Persistent disruptive behaviour, is it just a mask? (Guest post)

Graham Chatterley has kindly provided this guest post for the Axcis blog. Graham is an ex-special school leader, father, SEND consultant and trainer. In this blog he looks at the reasons behind disruptive behaviour and how we might see this as a form of communication so that we may better understand and support our children and young people.

Graham is the author of “Building Positive Behaviour” which is available now for those looking for further behaviour support advice.

I wrote an article a while back that focused on the motives of aggressive/challenging behaviour. I separated behaviour into 3 different motives;

1 – Uncontrolled aggression

An action decided by the brain stem in a microsecond, triggered by fear and beyond the child’s control. What the brain chooses as a response will often result in different adult reactions.

A child that freezes, refuses to respond can often be deemed to be ignoring, rude or avoidant and so we persistently encourage them to answer.

A child the flies and hides under a desk is often deemed to be disrupting, we feel out of control and the behaviour is often met with an attempt to get them out from under the table.

A child whose brain chooses a verbal fight response can be deemed as rude or disruptive. It is easy and a natural human response to meet the verbal challenge with verbal challenge of our own.

Finally, a child that responds to that fear with physical aggression will often be met with rejection. Physical aggression towards staff and pupils is the 2nd and 3rd most common cause of exclusion.

However, if the child isn’t in control of their actions at the time is it right to treat them as if they were? Even more so, make long term decisions about that child based on dysregulated actions.

Taking any kind of punitive approach in this circumstance is unlikely to have any impact. You cannot deter a child’s brain stem. It isn’t interested in good order or learning. It is designed for one purpose and that is to keep us alive. Just because we as adults don’t view a situation as life threatening does not mean we speak for the child’s brain. We also have to be aware that if we remove any of those limited responses, we encourage another. If we keep asking that child to answer a question when they have frozen then we take their freeze response from them. If we keep trying to get them out from under the table then we take their flight from them. If we meet their verbal challenge with our own verbal challenge then we leave only one response. A physical fight response that our policy says must be met strongly, but haven’t we left the child no choice?

The popular counter for a more punitive argument is ‘What about the other 29?’ It’s a logical response and for extreme actions it isn’t about the perpetrator, it is about the victim. The punitive response may be designed to deter others, to make staff feel supported or even appeasing parents.  If these things have motivated the response there may well be an argument for them being necessary, especially in instances like serious assaults. What there isn’t however is an argument they are effective at changing the behaviour.

If the action taken by the adults isn’t to benefit the needs of the young person then it won’t impact the behaviour. Temporary or even permanent exclusion may be used for those reasons but it will never improve behaviour. To change the behaviour, we must have the individual child in mind, make the child feel safer and use consequences that teach the child about the behaviour. If we offer none of this, we can’t be surprised when it doesn’t work. Opportunities to help that child to regulate were missed until the child ended up losing control.

2 – Overwhelmed aggression

We’ve all been there. We start the day a little stressed out and worried, a few things happen that we find frustrating, things that we’d normally manage are making us angry and we lose our temper over something trivial. If you see this happen with a colleague is the instinct to criticise them or check they are OK? Is the instinct the same with children?

Often however it doesn’t get to the loss of control, we will see it coming and take a break, even do an activity that regulates us and gets us back on track. We do this because we have learned to do it. Before we learned to do it, we were taught to do it.

The sooner we regulate, the easier and quicker it is to return to calm. If we hadn’t been taught to do it then we probably would have been much less successful adults. Yet many children haven’t been taught this skill, don’t recognise what is happening to them and their bodies, and don’t know how to change the outcome.

It’s easy to bemoan the fact that these things have never been taught, it’s a great opportunity for parent bashing but that changes little. The press is currently having a field day with the term ‘school ready’. Children can’t use a knife and fork, children aren’t toilet trained and their reading levels are lower than they should be. Of course these things are important, but why is there no mention of children who can’t self-soothe? Who don’t understand escalating levels of stress and who don’t know how to make themselves feel calmer and therefore are ill-equipped for the school environment? Truth is we can moan all we want but we have to teach these skills to give that child any chance at being successful and we don’t teach the skills by looking at the outcome. We teach them by looking at the journey. We must identify where the child is on the path to anger and aggression and do something to regulate them. If we do this with relentless consistency we can teach them to do it for themselves.

Schools in America led by Lori Desautels, author of ‘Connections over Compliance’ are not only teaching children how to do this but making understanding the brain part of the curriculum. Children are not only taught what is happening in their amygdala but they have a special personalised toolkit of what is needed to calm it down. If the argument is ‘what about the other 29’ in a dysregulated classroom, then the solution is not to remove the dysregulated children, it is to ensure all children are regulated.

