'Managing' Behaviour Rarely Changes Behaviour... And Here's Why

As if returning to school after six weeks off isn’t hard enough, the difference between the work in Yr 4 and the work in Yr 5 is testing my 9 year old, who’s just made the transition.
It’s no surprise that I’m finding him more challenging – or, more accurately, ‘challenged’) than usual; I’m noticing less cooperation, more reactivity, a shorter fuse, and unnecessary hostility all round.

Difficult-to-manage behaviour is not uncommon, a topic explored in the recent BBC documentary, ‘Helping Our Teens’. But some settings are not yet convinced that a focus on understanding behaviour, rather than managing it, is the way forward: an approach that expert Marie Gentles brought to the school followed by the documentary. 

Nobody’s saying that behaviour problems don’t need addressing. They do, of course.
But it can be very easy for any setting to default to ‘Behaviour Management’ policy, without questioning whether that’s actually helping (or, in fact, hindering).

And in that process, what’s so often missed is that ‘bad’ behaviour is not really the cause of the problem, but more accurately, a symptom of the real problem. 

That always comes back to what’s going on in the child’s brain; all behaviours have their roots in brain activity, and once we understand what’s going on inside, we can usually make much more sense of what we see on the outside.

Those that know me well know that I like talking about brains, and “The Brain Behind The Behaviour” is the very subject I’m talking about at Lightbulb’s SEMH Conference on 4th October.

Behaviour change (in adults as well as young people; it’s the same process for all of us) is the result of a changed brain; change you’ll rarely affect simply by repeatedly excluding young people, which is unfortunately the go-to response in far too many settings.

On the contrary, punitive measures often serve to reinforce the child’s negative self-identity, leading to more problem behaviour, not less.

Explaining ‘The Brain Behind The Behaviour’ would be rather too ambitious for one blog post (it’s a training session for a reason), but whether we’re practitioners or parents, it can make the choppy waters easier to navigate if we hold these three principles in mind:

All behaviour is a form communication.

Whether they are hostile, rude, confusing or challenging, all behaviours can tell us something about the young person. They may not be making an intentional or conscious effort to communicate, but when we reframe ‘a problem child’ and instead see a ‘child with a problem’, we usually see more of what’s driving the behaviour, rather than just the behaviour itself.

And that’s always the place to start from. Otherwise, you’re just sticking a plaster over it.

All behaviour is an effort at a relationship.

This can feel wholly counterintuitive, especially when faced with hostility or aggression, but here is a child who is still intentionally connecting with you. Apathy is the real pointer of zero interest in a relationship.

Some young people will be emotionally hijacked. Some will be on more familiar ground by being oppositional (you don’t have to risk rejection if you reject first). Some simply won’t have yet mastered the skills to communicate more effectively.

But there’s always an offer of some kind in those behaviours – albeit, an inarticulate one – that we can use (as long as we don’t become emotionally hijacked ourselves).

Be what you want to see (it always starts with us).

We’re only human and we can’t just switch off our own feelings and responses to unsavoury behaviours. We’ll never get it right all the time.

But very often, it’s an environmental factor that triggers behaviour problems; being shamed (intentionally or not), not listened to, shouted at, etc. In the words of Bruce Perry ‘A dysregulated adult can never help regulate a dysregulated child’. Thus, changing a child’s behaviours often starts with changing our own. 

The systems so many of us work in can render us pretty powerless; firstly, in what we do to children. But ‘being done to’ won’t build a better-behaved brain. 

Secondly, in what we ask children to do for their adults. But whatever the ‘consequence’, a child can’t do what their brain isn’t capable of.

Where can we find the space to do with them? Because it’s the relationship that makes the difference.
And that is always step one of building a better behaved brain. 

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