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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Surviving difficult behaviour

Since bringing up the issue of dealing with aggressive behaviour I have heard a range of comments from parents, teachers and teachers in training.
Some of the concerns for beginning teachers revolved around the fear of whether they could deal with difficult behaviour in the classroom. Both parents and teachers have asked the question, “How can I make sure I support the child displaying the aggressive behaviour whilst still protecting the other children around them?” Other concerns revolve around the issue of the stress and potential harm to themselves.
The challenge of dealing with ongoing challenging behaviour
If we are not careful, the challenge of dealing with ongoing aggressive or difficult behaviour can affect our own mental health. Parents and teachers can become anxious, stressed, tired or even “burnt-out”.
The Therapeutic Teacher
Abrams (2005) wrote an article called Becoming a Therapeutic Teacher for Students with Emotional and Behavioural Disorders. While he is talking about teachers, it is possible that the ideas expressed in this article could be helpful for parents as well.
Abrams discusses research and principles of working with children who have aggressive or challenging behaviour with the aim of balancing the need to manage teacher stress whilst providing adequate support for the students. He argues that the two go hand in hand.
If we can set up an environment that helps prevent the escalation of behaviour, then both the students and the teachers are likely to benefit.
One of the key characteristics of a therapeutic teacher is the ability to see beyond the behaviour and focus on the whole child. That is, instead of punishing a child for outbursts or tantrums, the teacher first thinks about the triggers, or the emotion behind the outbursts.
This approach helps us recognise the function of the behaviour (as discussed in the last post), and thus helps us to change or reduce the incidences of the behaviour. It helps us be proactive instead of reactive. Which, in the end, takes much less emotional energy and is much more rewarding – for both the adult and the child.
It also helps us listen and respect children more. It helps us see the child as someone with interests, strengths, needs, abilities… not just an “aggressive child”. As Abrams says, “Therapeutic teachers show respect for each student’s dignity, even when the student engages in antisocial behaviour.” p41
Consistency and routine
One of the most important tools in dealing with behaviour which benefits both adult and child is consistency and routine. Again, this is about preventing difficult behaviour as much as dealing with difficult incidents when they occur.
This can be something as simple as designing a few positive rules, rewards and consequences that the students have had a hand in designing. Reinforcing these calmly, consistently, positively and supportively can have a significant influence on the interactions within a classroom or home.
Routines, or a set sequence of activities throughout the day, can also be very helpful. Children with anxiety issues, difficulty adjusting to change or new experiences will benefit from set routines. These can be represented in a written or pictorial routine displayed and with which the child can interact. For example, putting a sticker next to a completed task. Or removing a picture from a sequence of pictures stuck on a surface using Velcro. This helps them feel in control, and makes the environment predictable and safe – and can be a good basis for rewards.
Organisation and confidence
But, importantly, the success of our strategies not only relies on our respect for our students or an understanding of their needs. It also requires organisation, confidence and a willingness to continually learn.
This means that if something doesn’t work, we don’t feel guilty or beat ourselves up. It is about approaching each day as a fresh start, for both ourselves and our children, and learning from past experiences.
Being realistic – yet hopeful
One of the things that does seem contradictory in Abram’s discussion is his assertion that we need to be realistic while remaining hopeful and optimistic. As discussed in a previous post, it is often a difficult thing to find the balance between high expectations and what we can realistically expect. This is especially difficult when it comes to behaviour.
But if we take one step at a time, one moment at a time, we are more likely to be able to celebrate the small steps without being overwhelmed by the difficult times.
Managing stress
I particularly enjoyed Abrams’ recommendations about stress management. Perhaps we should make it a checklist:
  1. Am I realistic about what behaviour I might encounter tomorrow?
  2. Am I approaching tomorrow with a positive attitude?
  3. Have I set priorities and scheduled my time?
  4. Am I eating well?
  5. Am I exercising?
  6. Am I having enough rest?
  7. Do I have a hobby?
  8. Am I flexible and adaptable?
  9. Am I keeping my sense of humour?
  10. Am I giving myself permission to feel tired/angry/sad/other?
  11. Have I debriefed with a friend/colleague/partner/parent?
  12. Have I come up with ways to deal with the cause of my emotion?
  13. Am I recognising and accepting things I can’t change?
  14. Do I realise that I am not superwoman/superman? 
I don’t think I could check all the boxes, but it does help a little to know what to aim for…
Abrams, B.J. (2005). Becoming a Therapeutic Teacher for Students with Emotional and Behavioural Disorders. Teaching Exceptional Children, 38(2), p40.


Kevin - Children and Behaviour Blog January 7, 2012 at 4:03 AM  

At age 2.5 we're just discovering the frustrated 'aggressive' side of our child's behaviour. It's quite a shock - to see your little "bundle of joy" lashing out at anything within kicking and slapping distance. We're remaining calm, though, so far...

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