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Amanda Cooper discusses the challenges of working with pupils with SEBD and outlines some useful approaches to supporting them at school 

Many of the more worrying behaviours seen in children and young people stem from unmet social and emotional needs which can lead to a poorly developed stress-regulation system. Behaviours that are disruptive or aggressive, chronically anxious, or withdrawn and shut-down are often triggered by the fight, flight or freeze response when the child or young person has limited or no ability to regulate their emotions. With fight, flight or freeze in play, the child or young person is operating in survival mode and not choosing to misbehave. For the adults around them, it is important to meet them where they are and help them come back into a regulated state where they are able to engage with life and learning.

In this article, I talk to primary school practitioners about how it is not only children with behaviours that present as fight or flight, but also the ones who have been triggered into a freeze response, that need support. The approaches they use emphasise the importance of building trust with families, making children feel safe and the value of outdoor play. They also acknowledge that SATs and the transition to secondary school can be a particularly stressful time for children with social, emotional or behavioural difficulties (SEBD) and their parents.

Reading the signs 

Carla, a primary school teacher in Wales with 15 years’ experience, has seen a rise in the number of children with SEBD in her school and she believes a contributing factor is the new way they have begun to identify these children. “The ones who are withdrawn and quiet – who were previously overlooked because they were not thought to be causing concern – are now being included”, she says. “This recognises the role of the freeze response to threat when traditionally it was just the fight/flight response that was identified. 

“For children who struggle to regulate themselves physiologically it can take very little additional stimulation to tip them over the edge. There is some behaviour you see and some behaviour you don’t. Helping the quiet ones to recognise and manage their own behaviour can transform their experience in school and can have a positive impact on the whole class dynamic.”

In Carla’s school they screen all the children and have found that each class has up to six children, who are divided into smaller groups, who benefit from time outside the classroom to address the specific unmet social and emotional needs that have been highlighted. These groups run every day and the aim is that after targeted and repeated intervention, the children will be able to return to the mainstream with better tools to manage their behaviour themselves. 

Phil is the Pupil Progress Lead at a pupil referral unit (PRU). Five or six years ago, their three primary centres supported fewer than 20 children each; now they support 40 and there is a waiting list. The reason, he believes, is linked to the increase in fixed-term exclusions, which in turn are often the result of physical aggression in the classroom where children are threatening teachers and classmates. This aggression might be due to family trauma or it could be linked to an undiagnosed condition such as autism. Whatever it is, it takes time to unpick. Phil tends not to read the case notes when a child comes to him because he prefers them to have a completely fresh start. “The PRU should not be seen as punishment and we have renamed our school to emphasise that we are a place of learning,” he says. “We do all we can to set every child, whatever their needs, on a successful path.” 

Building trust with the families

The best outcomes occur when families are involved and working together. It’s all about building trust. Carla’s school talks to every family where a child has been identified as having SEBD. They invite them to join a group to talk through the individual plans that have been created for their child to address their specific needs, and they explain how parents can carry on using the same type of strategies at home.

In another school in the Midlands, practitioner Karen reports that 15 per cent of the 600 pupils at her inclusive academy for two to 11-year-olds have SEBD. Karen says: “Having been consistently using particular screening and targeted action plans for the last four years this has peaked and the numbers are starting to go down and are at more manageable levels.”

Karen, like Carla, recognises that when any child is identified as needing extra support, it is important to work with the family. Her school runs six two-hour family workshops which are timed to finish at the same time as the end of the school day. In these workshops they begin to explain how a child’s behaviour is their way of communicating, and how, if a child’s brain is affected by stress, they will lose access to their "thinking brain” and be unable to engage with learning. 

Professor of Psychiatry Dr Dan Siegel talks about how children who “flip their lids” are operating back in their “survival” brains and cannot access their “thinking’ brains”. In other words, when children present with difficult or concerning behaviour, they are expressing feelings and needs that they are unable to express in any other way. What the school must do, in partnership with the family, is ensure each child feels supported and in a safe, stress-free environment where they will be able to access learning. Stress and anxiety affects all of us. Supporting parents to understand the impact of stress on their children, and providing information and activities to help them relate to how their children feel, can really help.  

