There are children in homes, schools and communities behaving in unexpected and unusual ways. These children are often labelled as intentionally bad children based on our own misinterpretations, understandings, and value system. We often see bad behaviour and have a reaction towards it, we want the bad behaviour to stop so we can relax and resume our sense of things being under control and restored. But for many children, this behaviour comes from living in a state of hypervigilance; difficult home lives or situations has led them to this to protect themselves. What we deem as inappropriate behaviour at school, has probably served these children well at another time when their life was in fight or flight mode.
Trauma informed practice means that we recognize behaviour as communicating a need, and this helps us to be curious about what is going on behind the behaviour being displayed, which will help us choose strategies that will help to improve the behaviour being presented. Discipline is not the enemy but needs to be an appropriate learning tool to ensure that children learn what is emotionally and socially healthy and appropriate so that they can function at their best and lead rewarding lives.
Louise Bomber discusses how the definition of discipline is disciple (from old French) means learner, one who embraces the teaching of or follows an example of – to guide, lead, teach, model, and encourage. On the other hand, the definition of punishment comes from punire (Latin) which in the verb form means to penalise, chastise, humiliate. Angry confrontations and punishments may temporarily halt unacceptable behaviour but as they are not dealing with the underlying alarm or fear system, they will erupt again. When this happens, we are not offering a safe haven, but in fact repeating and triggering trauma. It is also clear that with high exclusion rates, these approaches do not work!
So how can we differentiate discipline and support these children?
Bomber suggests that we should use the four Rs.
The first R is Regulate: -
We need to remember that self-regulation is taught and for many of these children they have not had the experience and support to learn this. We need to teach these skills during a place of calm, not alarm, so new neural pathways can be built when a child understands what this should look and feel like.
In order to regulate children need to have their basic needs met - this includes strong Relationships (feeling safety with a trusting adult), Nutrition (ensuring children have a healthy breakfast, snacks and drink water regularly), sleep (supporting good sleep routines or a safe space to nap within school), Exercise (being active can help regulate dopamine, which is often impacted by traumatic experiences), and Mindfulness and Breathing techniques to support regulations and calmness. These basic needs must be primarily met before moving onto other regulating techniques.
Sensory strategies can also support regulation for children. Snacks, calm boxes (these help to support that fight or flight mode and can include pens, pencils, fidget toys, putty and breathing cards), or sensory movements including power stretches. Collaborative games and Interactive Play can also embed trust with an adult and promote regulation, focus, and brain growth such as board games, thumb wats, passing balloons or popping bubbles.
The second R is Relate: -
Bomber explains that children who have experienced pain, loss or hurt do not want to be in that position again. They have learnt or adopted strategies to never feel weak, small, or vulnerable again. Therefore, forming trusting relationships with adults can be difficult. The blocked trust that these children have created does not differentiate from one adult to the next. We need to ensure that as we build relationships with children that we are robust enough to withstand the inevitable rage and rejection which will come as these children slowly open their lives to us. Bomber states that every relationship has the power to change or confirm what has gone on before.
Practitioners can use PACE to support this. It stands for Playfulness, Acceptance, Curiosity and Empathy.
Playfulness – Playfulness paves the way to curiosity and reduces the sense of threat for a traumatized child.
Acceptance – Communicate acceptance of what a child is feeling, their thoughts or beliefs. We do not need to say that they are wrong or convince them otherwise but know that we understand and empathize with how they must be feeling.
Curiosity – If we are curious, it will encourage pupils to be curious about themselves, other people and the world around them, curiosity leads to self-awareness and self-control. Wondering openly and being curious about the child shows interest, they may reject what we say but trust is formed from showing an interest.
Empathy – Empathy will give that child a strong sense that you are there alongside them. That togetherness will reassure and soothe the child.
The third R is Reason: -
Children who defy the rules are unlikely to be brought to reason by verbal warnings, therefore if we really want children to learn from behaviours we may need to delay reason to ensure that they are in a space to fully engage with the learning process. We need to ensure the child is calm and alert so that we can engage the top part of their brain (the thinking brain). This is the stage where we can teach about the behaviour matter. More importantly by this stage the children will be able to learn and engage from your teaching.
For children to be able to learn from their behaviours it is important that practitioners seize the right moment when they are in an engaged and open state and consider ‘The Gold Nugget’ of information you want to relay to ensure this comes across for the child. Being aware of the child’s body language can also help us to press pause if needed if they begin to escalate again.
The fourth and final R is Repair: -
Repairing a relationship after an issue has occurred and reason has taken place ensures a child does not carry shame, guilt or fear from a previous lesson or day. Repair should involve the child’s safe and trusted adult, to ensure they feel safe and regulated through the process. This can include visual repair such as a sorry note, card, drawing; A random act of kindness, considering with the child doing something for the child or adult that got hurt that they will like, something they may really appreciate such as watering plants, tidying up, washing up, making a cup of tea, playing a game; Payback, if a child has trashed a room or broken something they may be in a regulated state to tidy it up and if they are not and an adult has had to do this, time can be allocated for how long it took to tidy to restore and help somewhere else; and lastly Provision and Structure, a child may need more provision at lunch times or play times as a result of what has happened. We explain this to the child in a supportive manner, explaining that we are practicing and getting stronger.