How to reduce violent and challenging behaviour in SEND children

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Yvonne Newbold MBE writes here about her Special Educational Needs and Disabilities Violent and Challenging Behaviour project (SEND VCB). She gives advice on how to support children with distressed behaviours, using kindness to de-escalate challenging situations with tips on protecting all those involved.

Summary

  • Distressed behaviour is nearly always a cry for help.
  • Traditional sanctions are likely to further escalate the unwanted behaviours.
  • Focusing on making children feel safe, instead of on their behaviours, will have better long-term outcomes

Since 2017, Newbold Hope and The SEND VCB Project have successfully supported over 1,000 children to turn their previously difficult and dangerous behaviours around completely. They are now happy, thriving, and safe, with much more hopeful futures ahead of them. Working primarily with families, but also with some schools, the approach used is rooted in kindness and relationship-building, with absolutely no blame or judgement. Newbold Hope’s motto is ‘Stay Curious. Be Kind’. Curiosity is vital; it’s hard to become judgemental when asking lots of questions.

Here are some of the most successful tips, tricks and strategies that you can use in your settings.

Difficult behaviours are usually anxiety-led

When a child loses control and behaves physically towards other people, it’s almost always because they are anxious. Childhood anxiety has numerous causes and SEND is only one of them.

Anxiety is a misleading word. It’s often associated with being passive and expecting anxious children to be withdrawn, quiet, nervous, timid, or worried. Some children may react to anxiety like this, but many others don’t.

Think ‘fear’ instead of ‘anxiety’

A better word to describe anxiety is ‘fear’. Anxious children can feel overwhelmingly frightened, distressed, confused and out-of-control. These big feelings can quickly become beyond the capacity of children to manage. This means they can rapidly move into a state of fight or flight. This is when they feel so threatened that they may attempt to either run away from, or fight, the perceived threat to keep themselves safe. This is when they can become angry or lash out and hurt other people, damage property, become verbally abusive, pick on other children, avoid all demands, or become very controlling.

This sort of anxiety-led behaviour is never a choice, it’s always beyond their conscious control.

The opposite of anxiety is feeling safe. Always focus on how to help a distressed child to feel safe again.

All behaviour is a form of communication. Distressed behaviour is nearly always a cry for help.

The impact of guilt and shame

No child wants to behave like this. Afterwards they often feel deep levels of guilt and shame, which means they can’t discuss it or, sometimes, even acknowledge what they have done. Guilt and shame are both very heavy emotions for children to experience and can lead to poorer mental health.

Traditional disciplinary methods do not work with anxiety

Society expects children who behave in these ways to be disciplined with strategies such as sanctions and consequences. Their parents are repeatedly told to be stricter, harsher, more authoritarian, and firmer. Yet these methods simply won’t work with an anxious child because they will increase their fear and distress, which will be more likely to further escalate the unwanted behaviours.

Instead, a calmer, kinder, and more understanding approach, linked with a strong and connected relationship with the child, can work much better. As a parent told me:

‘My son’s teacher spent time getting to know him. She’s now able to see when he’s getting anxious. When a teacher shows interest in a child, beautiful things can happen.’

The importance of boosting self-esteem

Research has indicated that children with ADHD are likely to receive 20,000 more critical or corrective messages than their neurotypical peer group before the age of 12. Read more from William W Dodson here: https://bit.ly/3FAL42Z. That’s about five extra negative messages every single day. Just think what a detrimental impact this has on a child’s self-esteem.

Self-esteem is crucial to future happiness and success. It drives the decisions and choices people make and influences every aspect of life. SEND children already struggle with feeling good about themselves, so this negative messaging can cause irreparable damage.

The three most common causes of anxiety in SEND children

In SEND children, the most common causes of severe anxiety are communication difficulties, struggling to cope with change or transitioning between activities, and sensory processing issues. Start by looking closely at these areas to identify the causes. When you know what the problem is you can then work towards solutions.

1. Communication top tip: Remember that articulate children may not always be able to process language effectively. Speaking and processing are two different skills; always remember that children who speak well may not be able to understand what’s said to them equally well. Short sentences and checking they’ve heard and understood can pre-empt difficulties.

2. Transitioning top tip: An anxious child can become frightened when anything changes. Plan transitions, give lots of reminders, and do whatever you can to reduce any sense of surprise or unpredictability for the child

3.  Sensory top tip: Get to know each child’s tolerance levels of sound, visual clutter and touch, and work with this knowledge to reduce classroom issues.

Language matters

Renaming ‘Behaviour plans’ as ‘How to help me feel safe plans’ can reframe thinking. Instead of calling it ‘challenging behaviour’, renaming it ‘distressed behaviour’, can help too.

Focusing on children feeling safe instead of on their behaviours will have much better long-term outcomes.

It’s nobody’s fault

Distressed behaviour is seldom either the child’s fault or their parent’s fault either. Blaming parents damages mental well-being, which undermines their ability to parent confidently and to support their child appropriately.

Build strong relationships with parents. When teaching staff and parents listen and learn from each other and can work together collaboratively with mutual respect, trust, and kindness, it can transform a child’s behaviour.

When children mask it can look like compliance

Some children mask at school, hiding their anxieties so well that it’s hard to see any difficulties. These children are often the ones who explode as soon as they feel safe at home after school. They may be smashing up the house and hurting the rest of their family. Always believe what parents tell you – very few would make this stuff up.

As a parent told me:

‘Just because this behaviour only happens at home, it doesn’t mean that’s where the problem is. When a child masks all day at school to fit in it doesn’t mean it’s our fault.’

This video explains the Coke Bottle Effect: https://bit.ly/3nt6ARl.

If a child seems ‘fine’ at school, look beyond what’s obvious. Anxious children don’t learn well.

Looking for clues

Look for clues instead of triggers. It’s often a build-up of the little things that causes difficult behaviour.

When it goes wrong, extend compassion instead of blame. Use this time to reflect and work out what can be learnt from the incident. What are the child’s good points? Try to find something to like about every child.

Be kind to everyone, that means you too.

Sometimes the most effective reasonable adjustments that organisations make aren’t about funding. Shifting towards a more compassionate approach, asking why instead of judging, and making changes at heart-level cost nothing but can be priceless. Kindness is powerful. As this parent says:

  ‘Our son has been in two schools. The first ended in disaster. The second changed our lives. The difference has been the power of kindness and reflection. Instead of saying “X needs to behave, he needs to stop hurting others’, they say ‘what made him feel so anxious he reacted like that? What can we do differently?”.’

Be kind, be consistent

Children’s anxiety is contagious. When they’re moving into fight or flight, so are the adults around them. Be kind to your colleagues and to yourself.

This stuff is hard. Getting it right consistently is harder. But it’s so worth it when a child is happy and able to learn well.

Toolkit

Use the following item in the Toolkit to help you put the ideas in this article into practice:

About the author

Yvonne Newbold MBE is the Founder of Newbold Hope, a small, parent-led organisation which supports parents and professionals to reduce anxiety-led violent and challenging behaviour in SEND children. The organisation has delivered over 250 live online training sessions since the beginning of the pandemic. She also advises on SEND national policy via her work with NHS England and as part of the NHS Assembly and was awarded an MBE in the 2021 New Year’s Honours list for her work with SEND children and their families. Website: http://www.newboldhope.org.

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About Author

Dr Suzanne O'Connell

Dr Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance writer specialising in education. She is also the Managing Editor of Attendance Matters Magazine. Prior to this she taught for 23 years and was a headteacher of a junior school in Nuneaton for 11 years.

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