Understanding SEND: Behavioural and Emotional Difficulties
There can be many reasons why a child displays behavioural and emotional difficulties. Struggling to regulate behaviour and emotions can be incredibly taxing for a child and their family. Practitioners should be fully equipped to manage a range of conditions and symptoms, knowing best practices and communicating effectively with colleagues and carers. The child’s best interests should always be the main consideration when attempting to identify causes of unwanted traits and establishing ways to improve behaviour.
While behavioural and emotional issues can take many forms, there are some most commonly found in young children. These are:
- Being disrespectful- talking back to others and having an overall disregard for rules and boundaries.
- Having tantrums- this might be screaming and crying or full-body tantrums, throwing their body to the ground and thrashing.
- Being physically abusive- to themselves (self-harm) or others, often in the forms of head-banging, kicking, pinching, pushing, scratching, biting, punching, and throwing items.
- Lying- all children are expected to lie occasionally, but for some it can transform into frequent lying and untrusting behaviours. The motive might be to get out of trouble, to get attention, to get someone else into trouble, or it might be for no clear reason at all.
- Being unmotivated- children may seem unenthusiastic about learning, playing, or following routines, preferring to do things on their own terms.
- Being disruptive- generally causing issues for those around them. Interrupting learning, shouting out, negatively disrupting others play, or causing a scene (such as throwing food at mealtimes).
Keep in mind these examples can happen at varying times for each child. For some, these could be an unprompted daily occurrence, for others they might only happen in certain situations, such as mealtimes or when asked to tidy up.
Some unwanted behaviours transpire from underlying psychological conditions. It is important to note that displaying any of the behaviours above does not automatically mean a child has one of the following disorders. Particularly, children of nursery age can be far too young to be accurately diagnosed with a condition and no diagnoses should be made by anyone without the relevant qualifications (such as a doctor or psychologist).
“Child psychology experts from the University of Oxford and University of Pittsburgh say that the term “disorder” should be used cautiously for children up to 5 years old and question its validity. Professors Frances Gardner and Daniel S. Shaw say the evidence is limited that problems in preschool indicate problems later in life, or that behavioural issues are evidence of a true disorder.”
Quoted from healthline.com.
Some possible underlying conditions are:
- attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- oppositional defiant disorder (ODD)
- autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
- anxiety disorder
- bipolar disorder
- learning disorders
- conduct disorders
It is important for practitioners to recognise there is a reason why children behave the way they do. Whether there is an underlying medical condition, or they have a troubled home life, children rarely behave erratically without a fundamental cause.
Practitioners must build positive relationships with families to gain as much honest and accurate information about their upbringing as possible. Before a child starts at their setting they have been exposed to countless experiences, each one influencing their development. Keyworkers need to understand what children go through at home to fully comprehend behavioural patterns.
Losing a family member, gaining a sibling, moving house or being a victim of abuse are all overwhelming experiences for young children. They are unable to regulate their emotions like adults can, leading to changes in behaviour. Being aware of external influences can allow practitioners to understand the root of the issue and be better equipped to help.
There are also a number of parenting styles that can lead to unwanted behaviours. While every family raises their child in a unique way, there are 4 overriding parenting techniques that are most commonly seen:
- Authoritarian parenting: Very strict rules and no input from the children.
- Authoritative parenting: Strict rules, children are heard and cooperation is present.
- Permissive parenting: Few rules with little to no discipline. Adults are seen more as a ‘friend’ than ‘parent’.
- Uninvolved parenting: No rules and not many adult-child interactions. Parents are detached and often neglect their children.
While no judgements should be made on any parenting style, it is expected that both extremes of the ‘authoritarian’ and ‘uninvolved’ approaches produce more troubled and emotionally unbalanced personalities. Children in these types of households usually struggle to feel heard and will act inappropriately in an attempt to gain some much-needed attention.
Families should be met with sympathy and understanding, having concepts explained to them in an attempt to educate them in positive methods and techniques.
Recognising issues early on is the best way to help children overcome their struggles. Well-trained staff will be able to identify unwanted behaviours and know appropriate next steps. The earlier that contingencies can be put in place the better, as later interventions can be harder for children and their families.
Young children are surprisingly resilient and can adapt behaviours over time with appropriate support and care. The brain makes the most connections and grows most rapidly between the ages of 0-3, making this timeframe delicate and essential. The brain continues to develop quickly to the age of 5, after which time growth slows down, with fundamental connections already created. While new behaviours can evolve after this time, they are more difficult to implement and can take longer.
Methods to Implement
Setting an Example
Children are not born knowing acceptable forms of interaction and need to be taught how to do so. They must be shown how to behave in order to understand expectations. Practitioners and adults at home are the ones children will look to for guidance and behaviours to copy. Keyworkers should be mindful of this and act the way they expect the children to.
Speaking politely with children and colleagues, being friendly, empathetic and listening to others are all ways practitioners can promote positive behaviours. They should also share best practices with parents where necessary.
Children cannot be forced to behave in any particular way but, with affirmative and encouraging role models, they can learn how to interact successfully with others.
Having Clear Boundaries
From day one children need to know what is expected of them within their nursery environment. Clear boundaries must be set for all to follow, children and staff alike, with no one being singled out or ridiculed.
If anyone acts outside of these boundaries, such as physically hurting another, it must be handled directly and sensitively. An explanation of the unacceptable behaviour should be given, along with an alternate way they could have reacted. Avoid putting children on the spot as this can make them feel embarrassed and resentful, being more likely to act up again in the future.