If we ignore these feelings and wait for the behaviour we fail the child. We will have missed multiple learning opportunities. A punitive action that does not link to the feelings is completely ineffective because the child neither recognises where it comes from nor has any skills to stop it happening. I don’t know how to play the guitar. You can punish me all you want for not playing it, nothing will change unless someone teaches me how to play it.

3 – Long term survival/mask

No doubt this is the hardest one for educators and it is no surprise that ‘Persistent disruptive behaviour’ is the most common reason for exclusion. Seeing a child lose control (as with uncontrolled and overwhelmed aggression) is difficult and often outcome-related by response. A provision may decide that they can’t meet a child’s need or more specialist support is required.The idea that it’s nobody’s fault is the attitude towards the failure. However, a child who adopts a mask or persona in order to survive doesn’t often get that luxury. It will be their fault for choosing to behave in such a fashion. Disrupting lessons, answering back, refusing etc are chosen behaviours, right? They aren’t in crisis or under threat they just don’t want to do it? But take a moment to consider these scenarios;

  • A friend goes on a string of failed promotion interviews and its really getting them down, what do we advise? Often it’s take a break for a bit.
  • A family member goes on a string of really bad dates and it’s affecting their mental health, what do we advise? Often it’s, give dating a break for a bit.
  • You can’t seem to build a good rapport with your personal trainer, what do you do? Often it would be to change to another trainer.

These are our adult survival strategies, often advised by others, and that’s without taking into account any traumas or additional needs. We change, we avoid, we take a break because we fear the failure, we feel overwhelmed or it is damaging to our self-esteem/confidence.

Do we allow our children this opportunity? Is avoidance an option? I’ve never been taught the guitar but I’m been punished for failing at it, why would I ever want to play the guitar?

For many children that guitar could be certain topics, social situations, unstructured time or relationships. It is perfectly logical to want to avoid them but they aren’t allowed. So finding a strategy to get removed is the next best thing. In my experience, work avoidance has little to do with not wanting to do something and everything to do with the perception of failing at it. Getting sent out or getting a consequence may pale in comparison to feeling like a failure or the fear of failure.

But what about just playing up to their mates? It’s a fair argument, it happens. The point in adolescence when what the other children think is suddenly more important than what the adult thinks is very real. So, if all of a sudden a child’s priority is what their peers think, then looking stupid in front of them is even more significant. We can now add to the failure a significant fear of rejection. Avoidance becomes even more appealing than it was before.

But what about bullies? Again, it’s a fair argument, there are those children who target others. In my experience there are many reasons for this, none of which is because they are a ‘bad kid’.

  • Pushing the buttons of others may well cause those children to misbehave. This could cause the disruption required, whilst also avoiding the consequence for having been the disruptor.
  • Believing that you can make yourself and others feel better by making others feel worse is a common belief held by many children. If social media is anything to go by some adults also believe this!
  • Some children have very little control in their lives outside school and look for things they can control in it. For many this may be their own behaviour but for some it may be the behaviour of others. Manipulation may be the only time they feel in control.
  • Fearing rejection has one simple solution. Reject first, sabotage and control the way it ends on your own terms.

To me these avoidant, attention seeking and bullying behaviours are all just survival styles. They aren’t good ones, just like letting the amygdala or the brain stem be in charge of behaviour choices isn’t helpful. To blame the child and refer to it as choosing to be naughty shows a lack of understanding and does the entire class a disservice.

If we want to change behaviour we have to identify it’s origin first.

  • If behaviour origin is in the brain stem and driven by feeling unsafe, we must prioritise an environment that makes the child feel safe. Feeling safe is different to being safe.
  • If behaviour origin is in the emotional/limbic brain and driven by feeling overwhelmed and dysregulated, we must prioritise regulating that young person so they can learn to manage those feelings.

However, if behaviour origin is long term survival strategy chosen over time to combat consistent threats or avoiding the negative feelings that result, then we must structure our approaches to focus on safety, trust, regulation and belonging. In that order and with relentless consistency to change that young person’s belief systems.

Why would a young person who has only experienced failure, ever forecast success?

Asking that child to make themselves vulnerable and take risks without believing they can be successful will only create a need for an adaptive survival style. If we want this behaviour to go away, we have to build from the bottom.

We can’t expect children to run, if we’ve never taught them to walk!

Graham Chatterley

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3 Comments on “Persistent disruptive behaviour, is it just a mask? (Guest post)

  1. Absolutely brilliant, emotional and so telling of what these kids are going through. Why can’t they have a break! Why is attendance more important than mental health.
    This article made me cry several times

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