Sometimes it can be hard to pin down what causes students to behave in a challenging way. Which means that our support strategies are unlikely to be effective - and those behaviours persist (or get worse).
In today's episode of School Behaviour Secrets, we share 3 overlooked factors that can cause challenging classroom behaviour. We explain what they are, how to recognise them and how to address them successfully to help your students get back on track.
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Show notes / transcription
Emma Shackleton 0:00
In school, there are a number of children who are constantly experiencing a state of stress. Maybe they feel like they don't know what to say, or they're worried about how they fit in, or they feel socially awkward, so they're worried about getting things wrong. Some children even see school as a frightening, even hostile environment. And that triggers off their stress response on a day to day basis.
Simon Currigan 0:26
Hi there. My name is Simon Currigan and welcome to school behaviour secrets. While other educational podcasts make you feel like you've been invited round to the hosts for a sophisticated dinner party to sip my wine, enjoy polite conversation and listen to contemporary jazz, school behaviour secrets is more like being invited back to ours for a back to back Geordie Shore marathon with a pint of snake bite and black in your hand scoffing an oversized bag of kettle chips. I'm joined by my co host, Emma Shackleton. Hi there, Emma.
Emma Shackleton 1:34
Hi, Simon. And before we go any further, I'd like to say to our listeners, if you had any time off over the summer, we hope you got a chance to relax and recharged.
Simon Currigan 1:42
Absolutely. It's been a while since we last talked. And that means I've got more questions for you than ever before. And I've waited all summer to ask you this question. What do you think is the most overlooked skill a teacher can possess?
Emma Shackleton 1:59
That's quite a tough question. We've worked with so many highly skilled teachers over the years, lots of them have great people skills and communication skills. I think one of the top skills that we sometimes forget to mention could be the skill of choosing your battles, great behaviour managers seem to instinctively know which behaviours to pick up on and which ones to just let go. So why are you asking Simon what's the tenuous link this week?
Simon Currigan 2:28
Because today we're going to be looking at three overlooked factors that influence children's behaviour in school and in the classroom. And when we account for these factors, when we get these drivers of behaviour, right, we help our kids relax, feel confident and succeed.
Emma Shackleton 2:45
Great. But before we get onto that, please share this episode with three of your friends or colleagues who just like you are committed to improving children's lives and experience in school people who you think would benefit from hearing this podcast, all you've got to do is open your podcast app, hit the share button, and you'll be able to send them a direct link, it takes less than 30 seconds.
Simon Currigan 3:09
So let's find ourselves a qualified surgeon get ourselves a nice and aneasthetised, put our faith in the science as we remove that grumbling appendix we call behaviour.
Emma Shackleton 3:20
So when we think about behaviour in class and what affects it, we tend to think about things like behavioural special needs, parenting, early childhood experiences, sensory needs.
Simon Currigan 3:33
But today we're going to look at three that kind of go under the radar or people pay lip service to but then kind of skim over before they focus on the other stuff. And these factors are just as important. So let's kick off with thinking about sleep.
Emma Shackleton 3:49
Sleep is so important. It impacts massively on our ability to regulate our emotions. I've actually got a set of pyjamas with the slogan, sleep is the answer. And I've come to realise the wisdom in this statement. You see, our brain only has limited capacity for regulation. When we're mentally and physically drained. We've got no resources left for dealing with emotions, processing and interpreting senses that kind of thing. Lack of quality sleep also affects retention, focus, resilience, and patience, really fundamental skills that we all need to be able to learn. Just think about the effects of poor sleep on us as adults. Nobody performs their best when they are not rested and recharged. We all feel a little bit cranky and short tempered when we don't get good sleep.
