If you're working with a pupil who has difficulties with their emotions and behaviour, there may be an issue with their sensory processing. Sensory needs aren't exclusive to children with autism - and they actually impact on a wide range of children in our schools.
In this week's episode, we speak to expert, author and occupational therapist Lindsey Biel. She explains how sensory needs affect emotional regulation - and shares practical, effective support strategies that could make a real difference to the lives of children in your classroom.
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Show notes / transcription
Lindsey Biel 0:00
What I do see is that people with sensory issues that are not fully addressed, start to have some behavioural problems and attention problems because they're so preoccupied with what's happening to their bodies, that it interferes with attention and interferes with learning and interferes with focus and self regulation.
Simon Currigan 0:22
Hi there. My name is Simon Currigan and welcome to Episode 30 of school behaviour secrets Yes, believe it or not, we've made it to the big three-0. And let's be honest, most discerning podcast listeners certainly can't believe it. This podcast is living proof of what you get if you combine having too much time on your hands with bags of overconfidence and a staff meeting agenda that starts with the words. It's Gin o'clock and my co host Emma Shackleton is here with me. Hi, Emma.
Emma Shackleton 1:30
Simon Currigan 1:31
Emma, I'd like to start this episode by asking you a question. Is there a noise or sound that really annoys you?
Emma Shackleton 1:39
Yes, Simon. You coughing during podcast recording.
Simon Currigan 1:42
You mean really close to the microphone so it hurts your ears?
Emma Shackleton 1:45
Yes, and not using the mute button. Anyway, why are you asking me this, this week?
Simon Currigan 1:50
Because to some extent, we are all affected by our senses. And when our brains and bodies invest energy trying to regulate that sensory information, it drains us of our ability to concentrate or regulate our emotions. And in today's show, I speak to occupational therapist and award winning author Lindsay Biel about what it means to have sensory processing issues and what we can do to support pupils in our classrooms to overcome those issues and regulate more successfully.
Emma Shackleton 2:19
That sounds interesting. But before we press play on that interview, I've got a quick favour to ask open your podcast app now and share this episode with three colleagues or friends who you think would find this episode interesting. Sharing is easy. Most podcast apps have a share button that allows you to send a direct link by text, email or messaging. And it means that they can also get the help they need to support their students too. And now here's Simon's interview with Lindsay Biel.
Simon Currigan 2:50
I'd like to introduce you to our guest today Lindsey Biel. She's a paediatric occupational therapist in New York City, where she evaluates and treats young people with sensory processing issues, developmental delays, autism spectrum disorders, and other challenges. She is also the co author of the award winning book, Raising a Sensory Smart Child, the definitive handbook for helping your child with sensory processing issues, and Sensory Processing Challenges, Effective Clinical Work With Kids And Teens. Lindsay is here to talk to us today about how a child's sensory needs can affect their emotional regulation and behaviour. Lindsay, it's good to have you on the show. Thanks for speaking with us today.
Lindsey Biel 3:31
Simon Currigan 3:32
I'd like to start by unpicking What does it mean to have a sensory processing issue?
