Managing the new classroom dynamic – A conversation with Dr Rob Long, Educational Psychologist

Maddie Kilminster - 29 October, 2020

Category : Blog

Managing the new classroom dynamic – A conversation with Dr Rob Long, Educational Psychologist

As Teachers face lots of new challenges in the classroom this term, with students sometimes struggling to adjust to constant change, it’s important to build our understanding of students’ mental health so we can best support them. A large part of that is looking at how we frame and manage “problematic” behaviour in the classroom.

As Teachers face lots of new challenges in the classroom this term, with students sometimes struggling to adjust to constant change, it’s important to build our understanding of students’ mental health so we can best support them. A large part of that is looking at how we frame and manage “problematic” behaviour in the classroom.

We spoke to Rob Long, Educational Psychologist, about his work with schools and young people and his advice for how we can better support the emotional and mental health of students, particularly as they experience the challenges of Covid-19.

For more information about Dr Rob Long and the training and services he provides, check out his website.

1. How do most schools manage behaviour? Is it working?

A lot of schools look at behaviour at a surface level. Though it’s worth saying that schools differ greatly, many focus on “managing” behaviour, having “zero tolerance” and relying on rewards and sanctions. These strategies are based on the assumption that the child is wilfully misbehaving; that is that they can control their behaviour. While such approaches will work for many children, there are “repeat offenders” whose behaviour needs to be understood if they are to be  supported  effectively. 

In some main-stream schools it can be 3-5% of the school population who are responsible for something like 50% of the discipline referrals. So it’s often the same children/young people who are being sanctioned. It would be fair to say therefore that sanctions are not working for them. In fact some children, sadly, have habituated to sanctions. It’s what they expect as normal.

The problem with a “zero-tolerance” culture is that some students (3-5%) are consistently at risk of being excluded. There is a case for trying to understand these problem behaviours – an approach that more and more schools are developing. 

2. How should schools be looking at behaviour?

A one-size-fits-all behaviour policy doesn’t work – we need to address individuals. 

We need to understand students’ behaviour on a deeper level in order to get to the root of why they’re acting the way they are. Often students who misbehave are dealing with Adverse Childhood Experiences, such as mental health problems at home, deprivation or abuse. It’s evidenced that children who have had four or more of these experiences are especially vulnerable to having problematic behaviours. 

Behaviour is never random – there’s usually a motive for it. Even aggression can be driven by such emotions as fear and anxiety. We should see behaviour as a form of communication, and ask what it is that the student is trying to communicate to us. Have they had breakfast that morning? Is their school work at the appropriate level for them? Are they being bullied? Are there learning difficulties? Have they experienced trauma? Behaviour is ambiguous, three children may have the same problematic behaviour, but for three different reasons.

Given that 1 in 8 children are dealing with some sort of mental health problem (according to MentalHealth.org), and most adult mental health problems start before the age of 15-16, schools need training to be aware of and support students to manage their emotions. 

3. What kinds of behaviour might students be exerting this term?

This term, as a result of Covid-19, some students will be processing trauma through bereavements and other losses, and many will be experiencing an increased level of anxiety. 

Typically, as children develop, they learn to contain their emotions in order to function with a degree of anxiety – these are emotional regulation skills. There will be some students however, who may not have learned such control skills and therefore have we can describe as an “over sensitive smoke detector”. These students are likely to react to worries about Covid-19, for example, in a more pronounced way, and may cope by either “acting out” or “acting in”.

Schools should be aware that it’s common for vulnerable children to also have other co-occurring mental health conditions (50% of autistic children have a predisposition for co-occurring anxiety). 

4. How can we support students this term?

Here are some techniques I’d encourage schools to use in order to reframe “bad” behaviour (I would prefer the term “problematic” behaviour) and promote a positive, supportive environment for students:

  • Tell them, show them, let them – Some children will struggle to adapt to new routines and rules this term, so they’ll benefit from Teachers modeling the new behaviour and showing them how to relate to their classmates, the curriculum and themselves.
  • Support the personal – Cultivate a compassionate and understanding atmosphere in the classroom with the Teacher as someone they can open up to and share concerns.
  • Stop, think, choose – Some students may not have learned how to deal with challenging emotions in an appropriate way. Teachers can help by modeling problem-solving skills. Talk out loud, showing them how to weigh up and think through problems.
  • Analyse don’t personalise – It’s important to reframe “bad” behaviour as  “mistakes” rather than something fundamentally wrong inside the student. Do they have the necessary skills, or do I need to teach them? What is the function of this behaviour, are they gaining something or avoiding something? Teachers and Support Staff need to act as behavioural “detectives”. Also often a “behavioural mistake” can be a learning opportunity.
  • Normalise negative feelings – Students need to know that having anxious or angry thoughts is part of normal human life; they help us prepare for bad things happening. Acknowledge their negative emotions, then shift the focus to their positive emotions. Negative emotions lead us to turn in on ourselves, to self-protect, so balance this by focusing on positive emotions which lead us to go out and explore the world, such as gratitude (who has helped you today?), curiosity (what have you learnt?) and achievement (what was a new skill or success?).

5. What can schools do to support mental health?

It is important to recognise that schools today face even more demands on their time and resources. They therefore often don’t have the time to support students’ mental health problems to the degree they’d like to.

I encourage schools to make wellbeing a whole-school priority. Evidence shows that the more students feel belonging to a school, the better their emotional wellbeing. Feeling connected to their school results in less externalising and internalising problematic behaviours.

It’s true that there is a growing openness to mental health within the education sector – I’m seeing a “therapeutic” understanding approach to emotional health filtering down to schools and there’s more and more information and support out there. However, the Government needs to support, with resources, the importance of wellbeing and mental health in schools. We need to change the culture that turns students with added mental health needs away from schools because they can’t manage them. 

6. What can we learn from the pandemic and how can we move forward?

The pandemic has, for many schools, justified and emphasised what they’re already doing to support students’ emotional health. It’s given us a vocabulary for students’ emotions and experiences, and crystallized what’s important. We need to celebrate such good practices. Going through this difficult period will enable  schools to include wellbeing, mental health and resilience at the heart of their school ethos. Such policies and practice will support us all to come through the pandemic stronger and more resilient in the future. 

If you’d like to find out more about how Arbor MIS could help your school work faster, smarter and collaborate more, join one of our free webinars to see Arbor in action, or arrange a 1-on-1 demo.

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