What "Masking" Behaviour Means - And Why It Matters In The Classroom


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Some children change their behaviour and 'mask' their true needs all day long at school. Over time, this can be exhausting and may even lead to burnout!

In this School Behaviour Secrets podcast, we interview parent and educator advisor Amanda Sokell. Together, we discuss what masking looks like in young people and why listening to children†s behaviour (not just their words) is vital when trying to support their emotional wellbeing.

Important links:

Amanda Sokell†s website Navigating Neurodiversity.

Positive Discipline for Children with Special Needs

Get our FREE SEN Behaviour Handbook: https://beaconschoolsupport.co.uk/SEN-handbook.php

Join our Inner Circle membership programme: https://beaconschoolsupport.co.uk/inner_circle.php

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Show notes / transcription

Amanda Sokell  0:00  

We also need to listen to our child's behaviour because our child's behaviour tells us what their words can't tell us. Young children in particular don't have the language. They don't know that this is normal. They don't know that the way they feel isn't the way they should feel. And so the only way they can communicate is through their behaviour.

Simon Currigan  0:20  

Hi there. My name is Simon Currigan and welcome to another episode of school behaviour secrets. People say Done is better than Perfect. And the kindest thing I guess you can say about our podcast is that it is Done. I'm joined by my co host Emma Shackleton today. Hi, Emma.

Emma Shackleton  1:14  

Hi there, Simon.

Simon Currigan  1:15  

I'd like to start by asking you a question. Right according to a survey published by Vanity Fair, which habit are most people likely to indulge in when no one is looking?

Emma Shackleton  1:27  

Oh, nose picking?

Simon Currigan  1:30  

Your mind went immediately to nose picking? I'm not going to ask any questions. 

Emma Shackleton  1:34  

Go on Go on, what is it?

Simon Currigan  1:36  

The top answer was eating fattening food that was 38% of people. 

Emma Shackleton  1:39  


Simon Currigan  1:40  

Followed by watching trashy TV at 14%. And those answers are a bit of a relief really given that this is a family show. 

No, nose picking? 

No, no, nose picking. Right to be fair. I think this is a survey where people chose from predetermined answers because checking someone out was a close third at 13%. And they can't be that many people constantly checking out other people and embarrassing internet habits weren't mentioned once. So thank you Vanity Fair for that excellent piece of investigative journalism.

Emma Shackleton  2:09  

Okay, well, we've been enlightened. But how does that fit in with today's episode?

Simon Currigan  2:13  

So the link is today we're sharing my interview with Amanda Sokell on the subject of pupils masking their needs and emotions in class, which can lead to very different behaviours at home and at school, and it can be really unhealthy for the child. So we're going to dig into why masking is unhealthy, and how teachers and parents can work together to help kids with this unhelpful behaviour.

Emma Shackleton  2:39  

Okay, that makes perfect sense. And just before we jump into that episode, how do you fancy paying it forward with a small good deed? We rely on word of mouth recommendations. So listeners if you find the school behaviour secrets podcast interesting and useful, and you know somebody else who you think might like it to do them a favour by opening up your podcast app and clicking on the share button. And now here's Simon's interview with Amanda.

Simon Currigan  3:07  

This week on the podcast. I'd like to welcome Amanda Sokell. Amanda helps parents and educators by sharing information on how best to support neurodiverse children, and particularly for parents have to secure the right support and provision for their kids. Her aim is to cut through the chaos and find step by step processes that support children that are easy to follow, and which help those involved to surmount challenges and to achieve. Amanda, welcome to the school behaviour secrets podcast.

Amanda Sokell  3:37  

Thank you, Simon. I'm delighted to be here.

Simon Currigan  3:39  

It's a real pleasure to have you on the show. We're going to focus on the subject of masking today. So could you start by telling me exactly what we mean by a child who may be masking their needs in school?

Amanda Sokell  3:50  

Yes, well, masking is it's quite literally like putting on a mask. It's something we all do, not just children, you've probably come across a time when somebody said to you, Hello, how are you? And despite the fact that you really weren't feeling great, you said, Oh, I'm fine, everything's great. And children do it too. And they do it when inside they are struggling with something in their world. And so they're trying to behave as they think they're expected to behave, or they see others behaving, even though there's something wrong and it's not easy for them to do so. And how do we know it's masking? is the big question because we all do it. How do we know we're doing it? It's because we see some evidence of different behaviour leaking, you know, in other parts of their world.

