Why Throwing Chairs Isn't The Behaviour Problem You Think It Is

Why Throwing Chairs Isn't The Behaviour Problem You Think It Is

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When a child repeatedly has trouble managing their emotions (or behaviour), it's time to start asking why they keep getting dysregulated. What's the root cause?

In this week's School Behaviour Secrets, we reveal how to identify the underlying cause of any explosive behaviours you're seeing in school - and why putting in place the right intervention is vital for achieving success.

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Show notes / transcription

Simon Currigan  0:00  

They might feel frustrated with the work or with their peers and lack the emotional regulation skills to soothe themselves. And when they're no longer able to manage that emotional stress by themselves, they suddenly explode. Or at least that explosion appears to be sudden. But actually, it's been simmering away all day until the pressure inside can't be contained any longer. So what I am saying is, unless we get to the upstream cause of what's causing those behaviours, those behaviours simply are not going to go away. 

Hi there. My name is Simon Currigan and welcome to this week's episode of school behaviour secrets. While other educational podcasts are like a gentle continental kiss on each cheek welcoming you to a polite half hour of academic conversation. We're more like a Glasgow kiss, bludgeoning and SEMH issue than showing it the door. It's just  me today. My usual co host Emma Shackleton can't be here. So I'll be handling this episode solo. And I wanted to take this opportunity to try a slightly new style of episode where we go deep into an insight or a mindset shift or a strategy to use in the classroom, something about behaviour or SEMH that might help you make progress with your students. And this week, we're going to look at why kids throwing chairs in class or walking out or swearing isn't the problem that you think it is. But before I get to that, I want to start by asking you a favour if you're finding school behaviour secrets useful. Don't keep it to yourself. Open up your podcast app, click the share button and send this episode to three of your colleagues or even a senior leader you work with you would find the content useful. It helps these ideas and the podcast grow. And then we can help more teachers and more students in more schools. 

So I want to start this episode with a quick story. I want you to imagine there's a medic and it's her day off and she looks outside the window and she sees it's a sunny day. So she decides to go and enjoy the weather and relax at the park near her house where there's a peaceful river. So she sets off and she finds herself a sunny spot on the bank settles back to listen to the soothing sounds of the water and sighs sounds idyllic, right? Well, no, because this is a horror story. While she's relaxing. She notices something floating down the river and as it gets closer, she realises with terror that it's a small boy floating facedown and not moving in the water. So as the child approaches she leaps out into the river, hauls the boy to the riverbank and then she flips him quickly onto his back and uses her medical expertise to perform CPR and resuscitate the child. And then 10 minutes later, to her great relief, his eyes suddenly flicker open, he spurts water from his mouth and he begins to breathe again. The boy thanks her and goes off to find his parents. Exhausted because CPR is a physically demanding activity. The medic sits back on the bank and begins to dry off in the warm afternoon sun. And then to her horror again. She sees another body floating down the river this time a young girl so she wades bravely out into the freezing water and grabs the girl pulls her back to the bank where she again begins resuscitating the child until the girl opens her eyes coughs up the water that's been clogging up her lungs and starts to breathe again. Doubly exhausted now, the medic rolls onto her back and thinks about how unlucky it is to see two children floating past drowning in the same river and how lucky they were for her to be on the bank and to have the expertise to save them. And then to her complete surprise, she sees a third body floating down the river towards her. So she repeats the same process again, swimming out into the river grabbing the child by the belt. This time it's a boy, pulling him to the warm grass on the shore and checking him for vital signs. Physically exhausted. Now she begins another 10 minutes of gruelling CPR, after which the boy groans his eyes open and he lives to see another day. And again, our medic rolls onto her back exhausted, wet and bedraggled. And then a woman in the park has been watching all this happen, walks across and says to the medic, you know, I want to congratulate you on all the hard work you've done preventing those kids from drowning. You must be so tired now. The medic sits up. And she thanks the passerby. And she says, you know, it was lucky I was here really, I guess it's one of those days where you feel like you made a difference. The woman nods and says, But you know, there's something you really need to know, if you really want to make a difference. You shouldn't be downstream, wasting time resuscitating these kids who are drowning in the river, your time will be better spent walking five minutes upstream to the bridge, and doing something about the man who keeps throwing them into the water. 

