Working with children who have Special Educational Needs (SEN), although extremely rewarding, is never easy, especially when the children in your care are misbehaving. Situations where we are dealing with children who are not behaving as society feels like they should is worsened by the untrained eyes of on-lookers who quickly assume that the child you are dealing with is naughty and that you are not doing your job right. Some would offer unsolicited advice and say “You know, you should not allow him to behave like that” or “Why are you letting him get away with saying/doing that? You should rule with an iron fist”.
While these unsolicited words are hurtful, it reflects much of society’s view on children’s behaviour. Those with no experience of dealing with children with complex needs believe that when children misbehave, they are being naughty. They know what they are doing and they know it is wrong. They believe that punishing children and shouting at them will stop them from behaving the way they do and in turn, start behaving ‘normally’.
As most parents and teachers of kids with SEN would agree, ruling with an iron fist, especially when rules and consequences are not thoroughly explained, do not always work. Individual children have different needs and emotional competencies. Not all of them understand the social rules and not all of them understand the consequences of their behaviours. More importantly, a lot of them do not possess the ability to recognise, regulate and control their emotions. As a result of this difference, they behave in a way that most of society deem inappropriate. A specific example is that of a child with Autism Spectrum Condition (ASC) who kicked his female classmate on her back just because she wore a different headband.
My experience with working with children with SEN has made me aware that every behaviour has a reason. Crucially, the young people that I have worked with made me realise that a lot of their ‘bad’ behaviours are results of uncontrollable reactions to unwanted stimuli. Aside from neurological differences, such as that of people with Autism, children may also be experiencing tensions at home that they are unable to deal with, which could result ro bad behaviour. Some of these children would act violently just to get your attention. They crave attention at school becaude they do not get it ahome, but do it in the wrong way. Most of the time, this will lead to them being labelled as ‘bad children’, which would lead to even more terrible behaviours.
It is extremely useful to keep in mind that there is always a reason for bad behaviour, and shouting and punishment are not always the answer. It upsets me when I see children receive inappropriate punishments given to them by people who should know better. Dealing with children this way is counterintuitive and will lead to unwanted consequences.
So what can be done?
Children who are misbehaving should always be reprimanded. They should be told that what they are doing is wrong, especially when they pose physical, emotional and psychological harm to themselves and others. However, disciplinary actions should not stop there. Children should be told why their actions are inappropriate, however simple the reason could be. As mentioned above, children, particularly those with SEN, are not always aware of the social rules and we need to teach them these rules explicitly, and keep reinforcing them until their knowledge and understanding is secure.
We should also give the children the chance to explain themselves. We need to ask them why they did/say what they did. Triggers are not always as obvious as we want them to be. Some children lash out because they were praised out loud, while some could say inappropriate and rude words because you did not say ‘well done’. People with mental conditions such as Autism may ‘misbehave’ because their routines are changed or the sensory stimuli around them is much more than they could deal with (such as in social areas like the park). We need to allow them to express these thoughts without fearing that we would shout at them.
Faulty or immature reasoning need to be corrected. We also need to teach them the appropriate way to recognise and deal with their emotions. Saying things like “I can see you are very angry with Paul because he took your train…” could help them label their emotions. Explicitly teaching them some calming strategies, such as counting to 10 or breathing slowly, could help them regulate their emotions better.
When individuals with ASD or ADHD experience meltdowns, we need to give them the chance to calm down, before speaking to them. Such meltdowns could consist of shouting, hitting or breaking furnitures. Individuals should be placed in a safe environment, away from other people (such as a quiet, sensory room). If this is not possible, other children and unsafe objects should be removed from the setting.
Parental involvement should also be sought. Home life can be difficult and communication between parents and teachers/ youth workers can help understand the child better. A more complete understanding of the child will most likely result in a better ways of improving his/ her behaviour.
The most important ingredient in all of this is an open mind. We should try to keep an objective view and not get ‘caught up’ in the moment and react in a way that is detrimental to the child. Dealing with ‘inappropriate’ behaviour also consists of learning on the job. Strategies that have worked in the previous 100 outbursts may not work with outburst number 101. We need to be flexible and adapt to the situation.