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Challenging behaviour? Or communication challenges?

Perhaps if we dig a little deeper, we might realise that we are only acting on a part of the story; we’ve missed some vital information, and our response needs to be very different.

Photo: [link]Thomas Park[/link], Unsplash CC0.

Often when we see a child or young person displaying what might be perceived as challenging behaviour, perhaps being physical, uncooperative, disobedient, or vocal, the first response of many is to judge and then directly challenge the behaviour, or to pass condemning comment on both the behaviour and the child or young person themselves (and often their wider family).

Is this fair? Is this the right response to what we are witnessing? If we look at the evidence at face value, then we could easily conclude that it is.

Sixty-two per cent of school leaders and teachers said poor behaviour had interrupted teaching in lessons in the week before they were asked in June 2022. National Behaviour Survey Reports, UK Gov. – June 2023.

I’m sure many children’s and youth workers would echo those findings and could come to the conclusion that ‘bad behaviour = disruption’ and that the only response is to double down on penalties and punishments (maybe sometimes rewards) to enforce a change in behaviour.

But is that the complete picture? Is there more going on here than what we might observe if all we see is the challenging behaviour itself?

Perhaps if we dig a little deeper, look back a little further into the timeline that has concluded with what is being perceived as challenging behaviour, we might realise that we are only acting on a part of the story; we’ve missed some vital information and communication, and our response needs to be very different.

[photo_footer] Image by Krista Wiens/www.self-reg.ca [/photo_footer] 


Special educational needs and disabilities (SEND)

There are many reasons why children and young people may respond through their behaviour to what is happening around them (or indeed in them). Let’s take as an example that statistic above regarding schools.

A different way of interpreting that statistic is to add that over 1.5 million children and young people in England have Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND), but only 389,000 of them have an Education, Health and Care (EHC) plan. Special Educational Needs in England, UK Gov. – June 2023

In other words, although not every child with SEND requires an EHCP to access support, many children and young people with SEND may not be getting all the support that they need; it varies from school to school, resulting in some of them struggling to keep up, and often failing.


Social, emotional, and mental health (SEMH)

One of the most common areas of SEND is Social, Emotional, and Mental Health (SEMH). The most recent statistics shows that in 2021/22 there were more than 250,000 pupils with an identified SEMH (Social, Emotional, and Mental Health) need in England, the majority (but not all) in receipt of SEN Support from schools.

The numbers have risen in the past year – SEMH needs are now the second most common category of SEND pupils accounting for more than one in six of the total.” Extract from article in ‘Children & Young People Now’ – December 2022

Children and young people journeying with SEMH issues are more likely to communicate how they are feeling through their behaviour, as shown in this extract from an article from the Royal College of Speech & Language Therapists:

“Behaviour is communication. Many children and young people who have behavioural difficulties, including many of those with social, emotional and mental health needs (SEMH), also have speech, language and communication needs (SLCN).

These needs often go unrecognised because behaviour can mask a child or young person’s difficulties with communication… In a study of pupils at risk of exclusion from school, two thirds were found to have SLCN.” Understanding The Links Between Communication and Behaviour – Royal College of Speech & Language Therapists – January 2019



And children and young people with SEND are more likely to be bullied too, adding yet another layer of distress. Some reports estimate that nearly 85 percent of children with special needs experience bullying. Walk A Mile In Their Shoes – Bullying and the Child with Special Needs – Ability Path (2013)

All of this (and we’ve only given a few examples here, there’s much, much more) can build up to the point where children and young people communicate their distress through their behaviour.

This extract from a report by Urban Health gives us a better understanding of some of the factors that may be involved here:

“Children and young people often communicate their distress through their actions. During childhood and early adolescence, mental health problems can present through behavioural difficulties. The language around behavioural difficulties is sometimes hard to navigate. All children’s behaviour can be challenging at times, but some children experience persistent and more extreme behavioural difficulties that have a significant impact on their lives. These young people may be diagnosed with a conduct disorder – an overarching term to describe both conduct disorder (CD) and oppositional defiant disorder (ODD). The prevalence of conduct disorders across England is estimated to be 5.6% in 5–16-year olds, but limitations in data mean this could be much higher. They are more common in boys than girls and evidence suggests they are more of an issue in inner-city areas where families experience greater inequality and discrimination.”


10 ways to make a difference

So, now that we understand that ‘behaviour = communication’, and some of the issues that can make that communication hard, resulting in the perceived ‘challenging behaviour’, what are some of the things we can do to make a difference?

Here’s 10 things that you can try:

1. Understand that what you are witnessing is communication. Start at that point rather than judging the behavioural outcomes.

2. Show reassurance and support to a child or young person. Help them to know that you are for them, not against them. You want to help them.

3. Get some training for your team so that everyone learns together how to create a communication friendly environment where everyone can thrive.*

4. Model good communication techniques, including making what you do multi-sensory, and by offering different ways for children and young people to communicate and engage (not just verbally).

5. Learn their ‘language’. It won’t all be verbal, look out for signs of distress in their body language, facial expression, gestures, attitude, and begin to understand what these are communicating to you. If they are working with a Speech and Language Therapist (SALT) then work with them to support any strategies they suggest.

6. If helpful, supplement your communication with them by using tools like a visual timetable, so that they know what is happening at each stage of the session.

7. Identify what might be ‘trigger points’ for them, and work together to reduce these triggers. Triggers could be anything, but common ones include loud noise (or other sensory overload), transitions from one thing to another, the programme content being inaccessible, or being picked on or bullied (see section on bullying above).

8. Provide tailored session content that the child or young person can do on their own, if possible linking in to their interests, providing support as needed.

9. Provide a sensory calm space that children and young people can access if it is all getting too overwhelming for them and they are struggling to cope. Have a simple way of children and young people communicating to you that they need to use this space (e.g. a card that they can show you).

10. For children, it can be helpful to have a home book which the adult(s) bringing the child can fill in to let you know how the child’s day has been going so far. You can also fill it in before they are picked up to let the adult(s) know how things went in the session. Good home/setting communication is vital.

So, with these ideas to hand, let’s reappraise that initial statistic that suggested that almost two-thirds of teachers said “poor behaviour had interrupted teaching in lessons”.

Hopefully we can now understand that there is much more going on here than the behavioural outcomes that we might witness, and we can start back at the beginning of what has led to these outcomes to help the child or young person by working with them to communicate effectively.

Here’s a final quote from Understood.org to challenge us to think differently in future, whether our context is school, church, youth club, or something else:

“Think of the last time a student called out in class, pushed in line, or withdrew by putting their head down on their desk. What was their behaviour telling you? In most cases, behaviour is a sign they may not have the skills to tell you what they need. Sometimes, students may not even know what they need. What are your students trying to communicate? What do they need, and how can you help?” Understanding behaviour as communication: A teacher’s guide – Understood

*I’m going to be extending this blog into a training session in the coming couple of months. If this is something you would be interested in, do let me know here.

Let’s all understand and communicate better…

Mark Arnold, Director of Additional Needs Ministry at Urban Saints. Arnold blogs at The Additional Needs Blogfather. This article was re-published with permission. 




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