Special Needs

Sebbie’s Story – Managing The Behaviour Of Traumatised Children

In the third guidance in her series of dealing with children with trauma related issues , Dr Margot Sunderland offers practical guidance for non-specialist teachers and school staff on how to respond to children in distress

To take challenging behaviour at face value and write disruptive children off as ‘troublemakers’ is to do them a disservice. By failing to acknowledge each child’s unique history and context, we are fundamentally letting children down.

As Professor Mark Solms says, “if we just see behaviour with no reference to the context of the child’s life, we do terrible violence to the facts of what has happened to him”.

As Co-Director of Trauma Informed Schools UK, I’ve visited schools across the country to celebrate teachers and education staff who are leading the way in terms of best practice in mental health. The following case study illustrates a fundamental principle that we consistently find in mentally healthy schools: the need to view a child’s current behaviour within the context of their home life.

Tragically, too many children are excluded for challenging behaviour which stems directly from unaddressed traumatic life experiences. It’s crucial that we establish context before the point of exclusion. I passionately believe that psychological safeguarding is just as important as physical safeguarding, and if we fail to be curious or even ask basic questions about a child’s home circumstances, we are simply retraumatising the traumatised.

Nearly half a million children in the UK report that they have no one to confide in at school when they experience feelings of sadness/anxiety (Mental Health Foundation, October 2018), and these feelings of isolation manifest in sleep difficulties, aggression, concentration issues and trouble socialising with peers.

The following case study describes a situation with a seemingly very defiant eight-year-old, ‘Sebbie’, whose challenging behaviour was met by school staff with harsh criticism and threat making. Neither of these methods worked, but both proved very time consuming. It was only after a trauma-informed practitioner engaged in a conversation with Sebbie about his feelings that staff saw a notable change in his behaviour.

What happened

  • For three days, eight-year-old Sebbie refused to step foot into his classroom – instead, choosing to sit outside in the corridor. Teachers called him “attention seeking” and threatened detention, which only made Sebbie curl up into a tighter ball and go even quieter.
  • This response is typical – when any mammal (be it a human child or a bear cub!) experiences feelings of threat, they enter ‘fight’, ‘flight’, or ‘freeze’ mode. When frustrated teachers issue warnings to challenging children, responses could include running away from school, hiding under a desk, or cowering with their head in their hands (like Sebbie). When children perceive threat in a situation, they experience neurochemical responses as part of their social defence system, which the founder of attachment theory Sir John Bowlby described as “shrinking from the world or doing battle with it”.
  • If we want children who are happy, well behaved and ready to learn, school staff must make sure that they are supporting children’s psychological safety. Using a warm, gentle voice, getting down to their level and being genuinely curious about a child’s feelings are all excellent ways to promote feelings of safeness and ensure they are ready to learn.

After failing to make any headway with Sebbie, his teachers reluctantly brought him some work into the corridor. But he seemed too frozen to even look at it. For the next three days the situation continued. During that time no one had ever sat down with Sebbie and said, “Will you help me to understand why you really don’t want to go in the classroom Sebbie?” Then on the third day Beth, a visiting mental health and trauma informed teacher asked Sebbie just that. Sebbie didn’t answer. He stayed curled up like a frightened animal. This is good feedback for a talented practitioner like Beth. She learnt that Sebbie would need more support to feel safe enough to engage with her.

Play is an excellent way to give that support. In fact, we know that play triggers anti-anxiety chemicals in the brain. Using art, drawings and toys to help engage a frightened child in a meaningful conversation is often extremely effective. With this in mind, Beth drew some emotion clouds with some writing on – known as ‘ the third thing in the room “( Sunderland 2015).

Beth: Sebbie will you tick any of the emotion clouds that best describes what it is that is worrying you about going into the classroom. Just cross any that are wrong, and then, if you like… draw or write on the empty clouds. I am wondering if you are worried about something that is happening at home or something that is happening at school. Then I am wondering if it’s PE because your teacher says you really don’t like PE and then again, I know your proper teacher has not been in school this week, is that unsettling you?

She then handed the pen to the Sebbie.

Beth: Would you alter the picture to show how you are feeling?

Sebbie did this to the drawing:

He crossed out everything that Julie had written and wrote that he was worried about someone at home. He then said spontaneously, “My Mum, she isn’t safe you know ”

This is how the conversation continued:

Beth: Would you help me understand why your Mum isn’t safe?

Sebbie: A stranger might take my Mummy when I’m at school and I will never see her again.

Beth: I am so sorry to hear that you are feeling so frightened and how brave to let me know

[Comment: it’s vital that a child talking about painful feeling is honoured with an empathic response and their bravery praised]

Beth: Shall we phone your mum to see if she’s OK?

They did. She was Ok, kind and reassuring. He was relieved. Beth subsequently learnt that Sebbie’s Dad had left home and Mum had brought home a new boyfriend that Sebbie didn’t know. In his mind Sebbie was probably muddling up ‘Don’t talk to strangers’ with the fact that there was a ‘strange’ new man that Sebbie’s Mum said he was wary of.

Back to the conversation: Beth knew that feeling safe was still key to Sebbie returning to the classroom

Beth: If you were to go back to the classroom now where would you feel the safest?

Sebbie told her. He returned to the classroom and sat in the place that felt safe….and all this took 40 minutes not the hours and hours of staff time that had preceded it.

This is just one example of how time-preserving curiosity/ gentle wondering can be as opposed to time consuming non- enquiry, non- curious behaviour management. It is also an example of what takes place in trauma informed schools in terms of a key component of whole school cultural shift. This means that when faced with challenging behaviours instead of asking “Why is he behaving this way? staff ask themselves the question ‘What has happened to him?’ and if they don’t know they find a way to ask, either the child or teenager directly or alterative appropriate person.

Take away messages

  1. By punishing traumatised children for bad behaviour, we traumatise them more
  2. Punishing bad behaviour will often lead to worse behaviour because of triggering a very primitive social defence system in the child (fight/flight/freeze)
  3. Focusing on ‘bad behaviour’ almost always guarantees a child becoming defensive
  4. If we just see behaviour without holding in mind the possibility that it is a communication about something painful happening at home, we will fail too many children
  5. If schools are going to be mentally healthy, there is a vital need for all staff to be curious about challenging behavior rather than labelling children as naughty. In fact, research shows that 97% of children with no traumatic life experiences have no behaviour problems ( Burke Harris 2018)
  6. All teachers in training should be taught the art of curiosity as a key intervention available to them when faced with worrying behaviour. Curiosity in this context means a non-judgmental active interest in how a child is experiencing something that is happening in their lives. For example, ‘Would you help me understand what that felt like for you?’ ‘Will you help me understand what it was like for you when Jake said that about your mum?‘”
  7. Curiosity gives children a voice. Curiosity shows children that we are interested in what they feel and think about a situation. It’s the opposite of giving lectures to children about how they should behave, and watching them move into silent withdrawal or defensive attack when we do.
  8. Mentally healthy schools don’t pay lip service to listening to children They recognize that children’s home lives really matter to them big time, and know that sometimes they will need to talk about what is happening at home in order to be able to settle to learn

We will fail children if we have no curiosity about how their painful life experiences may be fuelling their challenging behaviour and blocks to learning.

Margot Sunderland and colleague Julie Harmieson , are Co-Directors of Trauma informed schools www.traumainformedschools.co.uk

Now Read On

Sam’s Story – Managing Challenging Behaviour

Sarah’s Story: Helping Children And Teenagers Who Live With Anxiety