For children to want to follow the lead of adults they need to respect them; not fear or resent them. Practitioners should be warm and caring but still have the capacity to remain authoritative when necessary. This does not mean shouting or belittling children, but calmly showing them preferred behaviours while giving an explanation as to why they are more desirable. Adults should be seen as dutiful leaders that children are eager to learn from.
Some children act out when they are asked to do something that is outside of their routine or comfort zone. Children should be given ample notice of the next activity to prevent unwanted responses. For example, if a child usually acts out when asked to tidy up, reflect on how they are asked to tidy. If they are happily playing and then abruptly told to tidy up, they will not be happy about it. But by giving 5, 2 and 1 minute countdowns (“5 more minutes, then it will be tidy up time”), the children will be prepared to stop their play and are more likely to comply, happily.
The countdown method can be used for any event that might upset a child with behavioural issues, such as nappy changes, mealtimes, or home time for instance. This can also be shared with families and used for home routines that might lead to a defiant child (bath time or bedtime).
Most behavioural problems stem from an inability to regulate emotions. If a child is displaying unhealthy or dangerous behaviours, one solution is showing them behavioural management techniques. These are useful methods to teach all children, regardless of any specific behavioural issues.
- Breathing - When big emotions happen children can be reminded to breathe through it. Breathing in for 3 seconds and blowing out for 5 is a tried and tested method to regulate emotions and helps children feel grounded.
- Jumping - Some circumstances call for a more physical outlet. Jumping up and down 10 times or stamping their feet in an appropriate way can release frustrations and gets emotions out without hurting others or themselves.
- Sensory - Having sensory items to focus on can soothe children and help them to relax. Watching a liquid sand timer or lights, squeezing a ball or teddy, or touching soft materials are all recommended.
- Mindfulness - Taking note of their body and surroundings grounds children and helps bring them down to a safer emotional state. Encourage them to notice something they can see, hear, smell or touch. Finding items to count is also useful, for example if a child likes cars, support them in finding 10 cars around the room whenever they feel big emotions coming.
- Talking - Children should be reminded to talk and explain why they feel upset or angry. This is often easier said than done, so this can be promoted once a child’s emotions are subsiding and they are in calmer place. Once they can communicate what has happened and what they need, they will soon recognise the benefits of talking first before lashing out in a negative way. Talking things through also allows children to comprehend what has happened and strengthens their ability to put their thoughts into words.
- Reassurance - No matter how a child acts out they should be reassured that everything will be ok. If they feel safe and secure, they are less likely to feel overwhelmed by their emotions. It should also be explained that it is perfectly ok for them to feel what they are feeling. All children will experience negative emotions and that is ok. What is not ok is for children to feel negative emotions for prolonged periods of time, which is why these techniques are so important.
Being Patient and Consistent
Working through behavioural issues can be draining and frustrating for all involved, including families and practitioners. Adults must try to remain calm and patient at all times, calling for support when necessary. Raising their voice to a screaming child is only going to encourage more screaming.
The negative actions of a child should also never be taken personally. Children at a young age do not act out to intentionally hurt an adult or other child. They are incapable of thinking in malicious or manipulative ways; they simply have a need that has not been met, such as feeling anxious about something they cannot put into words, therefore needing reassurance but being unequipped to ask for it.
Consistency is key. Once a boundary or expectation has been presented it is crucial that practitioners follow through. If a child feels they have successfully crossed a boundary with no intervention from an adult, they will continue to act negatively and won’t respect other boundaries. Consistency should also be present between children’s setting and home life.
Keeping emotions under control is no easy feat, when children manage to behave in a positive way or implement a behavioural strategy they have learnt, much praise should be given. This reinforces that positive behaviour is preferred and gives a much-needed boost to their self-esteem. Practitioners should be mindful to recognise positive behaviours as they are often harder to notice than negative ones.
The safety of all children is paramount and practitioners need to be aware of appropriate ways to intervene during tantrums. Training should be given on how to assess different situations and what steps should be taken for each.
Physical restraints are not suggested on nursery-age children due to their small stature. Physical intervention is only recommended if a child has put themselves in immediate danger or if they are endangering another child. If a practitioner is within reach to intervene, some appropriate interventions can be used. Verbal instructions are always recommended first but, in some cases, quick actions are needed to prevent injury:
- If a child has an item in hand, ready to throw, gently holding their hand to prevent them letting go is advised while verbally encouraging them to let go of the item.
- If a child is head-banging on the floor, place a pillow under their head to avoid injury.
- If a child is attempting to bite another child, gently placing a hand on their forehead might prevent them from successfully biting.
- To move a child away from a heated situation, it is advised to guide them by holding their hand, only picking them up in extreme situations.
- Holding a thrashing child can lead to injury for the adult and the child. It is often best to leave them lashing out on the floor, removing hazardous items and other children away from them.
Every situation is different; these points are only for guidance. Initiative and common sense should be used to best assess each situation.
Working with Families
Working closely with parents and carers is the best way to manage negative behaviours in children. By sharing ideas, discussing triggers and working together, the most effective plans can be put in place. Children will be exposed to consistent expectations, regardless of environment, and will develop necessary behavioural management skills rapidly.
Families can also feel overwhelmed and will experience their own range of emotions about their child. It is important to offer support to the adults involved as well as the children. More often than not they will need and appreciate it.
In extreme cases, support and advice may be needed from external agencies. Referrals to local agencies (dependant on location) will provide settings with additional information and specific target plans. While SENCOs will usually handle referrals, practitioners should still be aware of who their local agencies are and how they can help.
Some examples are:
CAMHS (The Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services)
ISEND Services (East Sussex)
Early Years Help (Kensington and Chelsea)
Early Help Family Solutions (Croydon)
NHS Behavioural Problems (General Guidance)