Simon Currigan  4:39  

So what would be the difference then between say, masking that is harmless that we're just you know, putting on a bit of a front we feel a bit poorly or something like that, or there's something here we don't want to talk about a masking that's damaging?

Amanda Sokell  4:51  

Masking that's harmless tends to be short term. So you know, you can mask for a couple of days without it being a big problem. If it's every day, every week, for weeks and weeks, we all find that very difficult. And it leads to burnout. Ultimately, whether you're a child or an adult, so it's long sustained masking that we need to be concerned about,

Simon Currigan  5:15  

I guess if you're in that position, that's going to be very stressful for the child just in terms of the calories, they're burning, because they're finding yourself in a stressful situation, and they're trying to hide the experience they're going through, that's going to be tough at any age.

Amanda Sokell  5:30  

Absolutely. Masking burns, or requires a huge amount of energy. And I often hear educators in particular, express surprise, that very young children are able to effectively hold it in for an entire school day, when the perception is that most adults wouldn't be able to do the same. Therefore, there can be some kind of disbelief that that's what's happening. You're right, it requires a huge amount of effort. And it is therefore, you know, very common that it can lead to burnout if it's not addressed. And I've seen several cases of children who end up not in school for months, unable to leave their rooms, because they're in burnout as a result of masking for long periods of time.

Simon Currigan  6:11  

So we're talking about kids who are disguising their true feelings, they're hiding their true needs, I suppose the next question is, why do they do it? What drives that masking behaviour?

Amanda Sokell  6:22  

When children do it for the same reason that adults do it. They do it to fit in. Who wants to be the person that says, when asked the question, how are you? Oh, actually, life's rubbish. You know, what do we do with that, so children wants to fit in just like we do. And often, the children that might be masking might be neurodiverse. If they're autistic, for example, they've probably spent their entire life watching others to try and understand how to behave. And so they see other children doing certain things. And they try and fit in with that. And within school, there are lots of expectations, there are expectations on how you sit how you walk down the corridor, putting up your hand note, you know, the anxiety that might be formed by those expectations, or too much sensory overwhelm, or whatever it is, it can cause a huge amount of stress for children. But because they're looking around them and understanding what's expected and trying to fit in, you know, that's where the disconnect is. And I think also, often there are children that mask have a very strong sense of justice, and what's right, and they don't want to be the ones to break the rules, because they're very clear about what the rules are. And yet, when they get home, that's their safe space. And so they can behave in a very different way at home.

Simon Currigan  7:42  

That brings us neatly onto the topic of after school collapse, and kids holding in, in inverted commas, their behaviour all day, as anyone who has experienced a strong emotion will know you can only hold it in for so long, I once heard a description that our emotions are a bit like a beach ball that you blow up on the beach, if you try and hold it under the water. At some point, it's going to bob back up. So can you tell us a little bit about parents experiences of their children's behaviour at home and touch on and unpack what we mean by after school collapse?

Amanda Sokell  8:13  

Yes, that's absolutely right. And actually, this can often be one of the first indications that what's going on is masking. Because there's a great video that was put together, it's on YouTube, if anyone's interested by It's time to thrive. And they use the analogy of a bottle of Coke. And the idea is that, you know, the child is the bottle of Coke, and they get jostled around a bit on the bus on the way to school. And then a teacher says something that they don't like, and then something happens in the playground and the coke bottle falls over. And then at the end of the school day, they greet their parents, and the parent essentially takes the lid off the coke. And of course it goes everywhere. And that's the after school collapse. It's a fantastic video that explains it. And I think it's because home is their safe space. So Home is where they can relax and use your analogy, you know, they can Bob back up. And the consequence of that is that parents see a very different experience of their child's world. And it can be very stressful for parents because in my case, because I have first hand experience of all of this, my child was physically threatening. At the age of seven, he withdrew from all the activities he was happy to go to. So he stopped wanting to go to gymnastics he stopped wanting to go to swimming to tennis to cubs and beavers was very, very challenging in his behaviour at home. It was a very difficult time.

Simon Currigan  9:38  

How did it feel as a parent to be on the other side of the screen as it were and seeing your child suddenly change like that?

Amanda Sokell  9:45  

You feel completely desperate because he's our second child. And so I felt like a really reasonably experienced parent. And yet this was completely different. So we were parenting our children in the same way And one was behaving one way and the other was behaving in a completely different way. And it didn't seem to matter what we changed, nothing made a difference, you know, we could be more strict at home, we could raise expectations, we could remove expectations, it didn't matter what we did. So it was very difficult to navigate, emotionally draining, feeling quite desperation at times and despondency at times, because, you know, we had no support. And I think that's one of the challenges. Because we asked for support, I asked the school for support from, you know, behaviour specialists. And because there was no behaviour problem to fix in school, those services couldn't get engaged.

Simon Currigan  10:41  

So that must have been frustrating. You're talking to educational professionals, who aren't seeing what you're seeing, what were their reactions, when you brought this up? You know, how did they respond when you said, Look, we're having these issues at home, what was their response, because this is really important, as most of the listeners to this show will be teachers and school leaders. And I have actually said to parents, I've had the conversation, I'm not sure how to help you were earlier in my career, because we're not seeing this in school. Tell me about your experiences. And the reactions of the professionals you spoke to,

Amanda Sokell  11:13  

I'd say, that's really common, lots of parents I speak to have said that teachers have sort of said, well, you know, we don't see this behaviour. So what can we fix? You know, there's nothing in our tool bag that helps us fix a problem we haven't got. I've also heard teachers who have, as I said, I've been completely unable to comprehend that a child of as young as six or seven, could hold it in for an entire school day, because they don't think an adult would be able to do that. And often, I think the feeling is that from parents, is that the school is kind of going if there's this big problem at home, look at home, what are you doing? You know, what's not happening at home? At school, we've got these really clear boundaries, and these really clear rules and this very big structure, maybe that's lacking at home. And that's why you've got this problem, which is very hard as a parent, when you know, that's not the problem. I'm not saying that's not always the case. And I'm sure there are families out there where that is the problem, especially in a family where there's more than one child, you would expect if that was the problem, all the children would be behaving in the same way. So if that's not the case, that's a really good indicator that maybe there is something particularly afoot. So it's very difficult to get support as a parent and to be listened to and heard by teaching staff. In many cases.

Simon Currigan  12:30  

It sounds like part of the problem here is professionals aren't taking sort of a 360 degree view of what's affecting the child. If everything's fine at school, then the problem must be with the parenting. But actually, the issue here is around the school environment and the child's reaction to it. And they're basically running out of emotional space at the end of the day. And then experiencing this after school collapse, which isn't the fault of the parent, is the fault of the experiences during the day that the child is having.

Amanda Sokell  13:02  

That's exactly right, Simon. That's exactly right. And if we could shout that from the rooftop, loud and clear and put it on a banner in every school staff room, that would be amazing. But if teaching staff could really understand that that's what's going on, and that for some children, the experience of a school environment is very stressful, even if they're not showing it, we'd be a big step towards helping these children to have a better school experience. 

Simon Currigan  13:30  

So what warning signs then, should we as educators, as teachers, and school leaders, what warning signs should we be looking for? that a child might be masking their underlying needs in the classroom?

Amanda Sokell  13:41  

I would say the first thing is, there's kind of Jekyll and Hyde character. So one persona in school, and then parents reporting a very different persona outside of school. And when I say outside of school, it might be at home. And it might also be in other activities that they're doing. So they might behave badly at their swimming lesson, or their gymnastics class or not want to go you know, so looking as you say, it's a whole picture of a child in all of their environments, and not just in one can often be a good place to start. What follows then is a reluctance to engage. So children that are struggling to come into school children that are struggling to engage in their extra school curricular activities outside of school, that would be another warning sign a child that has a strong sense of justice that reacts when they see another child being told off for something they didn't do, or a child that's not being punished for something they did do. Or it's not even necessarily always about them. They can see injustice happening, and if that's a particular character trait of a child, and then you've got a parent saying, you know, this is what's happening at home, that might be a good clue, anxiety symptoms that manifest in other ways. So what was interesting in our case was Is that the school was using scales to measure emotional well being and was, you know, scoring perfectly well. And yet they had really challenging toileting problems. And what we now know is that effectively they were in a fight flight or freeze state for most of the day. And so there were, you know, there were incontinence problems. You can't take any one of these in isolation, you have to build the picture, don't you? But all of these things might be indicators that that masking is going on. And as I said before, you know, looking at the family situation, are there other siblings, and are the same stories playing out for those siblings, or not?