Simon Currigan 4:44
And the same is definitely true for children. What's interesting is that studies have shown that good quality sleep appears to be particularly important when kids brains are growing and developing and not getting the right sleep at those times can be associated with things like anxiety or depression and aggression. There was a really interesting study that's bang up to date, 2020, where researchers took a sample of 53 kids. And then what they did was they restricted their sleep for a while. And then after that period of sleep restriction, they gave them a series of tasks to assess how that sleep deprivation had affected their ability to regulate and engage in a range of activities. And what they found was really interesting, in the tasks where kids were asked to suppress their emotional response, sleep restriction, negatively impacted on those children's ability to regulate their emotions, regulate their desires, and just deal with emotional arousal in general. But if you're a parent, I'm guessing you knew that already. Because you can get perfectly kind perfectly nice children who, when they're sleep deprived, turn into monsters, let's be honest. So sleep has a massive impact on kids ability to regulate and cope and manage their own behaviour.
Emma Shackleton 5:59
So what we're seeing now is a whole generation of chronically under slept, children and adults, it's kind of become the norm for us to sleep less as our habits have changed. And we live in a more round the clock on the go society filled with technology. And the interesting thing is, many parents don't realise how much sleep their kids need. So what parents tend to do is compare with friends have a chat in the playground, have a look on Facebook, or in a kid's whatsapp group. And when you're comparing with people around you who are like you, if they're also not getting enough sleep, that all feels kind of normal. This is a massive issue that often gets swept under the carpet.
Simon Currigan 6:42
So let's have a little think about why kids can't sleep. And one of the first things to talk about is screens, okay, kids are on screens, much more than they ever used to be in the past. And there's a real issue here about how blue light affects melatonin production. So Melatonin is the chemical that your brain produces when it's time to wind down and start to move into a sleep mode from an active mode during the day. Okay, so Melatonin is the chemical that announces right, it's time for us to get ready for sleep. Now, when we were cavemen and we were wondering outside on the plains, we would only normally encounter blue light during the day. And then as we reached a sunset, we get red light. And then obviously in the night, there's darkness, what we have now is a situation where we have a sunset, things get darker. And what do we do, we turn on televisions, we turn on our phone screens, we open our laptops, and all those devices produce large amounts of blue light, and that stops us producing melatonin, it tricks our brain into thinking, Oh, it's daytime again. So our brains aren't producing melatonin when we need it. To help us get to sleep those screens emitting blue light, even those devices that claim to have a wind down mode are still emitting lots of blue light, even things like Kindle produces lots of blue light, which affects melatonin production, which means you're going to physically find it harder to get to sleep because you don't have the right chemicals sloshing around your body.
Emma Shackleton 8:07
And linked to that thinking about the screens that you've already mentioned, Simon, his kids are playing video games much more now. And video games are intrinsically designed to be exciting and stimulating. Even if we managed to get the kids off the screens of an evening. They're frequently too excited to calm down and also the lure of gaming and social media interaction is available 24 hours now, thinking back to when I was little there were cartoons and kids programmes on TV for literally a couple of hours a day. And that was it. So cartoons finished and it was time to switch off and do something else. Nowadays, kids can watch TV or play video games with their friends or even with people across the world if they want to for literally hours and hours. Another issue that affects children getting to sleep is inconsistent bedtimes. These days, we live very fast paced lives. Often family life is very busy children might have clubs or activities that they're going to and from after school, and it can be difficult then to get a really consistent calming evening routine into place. And it leaves us with that constant feeling. It's like sleep jetlag if you like where we always feel a little bit groggy, a little bit tired from the over activity of the day before.
Simon Currigan 9:30
And those routines are really important because if we have the same consistent routines every day that inform our body that it's time to slow down and relax. It gives our body cues that we're moving from this kind of active mode towards a more relaxed sleeping mode. What we need each day especially for younger children are the same routines things like we have a bath time at seven o'clock then we do story then we turn down lights and then we have music or something like that, the same activities in the same order highlights to your body. Right, It's time for sleep now. And if we have a different routine every day, it's hard to have those routines in place so children can't cue into those and realise it's time for sleep.
Emma Shackleton 10:13
And if you're wondering what can be done to help children who really struggle to get to sleep, some can actually be prescribed melatonin. In more extreme cases, frequently children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and sometimes autism, they might be on prescription to help them with their sleeping. If you're working with a child who's chronically under slept, you'll see that they are unlikely to make sustained progress until the underlying issue of the sleep is properly dealt with.
Simon Currigan 10:44
I just like to take a pause for a moment and say that if you find this podcast useful, then you're going to love what we've got waiting for you in our inner circle programme. The inner circle is your one stop shop for all things behaviour. It's a comprehensive platform filled with videos, resources and behaviour inspiration to get you unstuck with classroom behaviour. We've got training resources on de escalation, supporting kids with anxiety support strategies for conditions like autism, ADHD, and PDA. practical ways of helping pupils deal with strong emotions, assertive behaviour management techniques for managing the whole classroom setting out your classroom environment for success. Resetting behaviour with tricky classes, and more. Our online videos walk you through practical solutions step by step, just like Netflix, you can turn an inner circle subscription on or off whenever you need to, with no minimum contract. Plus, you can now get your first seven days of inner circle for just one pound. Get the behaviour answers and you've been looking forward today with inner circle visit www.beaconschoolsupport.co.uk and click on the inner circle picture near the top of the homepage for more information.
Okay, let's move on to issue number two, which is social anxiety. So while many kids are outgoing and love social interaction, they enjoy meeting their friends and playing on the playground and the hustle and bustle of the classroom. Others find it difficult to fit in and suffer from a kind of mild social anxiety. So I'm not thinking here about the crippling social anxiety, which is obvious, which you often see in kids with autism, the sort of social anxiety that can go under the radar, the kids that are uncomfortable, the kids that are uneasy being in a social environment, but don't have these big outbursts or meltdowns that are big and obvious that indicate there is an underlying problem.
Emma Shackleton 12:40
And what that actually means is that in school, there are a number of children who are constantly experiencing a state of stress, maybe they feel like they don't know what to say, or they're worried about how they fit in, or they feel socially awkward. So they're worried about getting things wrong. Some children even see school as a frightening, even hostile environment. And that triggers off their stress response on a day to day basis.
Simon Currigan 13:09
So that means they might feel under attack in school, and then they never get a chance to relax. They're moving towards that fight flight or freeze response. They never quite get there. But they're experiencing big buildups in stress chemicals, like adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol. And the effect of those chemicals on the body is that they find it hard to concentrate and focus on their work, they might feel overwhelmed. And that leads to difficulty with emotional regulation, they might become highly emotional, you might see them crying or refusing. And you might see them become slightly more inflexible. When we feel stressed, we tend to want to take control of our environment. And we become inflexible. We want to make choices about how things are done for ourselves. It's only when we're calm, that we tend to be more flexible, happy to attempt things in different ways and take other people's opinions and go with the flow more. So although we're not seeing kids necessarily having meltdowns, there are all sorts of side effects about having big amounts of these stress chemicals in your body.
Emma Shackleton 14:09
And some of those are quite visible as well. So children develop their own coping strategies for the way that they're feeling. So that could be something along sensory lines, so maybe they're the kids who are tapping or fiddling and twirling with their hair or constantly moving. Some children feel the need to escape so they might leave the classroom or leave the learning area. Or they might mentally escape if you like. They might Daydream or tune out for a little while because it's all a little bit too much to be in the moment. Some children as well might be verbally or physically aggressive towards others, and you'll often see behaviours like refusals, as Simon's already talked about, it's hard to relax and follow directions when you feel in that stress state and many of these children are seeking lots and lots of adult attention. So they might follow the teacher around, they might call out for the teacher, they might learn behaviours that they know will guarantee them some attention or some connection with the adults. This can make it really difficult for them to form close friendships. And don't forget having that friendship network is a protective emotional factor. We need our friends around us We need people that we can relate to, to feel okay in ourselves. So when we feel socially awkward like this, it's actually a barrier to building those friendships.
Simon Currigan 15:37
So one way of seeing whether this is affecting a child in your classroom is to look at how they interact in different contexts. So you might look at how they interact in the whole class, you might look at how they interact in a small group taken out of class, do they look more confident, and they look calmer in a smaller group of children, or sometimes you might look at how they are one to one with either an adult or someone, they trust one of their trusted peers on the playground, look how they interact during PE, if they look calmer when surrounded by fewer children, if they appear to be relaxed, and more flexible, then that could be a sign that anxiety might be driving their behaviour. And remember, some kids will cope with that anxiety by actually going under the radar, one way of coping with stress is to hide. And you might have a child who was just kind of very quietly sitting at the back of the room not meeting their potential and engaging in lessons. Because actually, their behaviour and their ability to cope is being locked down by that mild social anxiety.
Emma Shackleton 16:38
Those kids are the ones that are hard to spot, actually, aren't they they're the ones that we often describe as acting in rather than acting out. And in a busy classroom environment, it is easy for those children to get lost. So what's the solution then for us? Well, instead of focusing on the children's behaviours, try to look at building strategies that help them understand social groups. So we're trying to build their skills in interacting with their peers. And we can do this through devices like social stories, or comic strip conversations. And it's important that we rehearse situations so we can roleplay we can demonstrate how to ask to join in a game, for example, what to do with other children say no, what to do if somebody joins your game and then doesn't follow the rules. We can pre-empt all those little social difficulties and practice them when the children are feeling calm. And then afterwards, when the situation arises in real time, the theory is that they'll then be able to apply those skills that they've already rehearsed, to make that social interaction run a little bit more smoothly. We can also practice positive regulation strategies, we can do this ahead of stressful situations. So when they are fairly calm, that's the time to talk about what to do in social situations that make them feel anxious, and build in some strategies for them to be able to cope. And that might mean spending some time in and out of the classroom with them. The other key thing to remember is just because we don't find the social environments stressful, that doesn't mean the same is true for your students. So it's important to listen and to observe our pupils to find out where the hotspots are, where the pinch points are, so that we can help them through those difficult social interactions.
Simon Currigan 18:35
So the third overlooked driver of behaviour in the classroom we're going to look at is a language processing disorders. Now, believe it or not, many kids who have difficulties with behaviour and emotions end up being assessed with some form of language processing disorder. And it turns out that difficulties with language is a really strong predictor of having emotional problems in the classroom are 2013 longitudinal study followed kids from age seven to 13. And what a longitudinal study does is it doesn't just take a short term snapshot, it follows those kids over weeks and months and years to find out what's happening in terms of their emotions and behaviour. And the research has found that language ability, predicted behaviour problems, things like aggression, and outbursts and defiance and bullying and lashing out and it predicted in attentive behaviour issues. Researchers also did a comparison of things like ethnicity, social economic status, demographics, children's ability, academically and intellectually. And it was found that this ability with language or these issues where language was the strongest predictor of behaviour problems, and also when they looked at the data interestingly, it wasn't the behaviour issue that was causing problems with language. It was definitely the language disorder that was causing the problems with behaviour
Emma Shackleton 19:57
And when we're thinking about language processing, There are actually two types that we need to think about. So we've got receptive language and expressive language. So what's the difference? Well, receptive language refers to how the child understands language, how they receive those words and how they interpret them. Expressive language refers to how the child uses words to express themselves. So you can see how an issue with those skills would really impact on children's ability to integrate into the classroom, socialise with their peers, and could easily make a child feel defensive or embarrassed or frustrated. If they're struggling to understand and process the words around them. That could lead to confusion. And if they're struggling to say what they mean, or get their needs met, because they can't express themselves, then that's obviously going to cause issues with frustration, which could lead to behaviour difficulties as well. Many children with language processing disorders feel frustrated, helpless. And the way that they're going to demonstrate this is by acting out or acting in. So that might be hitting out physically or verbally, but it could also be withdrawing from situations that make them feel uncomfortable avoiding speaking out in class, avoiding putting their hand up to answer avoiding asking, or the children if they can join in with a game, for example.
Simon Currigan 21:27
One thing as an adult in the classroom you should be aware of is the issue of masking. So some kids mask their needs, so they don't stand out or get noticed. So what they do is they watch their peers, and they learn to nod in the right places. So they don't stand out, they learn to say yes, they appear to understand what's happening. But then when they go back to their task, if you're thinking about an academic task, or when they go to the group, they don't know what to do, and they get left out, or they may have some sort of social emotional issues. This can stand out a lot in PE, if you're teaching PE and the child appears to know what they're doing. But then they go back to the group and they do completely the wrong thing that might indicate there's an underlying need around language processing. And the same with the work if the child's nodding in all the right places when you're explaining the task, but then goes away and does something completely unrelated to what you've asked them to do. That may well indicate there's a language processing disorder.
