Six top tips for managing young people with behavioural, emotional and social difficulties without confrontation
When we refer to behavioural, emotional and social difficulties (BESD), what exactly do we mean? BESD is when a young person cannot manage her emotions, and is often anxious, scared and misunderstood. The young person may have had early life trauma, been a victim of abuse or even suffered the effects of alcohol or drugs before she was born.
The first hurdle to overcome is recognising the problem in the first place. Young people with BESD are often dismissed as being naughty and disruptive. They are usually the ones stood outside the classroom and their parents may be told that it is their fault – that they’re not doing enough to discipline them.
Identifying the issues
When I began my teaching career in an inner city primary school that was in serious special measures, I had 33 children in my class. This was made up of 14 average-ability students, two potentially gifted and talented, 12 on school action, one with English as an additional language, two refugees, and two who spent their time climbing out of windows and generally causing mayhem. This class was supposed to be the easiest of the three in the year group.
As a newly qualified teacher, I did not want to start putting young people out of the room; I wanted to be able to understand the students’ behaviour. I began reading widely around the subject and soon found myself enjoying the challenge and wanting to do something for these pupils.
After a few years, I moved on to a federation of schools for young people with BESD. So, after a lot of studying and trial and error, what are the main tips I can offer teachers, parents and carers when dealing with young people with BESD?
Young people with BESD have varying degrees of challenge, capability and lack of trust – and in some cases, they can be very aggressive. So how can we teach and help them?
1: Pick your battles
If you challenge every step put out of line, you will be on the young person’s case every minute of the day. Ask yourself, what the one is the one thing I want this child to do this week? Set it as a target and make this the only thing you pick them up for during that week.
2: The last word
Being a teacher, parent or carer, you may always want the last word – and this can also be true of many young people with BESD. Competing for the last word can be a dangerous path to go down, though, as the young person could get stressed and angry, resulting in a full blown argument. Adopt a phrase that signifies that you are not going to go any further with the conversation. I use “end of” and my students now know that this is the end of the discussion.
Yes, they may well huff and puff – and they might even swear at you – but walk away and don’t engage any further.
3: Remove the audience
Young people with BESD may have huge gaps in their education due to being sent out during lessons.
When they are in the classroom and feel that they don’t understand what is being discussed, they may create a scene with the intention of being removed, so they aren’t shown up in front of their peers.
This can be difficult to overcome. The teacher needs to help the student understand that she is not “stupid” but has missed something in a previous class, and that the teacher will help her to catch up.
It sometimes helps to use a distraction tactic during the first part of the lesson. Send the young person on an errand or give her a task to work on in the room, explaining that you will work with her on the first part of the lesson once they have completed the job.
4: The fidget
Young people with BESD are generally unable to stay still. While it can be irritating when you’ve got someone in front of you who is constantly tapping or swinging on their chair, you need to ask yourself if it is actually worth the argument that may occur if you try to tackle the issue. It may seem counterintuitive, but fidgeting can actually help some young people to concentrate. Not only this, but if you start to react every time a pupil is being restless, she will realise that this annoys you and will increasingly do it to try to get your attention.
5: Positive strategies
One of the most difficult young people I have met in the past would constantly try to get my attention throughout lessons. I tried several ways to deal with him – including the broken record tactic where I repeatedly said “not this time” – but these were only short-term solutions. After reading up on different options and trying out a few of them, I started using positive behaviour strategies. If the student completed ten minutes of work, I would spend two minutes with him. If he did half an hour of work, he could sit at the end of my desk and work. He desperately wanted my attention and by showing him that I would only give him my attention if he did the right thing, he soon began to realise how he could earn this privilege.
6: Changing the way
Some students with BESD can be extremely disengaged and have huge gaps in their education. However, there is a way of turning this around and making them want to come to school and participate.
The secret to this is to encourage staff to get to know each young person as an individual. Teachers and other members of the team should be dedicated to finding that chink in the student’s armour which would enable them to get through to and connect with her. Making sure that staff are trained in the principles of nurture; introducing emotional literacy lessons can help this.
A strong pastoral system can also be hugely beneficial. It can help ensure that clear, consistent messages are communicated at home as well as school. It can also help to create a more positive environment where exclusion is not the normal way to deal with difficult behaviour.
By working together, teachers and parents can establish clear messages early on, show the young person that they are on her side and treat her based on her needs, likes and dislikes.
Yes, there are challenges when dealing with young people with BESD, but they can be overcome. By monitoring and planning for difficulties before they happen, you can help to change behaviour, rather than simply manage it.
Whether you’re a teacher, parent or carer, there will be times when your patience is tested – but try not to rise to it and follow some of these tips. If you are consistent with these patterns, the young person will soon understand your boundaries and expectations and, in turn, will respect and respond to you.
Eileen Sheerin is Headteacher of Ashcroft School in Greater Manchester, an independent special school for those with BESD. Ashcroft is part of the Together Trust: