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What a Child’s Behaviour May Be Telling Us

As teachers, we encounter a very broad range of children, each possessing their own unique personality, will, likes and dislikes. The first day of each new academic year brings with it a sense of excitement, but also a little bit of nervousness, as one is never entirely sure what the melting pot of the classroom may dish up. We all have stories of children we have encountered over the years who have been real pickles; but more often than not, there is more to it than meets the eye.

Managing a classroom full of personalities, along with all the behaviours they exhibit, is part of the job of a teacher, and the longer one is in the profession, the more likely one is to encounter some interesting and challenging behaviour. Challenging behaviour in a classroom setting can often create barriers to learning for the child struggling to self-regulate, as well as for those around them.

There is a commonly held belief in education that children communicate through their behaviour. There is an element of truth in this, but it is not an assertion that is wholly true. I don’t think a child deliberately goes out to break something simply to tell us that they are angry; it’s not as simple as that. However, a child’s behaviour is able to tell us that something is up – whether they know it or not. Negative behaviour can often be a signal to us that we need to ask some questions, and recognising that when a child behaves in a manner that is not particularly helpful to themselves or others, can open up an opportunity to demonstrate compassion and empathy, and put in place ways to support them better.

So what can we learn from a child who is struggling behaviourally? Challenging behaviours may indicate that a child is experiencing emotional distress. Behaviours such as tantrums, aggression, or withdrawal may be signs of anxiety, fear, frustration, or sadness. For instance, a child who frequently acts out might be struggling with feelings of insecurity or helplessness.

Persistent challenging behaviours can sometimes signal underlying mental health issues such as anxiety disorders, depression, or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Recognising these signs early allows for timely intervention and support, which can significantly improve outcomes for the child.

Young children or those with speech and language delays may resort to challenging behaviours as a means of communication. When unable to express their needs or feelings verbally, they might use behaviours such as hitting, biting, or throwing tantrums to get attention or express frustration.

Challenging behaviours can be a way for children to communicate unmet needs. This can range from basic needs like hunger or tiredness, to more complex emotional needs like the desire for attention, affection, or autonomy. For example, a child acting out in the classroom might be seeking more individualized attention from the teacher. This may be because they are finding a particular bit of work difficult, or perhaps they may need to be stretched academically.

Children with developmental delays, including those on the autism spectrum, may act out as a way of coping with environments or situations that they find overwhelming. This sort of  behaviour can provide us with clues to areas where the child might need additional support or different strategies to help them manage. Having a quiet zone, or a space where the child may go to feel less stimulated by noise and the goings-on around them, may help them to regulate their emotions better.

Some children have sensory processing issues, where they might be overly sensitive to certain stimuli or seek out sensory input in unusual ways. Challenging behaviour in these cases can be a response to sensory overload or a need for specific sensory experiences. Understanding this can lead to better strategies for managing sensory environments.

There may also be environmental issues at play when children display negative behaviour. The home environment plays a significant role in a child's behaviour. High levels of stress, conflict, or inconsistency in the home can contribute to challenging behaviours. Conversely, understanding a child's behaviour can sometimes highlight issues within the family that need to be addressed.

The school environment may also create challenges for a child. School-related factors, such as bullying, academic pressure, or difficulties with peers, can manifest as challenging behaviours. Recognising these behaviours as signals of environmental stressors may open up a positive  dialogue between parents and teachers which can lead to making the school experience more positive and supportive.

A child’s attempt to cope with difficult emotions or a situation that is troubling them may also play itself out in the way in which they behave. For example, repetitive behaviours or rituals might be a way for a child to exert control in an otherwise unpredictable environment.

Some challenging behaviours are a direct attempt to gain attention from adults or friends. While this can be frustrating, it often indicates a deeper need for connection and validation.

I’ve always believed that relationship is the key to solving behavioural problems. I know this sounds obvious; however, negative behaviour can often lead to people withdrawing from a child expressing themselves in this manner, and as parents and teachers we need to lean in more attentively, and help our children to understand themselves better, and work out ways in which we can support them. Children need us to advocate for them when they are finding life challenging. This journey often begins with us asking them some questions, and even though the response may be garbled and filled with the static of a lack of self-understanding, it should set us on the path to helping them.

Craig Cuyler
Director of Wellbeing/Head of PSHEe/
Deputy DSL/ Assistant Housemaster

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