Lindsey Biel 3:36
Okay, so let's start with what sensory processing is to clarify that and all of us first learn about the world through our senses. Even in the womb, a young child touches things and hears things and sees things and move their body through space and learns about the limits of their body and and where the external world begins and how all of these different parts work together. And sensory processing is how the little human being takes all of those separate pieces of information and transforms it into information that they can use so that they can function and respond in, you know, the most appropriate way. Now, for some people because of differences in Nervous System wiring. And I'm talking about the brain the way their brains are, their bodies are working, they get in that information a little bit differently, and they use the information a little bit differently. And I'm not going to say poorly or dysfunctionally. It's just it's a difference. And so what begins to happen when you're not getting accurate and reliable sensory messages about the world and your own body. You start to have some out of proportion reactions to experiences that you are asking may think like, you know, it's not a big deal. It's just, you know, a goat bleeding. Or, you know, oh gee, it's just a light, it's just an overhead light, what's the problem and the person may have like this out of proportion reaction that's a little baffling for a lot of us that don't have sensory issues. Now you and I, we all have some sensory preferences and intolerances. It's on like a continuum. Like I don't like clothing tags in my shirts, I cut them out. I don't like fluorescent lights. In fact, I hate them. But it doesn't really interfere with my ability to get things done. For someone with stronger sensitivities, this can be a real problem, there are people who tend to be more hyper sensitive, like to have very strong reactions, it's like the volume control is up on any one of those senses. You know, sounds can come in like too loud, or certain frequencies of sound or touches can feel like more intense than we may think this kind of thing. So it's like the person for whom everything's coming in is experienced as too much. And this person may be kind of guarded and try to control what's happening to their bodies and maybe get a little bit avoidant, you know, they don't want to brush their teeth, they don't want to have lotion put on their body, they don't want to use that icky glue, things like that. Other people the way their bodies and brains are wired are hypo sensitive or under sensitive, meaning they need a lot of input for it to really register for them to be able to use it. So this might be the good example, as a child who's just kind of sprawled all over the floor at school, or you know, doesn't want to get up off the couch at home, it's just hard to get them aroused, they're a little bit lethargic, because they're not getting those alerting sensory messages. Now, in fact, most people are kind of mixed. Some days there, fine, some situations, they're fine. And other times they're not so fine. They have a lot of trouble with consistency and self regulation. One day, the T shirt with Elsa from Frozen is like the best thing to wear. And the next day, it might hurt a child's body and you're thinking how can that hurt your body. But you know, the nervous system is so inconsistently functioning, that it becomes problematic,
Simon Currigan 7:32
That's going to be quite draining for the child, what's the impact on them surviving and succeeding in the classroom?
Lindsey Biel 7:37
Well, you know, with an understanding parent and understanding teacher and with good professional intervention, a child can learn to better tolerate the inevitable experiences that the world offers for us. And I often give the image of going to a picnic with a paper plate in your hand and you have this paper plate and you're at a picnic, and you put on let's say, a taco, and that's fine, Y'know, and then some potato chips, then you go for a little bit of potato salad. It's getting heavy, but you're okay. But then you go for some coleslaw and your whole plate falls apart. So in order to be successful, the people helping that child need to figure out just how much that person's paper plate can handle on any given day without falling apart and figure out how to strengthen that paper plate. So it's stronger and more able to manage the inevitable sensory challenges throughout the day. You know, there are a lot of accommodations that a classroom teacher can provide for a student who's struggling this way. And a lot of things that a parent can do as a therapist also gives tools that help to increase the child's ability to tolerate input.
Simon Currigan 9:03
In the UK. Certainly there's a lot of awareness of around how children with autism often present with sensory difficulties. But sensory processing disorder is sort of a separate diagnosis that has much less awareness, certainly on this side of the Atlantic. Can you talk about the differences and the commonalities between those two?
Lindsey Biel 9:20
Absolutely. Just because someone has sensory processing difficulties does not mean they are on the autism spectrum. But almost everybody who is on the autism spectrum has sensory issues. Unfortunately, what happens is people who are diagnosed as autistic tend to have the most extreme sensory issues, strong sensory issues and potentially disabling sensory issues. So again, it's a continuum. But you know, to be clear, there are people with attention disorders who have sensory problems, there are people with all kinds of diagnoses physical disabilities, people who have experienced adverse childhood events. All different kinds of people can have sensory issues. So it kind of cuts across all of these labels and diagnoses. And there are also there is a, you know, some people who really don't qualify for any kind of diagnosis otherwise, who just have sensory issues. But what I do see is that people with sensory issues that are not really addressed, start to have some behavioural problems and attention problems, because they're so preoccupied with what's happening to their bodies, that it interferes with attention and interferes with learning and interferes with focus and self regulation. So we can't think of these diagnoses as like these neat silos, you know, this fits in this silo. And then over here is this stuff, and oh, she's got this. So she's got to be in this silo. You know, it's not really like that. The good news is that teachers parents can use many of the same strategies, no matter what's going on underneath desensitising to tactile input, touch him desensitising to frequencies of sound, getting rid of fluorescent lights, providing supportive, comfortable seating that helps the child to or adult, I tend to say child, but it's all different ages, to help them feel more comfortable sitting and able to attend providing a weighted wearable, a weighted lap pad or shoulder shrug, to help to literally ground them in space and feel more comfortable these kinds of things.