Simon Currigan  15:37  

And it is interesting, because, you know, it's a slightly related topic, but often kids survive in school in primary school by masking their needs up until about the age of sort of year four, year five, and then as the expectations are increased, and the social roles become more complex than then need start to become more apparent, but we have to realise that just because a kid isn't throwing chairs in year two, or screaming and shouting, that doesn't mean there isn't an issue, that one child is externalising their behaviour. So you can see it's on the outside externalised and you know, the clues in the world, but there are kids internalising and they're easy to miss aren't they.

Amanda Sokell  16:13  

Totally, totally and and I think as you say, you've got the child that is externalising in both environments, you know, in school and at home. And often that one, everybody's aligned and they know what to do. And for the children that internalise in one environment, and it could be they're internalising at school, and they're masking, they're internalising at home. And I call that protesting because they're protesting about the environment at school, or they're internalising in both environments. So they're withdrawing from the world everywhere. And that's the most dangerous in some respects, because nobody really has no clue what's going on. But you're right there often overlooked. Girls are often in primary school, at least better able to mask and then it all unravels when they get to secondary school. And as you say, the social interactions become much more complex, we miss a lot of it, and it causes burnout. You know, I've worked with a number of families who have children who won't leave their bedrooms for months, because they've masked for so long in school and it wasn't dealt with. 

Simon Currigan  17:15  

And then they've got nothing left. 

Amanda Sokell  17:16  

No, they've got nothing left and it takes months to recover. It's like adult stress, work related stress, it's exactly the same, in fact, and the only things you can do to help an adult who's got work related stress is to change their environment, and that there's about five things you can do in the environment. And funnily enough, they're about the same things that you can do for a child in school. So we're all wired by chemically and neurologically the same way, in that respect.

Simon Currigan  17:43  

What action points would you recommend to parents who might be listening to this podcast? Who are seeing their child struggle with these difficulties? And maybe are having the same experiences as you did when you went to the school and you started to talk about it, but you weren't getting anywhere. Or we weren't hitting the specific trigger points to include external agencies. What would your advice be? 

Amanda Sokell  18:03  

First of all, have faith that it's not your parenting, that there's something that needs uncovering, and it's not your parenting. That's the one thing because you can feel like you doubt yourself if you're not careful. And you need to come from a position of power. If you're going to properly support your child, I would suggest you gather evidence from multiple sources. So as I said, don't just look at what's happening at home. Look at how your child behaves in other environments, outside and inside of school and gather that as evidence, I guess, read everything you can about masking because of you know, what might happen if it's not addressed and asked for help. So if you're not getting the help you need from school, look elsewhere, go to your GP, maybe ask for a referral to community paediatrician or whatever the appropriate is for your child's age. Ask for help, because there is potentially something that needs uncovering. And it's important that it is. I think, we also need to listen to our child's behaviour because our child's behaviour tells us what their words can't tell us young children in particular don't have the language. They don't know that this is normal. They don't know that the way they feel isn't the way they should feel. And so the only way they can communicate is through their behaviour. If they're reluctant to go to school, there's normally a reason. And it is my biggest regret that I forced my child to go to school when I shouldn't have done so, you know, the odd day not at school to recover is not a slippery slope to long term non attendance that everybody thinks it is. And if it does go to long term non attendance, it means there's a fundamental problem that needs addressing and perhaps share this podcast episode with the teachers in your school.

Simon Currigan  19:50  

And as teachers I think we need to believe parents and take the time just because we're not seeing something in the classroom. It doesn't mean that the classroom isn't a fundamental part of the problem that's causing the child to behave that way at home to mask their needs.

Amanda Sokell  20:07  


Simon Currigan  20:08  

If you're a teacher or a parent listening to this podcast, what's the first step you can take today, to start helping your pupils who may be masking their needs?