Phil also works closely with families. “We run parent workshops which take a relaxed approach and explain how we are working with their children and what they can do to support them at home”, he says. "We want to communicate in a depersonalised, non-judgmental way with parents who are often at the end of their tether and who have been on the receiving end of years of worrying school letters and meetings. We need them to know that this is not a token exercise but an opportunity for them to help understand their child and to give them strategies to support them. When a parent comes to us to say that their child told them they ‘had a great day at school today’  and it is the first time they have ever heard them say that, we know we are beginning to make a difference.” 

Feeling safe

In Carla’s school, the children who are identified as having SEBD are encouraged to recognise sensations in their bodies which indicate when they are starting to get angry or feel overwhelmed. 

Carla explains: “The whole school has embraced a ‘safe place, safe person’ policy. This means that every child knows that if they get upset, instead of running or hitting out, they can go to a room where there is someone they trust, who can relate to them emotionally and where they can ‘be’ until they are ready to go back into the classroom. All the teachers have cards that they can hand to the children which gives them permission to leave the class and go to ‘safe place, safe person’. This avoids the ‘shame’ of being sent to the head and gives the child the opportunity to recognise their need for specific emotional regulation support.”

Phil’s school also knows that it is vital to give children the space to regulate themselves when they have become upset. He is redesigning “reflection” rooms to match the discharge behaviour of individual pupils. They contain punchbags, paper to rip up, cardboard boxes to stamp on, polystyrene packing to make into snowstorms, sea grass mats and chalkboard walls and, for one child with “angry elbows”, soft things to jab. 

The importance of playing outside

Much has been discussed in the media about the damage to children of too much screen time. The addictive nature of smart phones and the constant need to respond to them is having an impact on concentration levels. Instead of talking to parents and peers, children are looking at their phones, rather than interacting with those around them and providing fewer opportunities to develop a healthy social engagement system. We all have busy lives doing the best we can with the resources we have available to us. Providing parents with information about finding the balance between the exciting world technology can offer and the opportunities that real relationships and outdoor experiences provide is very important.

More than 60 per cent of the children with SEBD in Karen’s school have difficulty coping in the playground. “When you ask them how they play at home a common factor emerges”, she says. They nearly always talk about playing games indoors on a device. To address this problem, we’ve been proactive and introduced animals [an alpaca, a dog and rabbits] which has really helped to encourage children outside and is very calming.” 

As well as the obvious benefits of interacting and caring for animals, stroking an animal is known to increase oxytocin levels in the brain and body which reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Karen adds: “Our work to balance their overly indoor lives with some positive outdoor experiences has really made a difference to their wellbeing.”

SATs and the transition to secondary

SATs can be a particularly stressful time for children with SEBD. Karen finds visualisation and calming techniques very useful with the children. She also invites the parents to school for a coffee morning to explain about SATs and how, as supporting caring adults, they can help too. Likewise, the transition to secondary school can be challenging for children. Karen’s school has very strong links to their high schools and all the children have a week’s induction. For the children with SEBD, Karen’s school takes extra special care and invests a lot of time in preparing the children and finding ways to alleviate the stress they might well be feeling about moving schools. Teaching assistants, drawing on the key relationships they have developed with individual children, are alongside them throughout the week to help them acclimatise to the new environment and build their confidence as they enter the next stage in their lives. 

The experiences described by Karen, Carla and Phil are common to many teachers and SENCOs working with children and young people; they have found that a whole-school, child-centred approach to social and emotional development has made a calculable difference to individual children and those around them.

Further information

Amanda Cooper is a researcher/writer for the Thrive Approach, a developmental, trauma-sensitive approach to helping teachers and adults interpret the behaviour and meet the emotional and social needs of children and young people:
www.thriveapproach.com


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