Simon Currigan 11:53
I've just finished reading your book around raising a sensory smart child, and whether you're a parent or a teacher, or both. If you're sitting and listening to this and wondering, how do I find the right kind of compensation strategies to support my child, your book is just full of them. You say, here's the problem, here's the problem, here's the solution, here's a solution. It's so clearly written. If you're listening to this, I thoroughly recommend it's an excellent book. In your book, actually, one of the things that you say that touches on what you've just been talking about in terms of children, how to manage that sensory load that I found really, really interesting that I had not really thought about before, is that you said that children with sensory problems often have a sort of weak or inconsistent connection between their vestibular system and their other senses. Could you explain what the vestibular system is. And what you mean by the link between that and the other systems and why that impacts on their ability to regulate.
Lindsey Biel 12:41
It's such a complex question, because it is the key question, right? So first of all, a definition of the vestibular system, because that's, you know, we all learned about the five senses, and y'know, and they're actually much more complex and what we learned, but there are three other senses. Just quickly, the vestibular system is a key one. And that is your sense of movement and your relationship to gravity. And the vestibular receptors are located in the inner ear. And they can tell which way is up at all times, they can tell if you're speeding up or slowing down, it's what tells you if you had your eyes closed, and you were on an elevator, you could tell if you were going up or down, right, you could tell if you're in a rocking chair, and you're rocking back and forth, the fluids are swishing around and your ears telling you about the movement and the speed and all of that. There's also a sensory system called proprioception. And that is the sensory system. Its receptors are located in the joints, muscles, and connective tissue of the body. And that's what tells you where your body parts are in space. It's your sense of body awareness. It's how you can tie your shoelaces without looking at what you're doing. It's like muscle memory we call it, so the vestibular system and the proprioceptive system works seamlessly kind of like a GPS system for the body. And the vestibular system is the key sensory system that gives you your sense of safety and security. It tells you where you are on the planet. And it's joined in by the proprioceptive system. You know, not only are you here, but all your body parts are here and there's your hand and there's your arm and there's your foot. So just to add the third one, because people may be wondering, then I'll talk about the linkages. There's also the interoceptive system, and that's very important. That's our sense of the physiological condition of our bodies. Do we need to use the loo? Do we need to eat something? Is your heart beating rapidly? Are you breathing rapidly? This kind of thing? So all of these things have everything to do they all work together to tell us you're safe. You're okay. Everything's fine. Whoops, you're losing your balance, you better tighten up your muscles and pull yourself back up. Okay? Do that. And it's all these neuromuscular things that have to go on. And we're also linking with our vision, right, we need to see what we're reaching for. And by linking with our vision, we know when to stop reaching, because our hand is almost there reaching for a glass of milk on a table, like you're using all of your senses, your vision and your proprioception and your vestibular system to position yourself and then reach gracefully, hopefully, without you know, using your vision to slow down as you're getting near so you don't knock over that glass of milk so it all connects and when it doesn't connect seamlessly and automatically the way it does for most people can really start to have some problems. You can have some it's kind of like a judgmental term, but you know, clumsiness, right, the child is tripping over their own feet, they're bumping into other children because they're not using their visual vestibular proprioceptive information in an effective and accurate way. A child leaning over to pick up a pencil, if they have a vestibular problem may become very dizzy and disoriented, these kinds of issues. So it becomes very complex. I hope that gives you a taste of that.
Simon Currigan 16:23
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.
You can see how the brain does an amazing magic trick of combining all this complex sensory information and making it seem to most people effortless, you don't even think about moving your hand towards a cup of tea to pick it up. And the pressure of information involved in getting the trajectory of the mug right so it doesn't spill water all over your face. So if you have difficulties with the vestibular system and proprioceptive system that are all working together, how does that affect your emotional regulation? One might that cause you to have difficulties regulating emotions?