Amanda Sokell  20:17  

Well, it's funny because the first thing I was going to say was what you've just said that please teachers listen to parents, and understand that your environment might be part of the problem, even if the child doesn't appear to be struggling in it. When a child has, for example, a milk intolerance as a baby, there isn't a test you can take necessarily that will tell you that the way they diagnose it is they experiment with different milk formula. And if by removing the milk protein or the lactose, or the symptoms go away, they kind of go up, your child's got an intolerance to milk protein, or lactose. So experiment with changes just because a child doesn't have a label that says do X, Y, and Z, it doesn't mean you can't try different things that you might do if they had that label. Because sometimes experimenting with putting in the relevant adaptions will help you understand what's actually going on. So be open to experimenting, support parents, you know, be on their side be their ally, rather than an adversary, their life, if they have a child that's masking their life at home is incredibly stressful. It's incredibly emotionally draining, they're probably only just holding things together. And the best thing you can do is to be empathetic, or compassionate. And try and support them to the best of your ability and manage expectations. You know, if you can't engage external services, because the behaviour isn't present at school, explain that be upfront about what you can and can't do, and signpost them to other services if necessary. I've got quite a lot of resources on my website. So that's www.navigatingneurodiversity.life, it might be helpful to listen to my podcast, which is enlightened, and that's conversations with parents that have been through this experience and other similar experiences and educators and professionals in the space. And ultimately, I love working with teachers in schools to help develop understanding in this area. So any of those things might help.

Simon Currigan  22:26  

I think that last point is really important as well, especially for school leaders, because, you know, I think back to my earlier career, you can't help someone if you don't know, you know, if you've not been trained on it, if you don't have information on it, everyone's doing the best with the information that they have. And as school leaders, if we're not helping people on the ground, who are meeting face to face with parents every single day, if we're not giving them this information, then they can't get parents the support that they really, really need. Amanda, I'll drop direct links to your podcast, and the website in the episode description as well. For anyone that wants to find out more about this topic. Before we finish, we asked this of all our guests, who is the key figure that's influenced you, or what is the key book that you've read, that's had the biggest impact on your approach to working with children?

Amanda Sokell  23:16  

I read a book which was recommended to me Positive discipline for children with special needs. It's actually a book which is a variation of a book called positive parenting. And for me, it was really understanding the difference between the way children's behaviour makes us feel and what we think they're doing versus what they are actually trying to communicate. And that for me was really, really fascinating because instead of interpreting particularly my own child's behaviour as insolent and rebellious and all of those things, I was able to see it for what it really was. And armed with that information, we were able to make massive improvements. So yeah, really excellent book.

Simon Currigan  24:05  

I think that's probably the perfect link with everything we've been talking about today, isn't it, Amanda, thank you for being on the show. 

Amanda Sokell  24:11  

My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Emma Shackleton  24:13  

Right. So you can see straight away how masking involves disguising needs and holding in emotions, which pent up the child's stress in a really unhealthy way. And how a 360 degree approach where school and home work together in partnership is definitely going to be the best way to support the child

Simon Currigan  24:35  

Completely. And I put a link to Amanda's website and navigating neurodiversity and her resources in the episode description.

Emma Shackleton  24:42  

And if you're working with kids whose behaviour is challenging to you, and you're not sure why they're reacting in a certain way, we've got a download that can help. It's called the SEND handbook. And what that will do is help you to link behaviours that you've seen in the classroom with possible causes such as autism, ADHD, and trauma.

Simon Currigan  25:03  

The handbook is completely new and revamped, and it now contains fact sheets on conditions like ODD, FASD, DLD and more.

Emma Shackleton  25:12  

Of course, the idea here isn't for teachers to make a diagnosis because we're not qualified to do that. But if we can link behaviours to possible causes quickly, it means that we can get the right help and early intervention strategies into place. This is a free download, so go to our website, beacon school support.co.uk. Click on the free resources section near the top, and we'll also put a link in the episode description.

Simon Currigan  25:41  

And if you found today's episode interesting, don't forget to subscribe, simply open up your podcast app, hit the subscribe button, and your podcast app will automagically save each episode for you as it's released. So you never miss a thing. It's like the serious link on your TV remote, but for podcasts. Plus subscribing will fill you with the sense of success that's usually reserved for an owl that's just given the most powerful hoot of its life.

Emma Shackleton  26:07  

And on that common sense. I'm going to bring the show to a close. I hope you have a brilliant week and we really look forward to seeing you next time on school behaviour secrets. Bye for now.

Simon Currigan  26:17  


(This automated transcript may not be 100% accurate.)