And sometimes in class, we have the same experience as that medic, we see our kids presenting challenging behaviour in class, we see the outbursts and the refusals, or the meltdowns and we spend a lot of time de escalating them or managing them, or trying to keep our lessons going and making sure the other kids feel safe. And that is draining, exhausting work. And I know because I've been there. But sometimes we have to ask ourselves is that wasted time and effort? Are we spending too much time dealing with the downstream problems, the big obvious behaviours we see in school, the chair throwing the swearing the aggression? when the real problems lie upstream, the thing that's causing the chair throwing, the swearing, the aggression, because unless we deal with that upstream problem, the man on the bridge, hurling kids into the water, those downstream problems are just going to keep coming. And if we don't tackle that upstream problem, we're going to see the same behaviours in class day after day after day. And what's worse is that the longer those behaviours persist, the more they become entrenched and difficult to change. And this is why it's so important to think about what is the underlying cause about the challenging behaviours we see in school, unless we identify it and address it. Those behaviours just keep coming. And that's exhausting for the child. It's exhausting for the adult, and everyone loses. And this is why for kids with high needs, rewards and punishments, and things like exclusion don't change behaviour, because they're attempting to deal with a problem downstream when we exclude a child for walking out of class. When you speak to them after the fact they know they shouldn't have walked out of class. But they lacked the capacity to cope in the situation they found themselves in, it's like saying to one of those drowning kids, it shouldn't be in the river, they know they shouldn't be in the river. Lectures on river safety aren't going to make any difference, they need help with the root cause, the man upstream, chucking them in the river in the first place. That's why suddenly my experience if consequences for behaviour don't work quickly, theyre unlikely to work at all. Because consequences work for chosen behaviour, when the child has the capacity and skills to cope in the school environment when their behaviour is being driven by something other than deliberate choice, when it's got an emotional root consequences have very limited effectiveness. So we've got to get ourselves upstream to the root cause and find out what's causing those behaviours. The problem is identifying that cause can be tricky. And here's the thing. Sometimes, because we find a solution to a behaviour issue, it doesn't mean we've identified the cause. Now, that may sound counterintuitive. So let me explain what I mean. There was an interesting study done a few decades back in a classroom where there were three particularly disruptive students, the teacher was at his wit's end, found it very difficult to keep learning going for the other children. And he didn't know what to do for the best. So the researchers sat quietly at the back of the room, and observed and they did find that the behaviour of the three identified children was particularly disruptive, then it made it difficult for the teacher to teach and the other children to learn. They suggested that during the work task, the teacher visited each target child in turn, and give them 30 seconds of his attention, then he would move on to the second child and give them 30 seconds of his attention. And then the third child at the end of this circuit, he would support the other children in class but very quickly returned to those three focus kids and give them each 30 seconds of his attention again, and he was to repeat this over and over and over and what the researchers found was that the amount of challenging behaviour from those target children was almost immediately eliminated. So they concluded two things, that attention giving solved the issue of those children's disruptive behaviour in class, and that the problem therefore must be that they were attention seeking. Now on the face of it this kind of makes sense. Yeah, give attention seeking kids attention and the attention seeking behaviour goes away. But, we need to think more deeply about what the causes of classroom behaviours are. Simply because the solution giving the child adult attention solves the problem. It doesn't necessarily mean the underlying problem was that the child needed attention. So here's the thing, right? attention seeking is the description of a behaviour, not a description of a cause. And that's still true. If you're using the more modern terminology of attention needing or connection seeking these words, don't tell us why we're seeing those behaviours in class. 

Here's another way to put it. Imagine you go to the doctor's with a cough. And the doctor looks at you, He gives you some tests, and then prescribe you some cough medicine and tells you to come back next week. On your return visit, you tell the doctor your cough is cured and that you're happy with the result. Now, while the cough medicine was the solution, the doctor doesn't then think to themselves that you the patient had a shortage of cough medicine in your system. The real problem was something different. The germ you picked up and the cough medicine just happened to address that in the same way. While giving adult attention to kids may result in fewer difficult behaviours. It doesn't mean they have an inbuilt attention needing deficiency. The need for adult attention could be caused by all manner of things it might be they feel unsafe or anxious in a busy social environment. It might be they don't understand an adult can hold them in mind and fear they've been forgotten in class, they might feel frustrated with the work or with their peers, and lack the emotional regulation skills to soothe themselves. And when they're no longer able to manage that emotional stress by themselves, they suddenly explode or at least that explosion appears to be sudden. But actually, it's been simmering away all day. That upstream cause is like the chamber in a volcano, churning up more and more magma until the pressure inside can't be contained any longer. 