Emma Shackleton 22:21
And sometimes those children can't actually get started with the task because they're not 100% clear of what to do because they haven't processed the instruction. So it can look like refusals, it can look like laziness. It can lead teachers to ask questions like Weren't you listening, or to accuse the pupil of being lazy or work avoiding, because they're not able to express themselves, or they might not be able to hold on to a series of instructions. So they might get the first couple, but then they fall off task and get into trouble. This always reminds me of a colleague that I worked with from the communication and autism team. And he explained to me that it can take up to seven seconds for a child to process one instruction. Imagine that seven seconds, if you think about it, when do we ever give seven seconds processing time between instructions, most of the classrooms I go into, we are firing off instructions, one after the other in quick succession and expecting the children to keep up.
Simon Currigan 23:28
And then if you've got a child with language processing disorders, what happens is they go away and do the wrong thing. And then we get focused on the behaviour what they've done wrong, or we start to think about the wrong cause. We think they're lazy or inattentive, rather than digging down into the true cause of that problem, which might be expressive and receptive difficulties. So if you think this may be an issue with a child that you're working with, the best thing to do is speak to your Senco or to the support services that work with your school and ask them to conduct a languages screen. And they can give you really specific advice on next steps because what you need is a programme of support around that individual pupil to help them get over their needs, because every child is different. So those are three overlooked factors that cause challenging behaviour, poor sleep, social anxiety, and language processing disorders.
Emma Shackleton 24:20
And of course, there are other causes of challenging classroom behaviour as well. So if you're working with kids who demonstrate challenging behaviours, and you're not sure why they're acting that way, we've got a download that can help. It's called the SEN Handbook, and it will help you to link behaviours that you see in the classroom with possible causes like autism and ADHD.
Simon Currigan 24:44
The idea here isn't for teachers to make a diagnosis. We're not qualified to do that. But if we can link behaviour to possible causes quickly, it means we can get the right help and get early intervention strategies in place. It's a free download, go to our website, www.beaconschoolsupport.co.uk, click on the free resources tab at the top. And you will find the download there for you. I'll also put a direct link in the episode description.
Emma Shackleton 25:10
Next week, Simon's going to be interviewing Lindsey Biel author of the award winning book, Raising a Sensory Smart Child, she's going to reveal how children's sensory needs impact on their behaviour, and how we can support them with those needs in school.
Simon Currigan 25:26
That was a really interesting interview. And she raised some issues about sensory needs and emotional regulation that I hadn't thought about in the past. So if you want to make sure you catch that interview, you've got two choices. You could just hope that the interview turns up in your podcast app. And you know, I'm not against hope. Hope has made great things happen. Hope is the burning torch that has led our civilization to greatness. Hope is the spark within every optimist, but I'll also say this about hope it's fickle. It's unreliable. When I was little, I hoped for a model of the Starship Enterprise for Christmas. And it never turned up. Oh, no, I've got a very sensible jigsaw instead. And I hoped that girl at the school disco would notice me. But she ended up getting off with my mate Barry, and now they're married. I hope to maintain a luxurious head of hair throughout my life. And well, anyone who's seen my photo will tell you how that ended. Thank you very much hope.
Emma Shackleton 26:19
Is this going anywhere?
Simon Currigan 26:20
I'm just saying, yes, you could hope to hear the next episode. Or you could open your podcast app, tap the subscribe button or follow as it's called in Apple podcasts. And then your podcast app will definitely download it for you. No drama takes 10 seconds, a single tap on your phone screen, and there's no need for hope.
Emma Shackleton 26:39
And that thankfully ends this episode of school behaviour secrets. If you find it useful, don't forget to share this episode with a friend or colleague. And we'll see you next week on school behaviour secrets. Bye for now.
Simon Currigan 26:53
(This automated transcript may not be 100% accurate.)