If we want children to make better choices we have to give them better odds of success (guest post)

Graham Chatterley is an SEMH school leader and father to an autistic son along with two other children. He regularly provides guest blogs for Axcis. In this one, he talks about the challenges children face when dealing with difficult situations and how we can help them to make better choices.

In one week we are going on a family holiday to Spain. I remember a time when something like this would be really looked forward to. I’ve always been a “glass half full” kind of guy but I am currently consumed with pessimism. We are at a point where going to the shop is a massive challenge with Daniel’s autism and collection of other needs – so to go abroad seems nuts!

All the things that could go wrong keep swimming about my head;

Is he going to become aggressive on the plane?

Will he eat in another country?

Am I fit enough to throw a 5 stone child about in the pool all day for 7 days?

Is he going to sleep in a different bed, in a different country, out of routine?

As I forecast the outcomes to these potential problems and get more anxious, I have to stop myself… I need to look at it a different way. We have done this before when we went away three years ago, and there were lots of positive experiences I can draw upon;

The last time he slept on the plane and going fast in the car is literally his favourite thing!

We have back up milk with enough nutrients in. If he doesn’t eat, it isn’t going to harm him!

I am 38 and past my best – but I think I can keep up with him – and I won’t be on my own.

In past experience the only place he has ever slept well was the last holiday in Spain!

So I temporarily come out of my worry cycle and feel a lot less pessimistic. Then I think about how I did it and how often the kids at school are in similar positions and we expect the same from them.

We expect them to employ similar techniques or a growth mindset, or we expect them to trust us when we tell them ‘it will be okay’ or ‘you can do it’ or ‘you don’t have to be scared’. Like the words should overcome every piece of evidence and life experience.

Just because we said it, meant it and believe it – so should they, but the truth is that it doesn’t matter how well meaning we are or how much we believe what we are saying if the overwhelming majority of evidence and experience says otherwise. This is why we have to create an evidence base that provides experiences that back up those statements.

The Experiences Bag

For me, I see it a bit like a lucky dip. All the experiences a child has are in a bag and when faced with a challenging situation they draw a response from the bag. If that bag only has negative experiences in it, then we will get a negative response – as we so often do with some children. This, in turn is often met with more negativity and we add another one to the bag!

It might be that we have previously managed to put some positive experiences in the bag. Maybe we did a good conflict resolution, maybe the child managed their anger well or was a good friend. Despite this, they may still be in a position where the negatives in the bag outweigh the positives, so in a moment of crisis – the odds are still that they will respond in a negative way.

This is the position many of the children we work with at my school are in. They come to us with a very unbalanced bag and are expected to manage complex situations, often very quickly, it stands to reason they pick out unsuitable choices.

So we have to help!


What is the biggest absentee in most difficult situations for both children and adults? Thinking time…

If we ask the child to just grab something immediately at random out of their bag, the odds are stacked against picking a good response. Yet we do it regularly – we put them on the spot, often saying things like; ‘What have you got to say for yourself?’

We create a lucky dip situation when we could be helping more effectively.

Rather than rushing them, could they be encouraged to take a minute to look through the bag? Can they find a situation where this happened before and the outcome was okay? Filtering is a difficult skill that many will struggle with but we can at least make sure they get the opportunity.

Help them locate good responses

We are their guides, their teachers, so let’s teach them how to search their bag! We can ask questions like;

Do you remember what we did last time?

I know how well you can do this because I’ve seen you do it when……

Growth mindset is more than us saying you can do it or you will succeed, it’s about us identifying when they have done it before and all the times they have succeeded and helping to keep them at the top of the bag.

Fill it up!

There is a fabulous video on YouTube about self esteem called ‘poker chips’ and at the end he says that our job as teachers is to make sure that each and every child leaves school at the end of the day with more chips than they started the day with.

This is the same principle. We have to add positive experiences to that bag. Every success goes in – and not just academic ones! We need to point out positive interactions and give jobs they can do well which will boost confidence – but most importantly – we need to carefully manage behavioural mistakes. We will still have to add a negative because they happen and that’s OK – but if we can have a resolution and therefore also add a positive, we can add balance.

If we do this over time we can tip the scales so that even if a situation is rushed, even if it is a lucky dip, the odds of picking out a positive experience and therefore response are far better.

Remember, children know what’s in their bag. For many they head to school rooting through it and all the failures. They play the upcoming day and forecast all of the situations where it is going to go wrong and unless somebody steps in to break this cycle it will repeat. That is where the adults need to come in.

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