Why kids don't just explode for 'no reason'

Why kids don't just explode for 'no reason'

I recently discovered a really powerful analogy that helps to explain to staff why sometimes children 'just explode'. I'd like to share it with you.

It's called the stress bucket.

Imagine every child in your class has their own personal stress bucket. The bucket represents the amount of stress that they can hold. The volume that each child can personally contain day to day.

Some kids will have a very large bucket, meaning that they are able to experience lots of stressors but still be able to cope at school. Others will have a smaller bucket, meaning that their bucket will be filled much more rapidly - even if they experience the same events as their peers who happen to have larger buckets.

Following me so far? Stick with it!

Why do bucket sizes vary?

The size of the bucket depends on a multitude of different factors such as the child's personality, their levels of resilience, how much their basic needs are met and how well supported they feel.

Bucket size can also vary from day to day - mirroring the child's tolerance levels at that moment. 

If you think about it, even as adults, we all know that there are days when we feel fantastic and like nothing can stop us (a huge bucket kind of day), and other days where we feel tired, fed up, cranky and irritable (a tiny bucket kind of day).

At school, each time something the child perceives to be stressful happens, their bucket is added to and fills a little more.

Here are a few examples of stressors that add to the contents of the bucket:

  • hunger
  • fear
  • being shouted at
  • work that's too hard or too easy
  • conflict with friends
  • worry

I'm sure you can think of plenty of others too - depending on the circumstances your pupils are in.

Imagine each time one of these stressors occurs, it's like another add to the bucket.

And there's only so much that children can take before their bucket becomes dangerously full.

What happens when the bucket is full?

When the bucket gets too full, it overflows and that's when we see explosive or disruptive behaviours.

That's why sometimes the final drop into the bucket before we see a child's ouburst appears (to us) to be quite small.  You know the type of thing - someone says 'your mom', or brushes past the child in the cloakroom, or we forget to tell them there's no jelly on the menu today...

... and BOOM!

In reality, very few behaviour outbursts are actually triggered by something and nothing - but that ultimate, tiny event may be the only part we see. The final straw - the one that broke the camel's back.

Why do some pupils have an outburst first thing in the morning?

As educators, it's super useful for us to also remember that even before they get to school in the morning, some kid's buckets are already starting to fill. Maybe they didn't have breakfast, got up late, got told off by their parent, and came into school late...

...meaning that it only takes what we perceive to be a small thing such as asking them 'why are you late?' for the contents of the bucket to completely spill over - leaving us confused and having to sort out the mess, all before ten past nine!

So next time a pupil in your care 'just explodes,' think back to the stress bucket. What other stressors are going on that have already added to the bucket that day, that week, that year?

What about pupils with additional needs?

Children with additional needs such as autism, attachment disorder or ADHD for example, may have buckets that overflow more frequently. This is because they are likely to have more stressors (such as sensory sensitivities and anxiety) and a smaller bucket - a lethal combination.

If you are looking for a simple tool for linking classroom behaviours with underlying special needs - and cheat sheet tips on how to support them, download our free SEN handbook.

Key takeaways:

  • Everyone has a stress bucket
  • Some children have a small bucket, others have a large bucket
  • Resilience can change from day to day
  • Perceived stressors fill the bucket
  • When the bucket overflows we get explosive or disruptive behaviour
  • Children with SEN may have buckets that fill more quickly

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