I’m still completely at a loss, after all these years of working with vulnerable children and young people in schools. Why does it still seem to be the preferred way of managing behaviour? What, I hear you cry! Well, punishment, sanctions, consequences, reflection spot, isolation, time out – whatever we call it the premise is the same. We think that if we enforce a negative action AFTER someone does something unacceptable, that the next time they ‘think’ about doing that again, then the thought of the punishment will stop them. It just doesn’t work. Not with children with insecure attachment and I would even venture to say for most children and young people.
Why doesn’t it work?
Well, there are many reasons probably.
- They are reacting to something someone else has done that has activated the fear response in the brain. The fight, flight, freeze mechanism floods their brains and they can’t access the logical, thinking brain.
- The level of anxiety they might be feeling is such that they can’t make the link between cause and effect. That what they do might have a negative impact. Lack of empathy also makes it hard to acknowledge when they do things against others.
- They are full of shame which drives behaviours. This is more powerful than the threat of a detention or 10 minutes off play time.
- They are driven by a need to be seen – attention seeking behaviour makes it hard to just be quiet and sit still.
- The need to be liked by others might be a driver to behave in certain ways to be in with the crowd.
- They have other neurodiversity challenges that make it hard to stop their impulses, such as ADHD, FASD or ASD.
When any of the above things are present then adults’ threats of sanctions only compound the sense of shame and anxiety. What is needed is more understanding around WHY a child or young person might behave as they do.
Ask these questions, if you can…
- What was happening before the incident to the child or young person?
- What is their base line in terms of stress levels? For example, if they are in a chaotic home environment then they may be wired to react to things around them. They may be more sensitive to changes.
- How do they feel about themselves?
- How comfortable do they feel with the people around them?
- What would help them to regulate right now?
I have mentioned previously three areas to work on with any child or young person and it’s worth keep coming back to those things. Trust (helping them to feel safe and able to trust others), worth (the opposite to shame) and regulation (able to calm themselves down and be in the thinking part of their brain).
So instead of behaviour management, how about finding ways to build these three areas so that we can equip the next generation to be resilient. Even more so since COVID we are seeing children and young people crying out for more understanding and empathy from the world around them.
This doesn’t mean we allow children and young people to do whatever they want of course or to treat others in terrible ways. But, we do have to take a step back and reflect – is what we’re doing to address this behaviour working, and is it building strong foundations that help children and young people to function in the world?