Lindsey Biel 18:14
Well, if you don't feel safe, and you don't feel secure in itself is going to cause some problems. Let's say you're a student at school and all the other kids are eating their lunch in the cafeteria. And you're like, so uncomfortable because of the noise. And you know, you have this food in front of you and the texture you find really revolting. You know, you just you can't handle it, and especially as you get older, you start to look around all the kids are running around the playground and having fun. What's wrong with me? Why do I feel more comfortable sitting in the shady part of the playground, maybe playing in the sandbox or just kind of hanging out and reading a book. You know, it's not that carefree play that other children can more readily engage in, it's very upsetting. Some kids don't quite realise it in the early years that they're different. You know, it can interfere with friendships, if a child is acting out all the time, the other children may not want to play with that child or being near that child. You know, it may be a situation like oh, here comes Johnny, I'm gonna keep away and that's very disturbing. So it can really interfere with self esteem. tactile sensitivities just can really set kids aside and certainly adolescence as they start reaching the age of you know, you have to be wearing a certain fashion to be cool. And meanwhile, like a child, let's say blue jeans, you know, it's like I can't tolerate blue jeans. They hurt my body. So okay, you're the weirdo not wearing blue jeans and forget about dating or any kind of intimacy. That's can be very, very challenging.
Simon Currigan 20:01
As a teacher, I'm trying to support a child in class, I suspect they've got sensory need, I might be getting the support of an occupational therapist or another professional and lets start talking to me about sensory diets. Can you kind of explain what a sensory diet is and how it helps a student manage those sensory needs.
Lindsey Biel 20:19
okay. And it's great to work with an occupational therapist if you have access to one. And unfortunately, it's not so easy to get ahold of an OT in your area, your school district. So that's part of why I wrote my book, in the recognition that I really wanted to share the tools that I use with teachers, with parents with other therapists, if they don't have access to someone, and not every OT has the information. But anyway, to answer your question, a sensory diet. And it's not a term that I love, because I don't like to diet.
A Sensory diet refers to a schedule of beneficial activities that's individualised for the student to help them feel comfortable throughout the day, you know, the correlate would be you wouldn't make a child be hungry all day long and feed them after school, you would give them something to eat before school and at snack time and at lunch, and you know, you're not going to have this starving child, you're going to have a problem. So it's that kind of a concept. So it's activities. It's also accommodations, again, it's that, you know, how are we going to bolster their ability to engage? And how are we going to maybe change things to empower them to do so. A sensory activity at school, maybe before sit down to engage in some vestibular movement, like doing jumping jacks or stretching when there's so many games, Simon says is one of my favourites to do with kids and I can get them to do anything I can get them to do my jumping jacks that I know will give them that pounding movement input, if it's in the form of Simon says, or I use something called we'll have names and I put in exercises and we play that game together. So a lot of vestibular stretches, yoga, things like that before school, I also like deep breathing before having a child sit down to work for the day. And that could be in the form of a programme like take five breathing, which is something people can look up on YouTube, there's a lovely video that explains it. A lot of kids don't know how to do this deep breathing that is so regulating, if you ask them to take five deep breaths, they might breathe in really quickly and shallowly. And that only increases their arousal level. So what I do, what you can do is have them exhale. And how do we have kids exhale, they don't know how to do that, have them make noise. So I'll do lion roar, let's roar like lions five times before we sit down, and the louder they roar, the better an inhalation they're getting. And that really brings the oxygen level up, and the calming, really kicking in. So that's a good thing doing that before sitting down. If a child has tactile sensitivities, I will have them engaged before, let's say doing playdough or some kind of messy work, I'll do just what's called hand rubbing. And that's literally having them rub their hands, you can hear me doing it right rubbing their hands palm to palm palm to the top of the hand switching hands doing each finger. And of course, we're also teaching really good hand washing skills. But at the same time, if you'll feel your hands feel different, one of the things with kids is they don't know that they have all these different parts of their hands. They think their hands are like paws. So if we really get in there into all the different parts of the hands, that helps to desensitise the hands and better enable them to touch something messy. Another thing in the classroom is to give kids a better sense of control using that getting messy thing, What you don't want is a child who's engaging in like, you know, some something with glueing on decorations on a forum or something and then getting up every minute or two to wash their hands. This is counterproductive. So you're going to encourage them, let's put on three decorations and then we can clean off our hands or better yet just have like a damp towel nearby and they can wipe their hands off. You know, there's no law that says they have to