I'd just like to take a pause for a moment and say that if you're finding 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 to a 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 to beaconschoolsupport.co.uk. and click on the Inner Circle picture near the top of the homepage for more information.

So what am I saying? I'm not saying we shouldn't be offering high levels of support to kids who need it. No, I am not saying that. But what I am saying is unless we get to the upstream cause of what's causing those behaviours, those behaviours simply are not going to go away. The supporting adult will be like the medic at the stream pulling kids out of the river, giving them CPR, we need to walk upstream deal with the root causes where we can and then the child won't find themselves thrown in the river in the first place. If the child needs adult support, a good chunk of that day should be spent in a planned way supporting the child with that upstream issue. Even if this means prioritising those social and emotional learning tasks at the cost of some academic time. Because without that investment, the child is stuck. They'll never make progress emotionally, and they'll never become more independent, which is what school is supposed to be about. We need to spend less time helping kids out of the river and more time preventing them being thrown in. And how do we do that? So it involves accepting the chair throwing the swearing and the walking out. They're not the real problems, even though it might feel like it especially when the chairs being thrown at you. And if you've had a chair thrown at you, you have my sympathy I've had chairs thrown at me and it is not pleasant. But eliminating that chair throwing is going to involve getting the root cause of why the child couldn't cope, and threw that chair in the first place. And that involves gathering as much information as possible from the child where that's age appropriate from the parents, from past teachers from their peers, from observing behaviours, and looking for patterns, and then tracking back to possible upstream causes for those behaviours and patterns to join the dots. 

A great way of doing this is just to keep asking why. Here's an example. Let's imagine we've got Alfie. And he walks out of science when he's given a piece of work. So we could ask, Why did Alfie walk out of science today? And the answer might be, because he didn't want to do the work. Why didn't he want to do the work? Well, because he thought it was too difficult, even though it was perfectly differentiated for him. So let's ask why, again, why did he think the work was too difficult? Because he has low self esteem and poor resilience. Well, why does he have low self esteem and poor resilience? Because his dad isn't in the house after his mom or dad split up, and he keeps promising to see Alfie at the weekend, but never turns up. And why is that important? Well, now Alfie feels like it's a bad person who maybe isn't worthy of love, like he's not good enough. And failing at this piece of science work will be yet more evidence for him, that he's a bad person. And he can't cope with that he can't take that risk. Okay, so now we're getting somewhere, we've walked a little further upstream. If we can support Alfie with these problems, over time, the downstream problem, the refusal will go away, we might never be able to walk all the way upstream to the bridge and deal with the real first root problem, because it's out of our gift to do so it's out of our capacity or jurisdiction. But the further we walk upstream, the more effective our solutions will become. So if you're dealing with the same behaviours day after day after day, and nothing seems to be changing, the answer is start walking upstream to identify the real cause of that challenging behaviour. Otherwise, you're going to waste your time dragging kids out of the stream all day, every day, and nothing will change. And that's what I'm going to leave you with today. And by the way, don't extend my metaphor too far. If you do see a kid in the stream in real life, it probably is a good idea to drag them out. In fact, I was going to call this week's episode, don't save drowning kids in rivers. But I got worried about the backlash on social media from Safety First campaigners, and decided to go with something slightly less controversial. 

By the way, if you work with kids with challenging behaviour, and you're not sure why they're acting that way, we've got a download that can help you start joining those dots. It's called the SEN handbook, and it will help you link behaviours you've seen in the classroom with possible causes, like autism and ADHD. The idea here isn't for teachers to make a diagnosis. We're not qualified to do that. But if we can link behaviours we see in the classroom quickly to possible causes. It means we can get the right help from external professionals and get the right early intervention strategies in place. It's a completely free download, go to our website beaconschoolsupport.co.uk.  click on Free Resources near the top and you will see it there available to download. I'll also put a direct link in the episode description. And if you've liked what you've heard today, don't forget to subscribe so you don't miss future episodes. All you have to do is open up your podcast app, hit the subscribe button and your app will automatically download each new episode as it's released. So you never miss a thing. And to celebrate, why not stroke the back of a chicken and see if you can make an egg plop out. Rewarding for you, cleansing for the chicken. Everyone wins. That's it for today. I hope you have a great week and I look forward to save you on the next school behaviour secrets

Bye now.

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