quite a lot of courses and a lot of outreach work. Many of the questions I get about challenging pupil behaviour is related to not being sure what is at the root of it. Very skilled staff who understand that behaviour is a form of communication and who know their children really well are saying things like, ‘they could feel something is wrong but don’t know what it is’ or ‘they have a diagnosis for this but it’s more than just that’. They take 1 step forward and 2 steps back and they know something is driving the behaviour but can’t identify it.
To put a number on it, in the year before last, 2700 children were permanently excluded from mainstream schools and roughly 150,000 children were given fixed term exclusions for aggressive behaviour to staff or pupils.
Currently, the most common reason for a child to be excluded from mainstream school is “persistent disruption”. I am confident this is a work avoidance technique linked to fear of failure – but that is not what this blog is about. The 2nd reason is “physical aggression” and 3rd is “verbal aggression”. If we combined physical and verbal and just made it aggression it would jump to the top. In all the schools in the country; aggression is the most common reason for exclusions. To put a number on it, in the year before last, 2700 children were permanently excluded from mainstream schools and roughly 150,000 children were given fixed term exclusions for aggressive behaviour to staff or pupils.
In special schools it’s even worse, aggression makes up a third of permanent exclusions and just under half of fixed term exclusions. This is a lot of aggression from a lot of children!
In an age where ‘behaviour as a communication’ is claimed to be understood, why is aggression still the fastest way out of the door and why do so many aggressive children leave education to become aggressive adults who end up in the criminal justice system?
Children often come to my setting with a diagnosis of complex needs. This is usually either because they have a mixture of needs, they haven’t engaged in testing or the people doing the diagnosing just don’t know. Whatever the reason, it puts me in a position where I have the behaviours and the difficulties but I don’t have the why.
Often, I have a child’s EHC plan in front of me but I can sense something deeper and I know something has happened to that child. I end up trawling through paperwork looking for clues with very little point of reference. Frequently, this is because the records and information only start from when the problematic behaviour starts. The file doesn’t have the important information I need to complete the picture, it doesn’t have the jigsaw pieces I need to repair what has happened to the young person, or to identify what is driving their aggression. I am trying to answer questions like; Why does this child feel unsafe? Why can’t they trust? Why is their self- esteem so low?
I might not have an answer though, I might not have paperwork that tells me what happened early in this child’s life and has left them with these difficulties; these aggressive reactions to even the most mildly challenging situation. If I don’t have this information do I assume it didn’t happen? Or do I make an educated guess?
This got me thinking – What if there was something that could help this guessing process?
I have spent many years working on emotional literacy with children and linking feelings to behaviours. The importance of identifying early signs of distress and how important that is to managing aggressive behaviour. It is vital, but at school we want to do more than just manage it, and the people I am doing outreach work with also want to do more than just manage it, but the only way to do that is by getting to the root cause. By finding out what has happened to cause the feeling; and I don’t mean the trigger there and then. I mean what has happened in that child’s life to cause the difficulties; the low self-esteem, the lack of trust, the dysregulation, the poor social skills and anxiety that drives the behaviour?
We can teach children self-control and how to manage their behaviours or we can distract and insulate them from challenging situations but if we don’t help them understand why they are that way; why they are different and how to accept that, then how is the child ever really going to be happy and able to cope in the real world after education? We have to change that child’s internal working model – and to do that we need to know what created it.
Then I had my moment! The missing piece that I needed. It came in the form of some Neuroscience training delivered by the fantastic Lisa Wisher. She talked about brain development and growth and how early life experience – before memories even form – shapes so much of the person we become. It was so relevant to our children and it was clear that the reason I couldn’t answer my questions was because I didn’t have all the pieces. I’m not going to lie, it sent me down a rabbit hole because I knew I needed to know more. I read lots of books and the more I learned the more questions I was left with. Then I stumbled across a book called ‘Healing Developmental Trauma’ by Dr Lawrence Hiller. It was really heavy going – I’m a teacher not a Psychologist! I had to read it a few times to get my head around it (I say read, I had it on audiobook so I listened to it 3 or 4 times!). Although it was talking about adults, it was discussing how adverse experiences led to personality traits, coping strategies and behaviours. And how, by using these outcomes you could signpost to the root of the aggression.
I thought to myself that if I could adapt and use this methodology, I could have a pretty good guess at identifying the experiences of the children I work with. Not only could I fill in the gaps and answer some of the questions I had, but I was in a position to intervene earlier in the children’s lives and have more impact than any therapist working with them later on an adult could. The adults in the book had already had the trouble with police, or addiction, or broken relationships. The Neuroaffective Relational Model (NARM) used in that book became part of my pastoral approach in school. I devised a table that had the 5 types of early trauma or parenting style that could affect the children’s behaviours. It had the personalities and behaviours you would expect if the child had certain experiences and what feelings those children were hiding underneath the coping strategies they adopted. It was a very useful tool for me but it was difficult to explain to others.
I felt I was on the right lines but needed something more user-friendly that would not require me doing extra training with staff to help them understand the model. So I put together a spider web of questions about a child’s personality and how they respond to situations, each question and answer leading to a different question until I eventually ended up signposted to one of NARMs 5 traumas. I took my sheet of A2 paper to my Headteacher who thought I was on to something.
The question for me was could I get the sheet of A2 to work as a computer programme? In my head I could see an app but I had no idea how or the skills to create it. I also had to incorporate other root causes because aggressive behaviour isn’t always because of early trauma.
I got help, and I ironed out the issues, and I am very proud to say that I now have a working app that I hope will support teachers and SENCOs in finding the root of a child’s aggression. The Roots of Aggression Signposting App has taken me 3 years to get right. I’m not trying to diagnose, I just want to give staff an idea of where to start looking, because for any professional faced with aggression it is so easy to see the behaviour when really, we need to see the child. We need to approach the situation with empathy and we gain empathy through understanding.
Knowledge is the most powerful tool in a teachers toolbox and if we know the “why” of aggressive behaviour, we don’t see a child misbehaving, we see a child in distress. And we approach a child in distress with a completely different mindset regardless of the aggression. That mindset will replace what has been lost for that child and relationships can be built – and one significant adult relationship can change everything for a child in distress.
That is the rationale behind the ROASA App – the idea is that after answering between 4 and 20 questions, you reach 1 of 10 suggestions as to where to find the reason that child is behaving aggressively. What you do with the knowledge is then down to you!
Where can you download it?
The app is currently only available for Android devices but Graham hopes to have a version available on the Apple App Store soon – so watch this space!
We would love to hear feedback from any professionals who try this ground breaking new app, so if you are working with children who exhibit aggressive behaviour, maybe you can give it a go and let us know how you get on?