get their hands really messy. So it's like respecting their sensitivities and accommodating that and that is part of sensory diet. Also for kids taking regular breaks. For kids who need to self regulate offering, in the UK I believe they call them ear defenders. We call them sound reducing headphones. I like ear defenders. Now I'm using it all the time and explaining what it is because that's what it is. One thing I want to add is the ear defenders cannot be worn all day should not be worn throughout the school day. And then, you know, save them for particular times that are really problematic, school assemblies, fire drills, this kind of thing. If you wear them all day long, they're not going to be very effective. And when you take them off, oh, my goodness, the sound is going to be even louder than it was before. proprioceptive and vestibular input are key parts of the sensory diet. So movement and pounding kinds of things are super important. Also, vibration is a very helpful part of sensory diet, but it is different for everybody. So what I often have schools set up maybe with the help of an OT his little shoe boxes, and in the shoe box, you're going to with the child's help, maybe the OT maybe the parent, put in a couple of items, and create a sensory box that the child can take a short break with, that could include some theraputty for the child to squeeze, it might include some essential oil that the child loves that they find calming, maybe a little picture book, things like that maybe a little vibrating toy the child can hold that is, you know helps them or maybe a little weighted lap pad or a weighted toy that just gives an opportunity to regulate using tools that they have selected that they feel good about that's highly individualised. And that can help a lot hand fidgets all those things, and I don't call them fidget toys, ever, because they're not toys. They're tools.
Simon Currigan 26:48
Lindsay, what I love about your book, and the way you're speaking now is you just give practical example after practical example, we talk in this podcast about joining the dots between theory and practice. And I'm sure our listeners getting loads of value out of this because you're doing exactly that you've told us about the theory. And then what do we do with that information in the classroom? If you're a teacher or a parent listening to this podcast? What's the first step you can take to learn more about how senses affect children at school or at home? And what we can do to support them?
Lindsey Biel 27:17
Well, it starts with understanding, right, so I created some screening tools that parents can use, teachers can use, anybody can use and just download from my website, go ahead and get them. They're in my books, but they're on the sensory smarts website, SENSORYSMARTS, don't forget the S at the end sensory smarts.com and go ahead and print that out and start to fill it out. And as you consider your answers, you're gonna start to see certain patterns and certain situations that may be quite difficult. And what you want to do with that information, it's not scorable This is not a standardised test or anything like that. It's a way of gaining information and insight. And what you want to do with this information is to predict situations that are likely to be problematic or definitely problematic, and then take steps to prevent problems. So let's say you've noticed your child, your student, has difficulty kind of around 11.30. Every day, that's like, he just has a problem. He was fine in the morning. And then by 11.30, he's had it, then you start to think, Okay, what can I do at 11 or 11.15? At the latest to change that? Do I need to give a snack and by snack, I don't mean a cookie or you know, some sugary juice. Like it's not a beneficial snack. Basically, you want to get some protein into the child to help to regulate their sugar levels. Because what starts to happen when a child gets hungry, especially a sensitive child is blood sugar starts to drop and then the behaviour starts to get a little bit wacky. So do I need to give a protein snack to this trial? Do I need to just give them some water? Are they getting dehydrated? Do I need to do a movement break a breathing break a sensory break? What do I need to do to help that person feel better and not have a meltdown at 11.30? And at home? You know, the child goes to school hopefully children are going to in person schooling these days. That's a whole different story. But you know, after school or after remote school, if that's happening, is that the time to say all right now let's get your homework done. And then we can go to the park. For some kids, they need to go to the park first. They need to get back on an even keel and then do whatever responsibilities they have. And I do want to say it's great to have a soap box. Because sometimes people make the mistake of you're engaging and out of bounds behaviour, therefore, you can't have recess today, or you can't go to the playground, or you can't do this or that, when in fact, that's when the child needs it the most. And they're communicating that to you all behaviour is communication, including the out of bounds behaviour, predict, prevent, that's the key. And if the child has a meltdown, if you blow it because you couldn't predict and prevent, just be their child, you know, get them out of the situation, give them a chance. We can't say Hey, kiddo, you got to buck up, you know, once they've lost it, they've lost it and compassion, understanding, reduce sensory input, meaning like dim lights, and not so much going on. Not so much stimulation will help the child to more quickly self regulate and be available for learning and playing again,
Simon Currigan 31:00
One last question, Who is the key figure that's influenced you? Or what's the key book that you've read? That's had the biggest impact on your approach to working with children?
Lindsey Biel 31:10
Okay, I've been working with children for 22 years, before I became an OT, I was a full time writer, a part of how I was easily able to pivot and then write a book. And early on when I was thinking about what career I wanted to choose, I was in the Strand Bookstore in New York City, wonderful used bookstore and I came across the Galley Proof. So it's pre published of a book with this photo of a woman with a cow on the cover. And I was like, Oh, that's interesting. And she has such an interesting name, Temple Grandin. Hmm. So it was Temple Grandin book thinking in pictures, and I read it, and I thought, Oh, my gosh, I want to work with people like Temple. And she taught me about sensory issues. And she was so influential. So you know, I had this idea of this is how autistic people are, and they think in pictures, and they experience life this way. And they have problems because of X, Y, and Z. And then I read Dr. Dawn Prince Hughes, wonderful book songs of the gorilla nation. And Dr. Hughes is an anthropologist, a primatologist, and an author, and she's since become a friend. But this is way back when it was first published 2004. And she's very different from Temple Grandin extremely different. And I thought, Oh, my goodness, I don't know what autistic people are because every person is different, and they have different needs. And once you've met one person with autism, you've met one person with autism. I mean, it's a cliche at this point. But this was very important approach. Listen, ask, observe, and individualise how we deal with things. And as long as I mentioned, Dr. Dawn Prince Hughes I loved her book so much that I introduced her book to a film producer, and the screenplay has been written and you can watch for the film. Hopefully, it's gonna happen in the next year or two.
Simon Currigan 33:17
Wow, what a story. Yeah, thrilled about it. Lindsey, that's been so helpful. I'm sure so many of our listeners will have gotten practical advice from that around supporting kids and helping kids with sensory processing difficulties. Thank you so much for being on the show today.
Lindsey Biel 33:32
It's such a pleasure. Thank you for having me.
Emma Shackleton 33:35
What I really like about that interview is Lindsey doesn't hold back. She just shares lots of practical examples and strategies that we can all use to help with the kids that we work with.
Simon Currigan 33:46
If you're currently working with children who have difficulty regulating. You may also be interested in one of the Deep Dive video training sessions we have available inside our Inner Circle library.
Emma Shackleton 33:57
It's all about learning what drives pupils with autism to experience meltdowns, plus 15 simple practical strategies that you can use in your classroom. To prevent meltdowns from happening in the first place. You can get instant access to this training called How to Prevent meltdowns, and 27 other training modules when you sign up for the inner circle programme, right now, you can get a seven day trial of inner circle for only one pound. And just like Netflix, you can turn the inner circle subscription on and off whenever you choose. So you remain in complete control,
Simon Currigan 34:36
Head to beaconschoolsupport.co.uk and you'll see an inner circle link near the top of the page. I'll also include a direct link in the episode description.
Emma Shackleton 34:46
In next week's episode, we'll be exploring the myths and unearthing the facts about FA SD, that's foetal alcohol spectrum disorder. This is a must listen because you'll be surprised at just how many Children this issue affects
Simon Currigan 35:02
if you don't want to miss that episode, you could get in a biplane and take to the skies like a young Chuck Yeager and his prime, then scream at a passing cumulonimbus cloud or the Stratus numbers if you live in a fancier part of town, and insist it rains down the next episode of school behaviour secrets as it's released, or you can open your podcast app, tap the subscribe button, or the follow button if you're using Apple podcasts, and your app will automatically download each and every episode for you so you never miss a thing.
Emma Shackleton 35:31
That's it for this week's episode. We hope you have a brilliant week and we'll see you next time on school behaviour secrets. Bye
Simon Currigan 35:39
(This automated transcript may not be 100% accurate.)