Sue Cowley: How To Deal With
Extreme Behaviour
Expert contributor Sue Cowley explains how to deal with more difficult behaviour.

It can feel shocking to be faced by a child who is physically aggressive, who has an extreme reaction in your setting, or who hurts staff or other children. We come into education to do our best for our children, and it is hard not to take it personally when you experience extreme behaviours from a child.

First and foremost, remember that the behaviour is not personal. It might be to do with the child’s current home situation or adverse early childhood experiences. Maybe it is about a specific trigger that is setting off a reaction, perhaps linked to a special educational need.

It could also be a temporary situation, due to the child’s development. For instance, a number of young children go through a period of biting, often connected to teething, which they usually grow out quite rapidly.

Safety First

You should always keep the safety of both children and staff at the forefront of your mind.

If appropriate, put one-to-one adult supervision in place for the child for a period of time. Have a clear plan in place for your staff team about how to react if the child ‘kicks off’. Work out who will do what, with the child’s key person taking the lead role. If the child is likely to lash out physically, have a plan about how you will move other children away from the situation to keep them safe.

Working with Parents

Talk to the child’s parents or carers about whether they experience this behaviour at home, and what might seem to be the cause. This can be a tricky conversation to have, because the parents might not want to admit to there being a problem.

To avoid this, be clear that you are not apportioning blame, but that you need to work together as a team to get the best outcomes for their child.

Using an ABC Chart

With repeated examples of extreme behaviour, it is very helpful to use an ‘ABC’ Chart.

This is a chart on which you log details of the behaviour incidents, under the headings of antecedent, behaviour and consequences. The chart can help you look for patterns of behaviour over time, and to identify causes that you might be able to prevent. Noting down the specifics can help you get an overview of the situation.

Antecedent covers the things that happened before the situation arose – the aim is to identify any potential triggers for the behaviour, such as signs of distress from the child or negative environmental impacts.

Behaviour deals with the incident itself – aim to log specifics of the behaviour in a dispassionate way. What did the behaviour look like? What specifically happened? Who was involved?

Consequences is where you analyse the aftermath of the situation. This might include other people’s responses to the situation, and what happened after the event, for instance how long it took the child to calm down or which adults discussed the situation with parents.

Identifying Triggers

Try to spot a pattern using the ABC Chart, and identify the triggers for the extreme behaviour, so that you can try to stop it happening in the first place. For instance, if you notice that the behaviours occur on a day when the cleaners have been, or when a member of staff is present who wears a strong perfume, it might be that the child has sensory processing issues and is reacting to scents in your setting.

Another trigger might be to do with particular peer group relationships. Is the child playing with a specific child each time the behaviour occurs? It could be that the behaviour always happens on a Monday, and that the trigger is what has happened over the weekend. For instance, where a child whose parents are separated spends weekends in a different place.

If you are able to identify a specific trigger, consider what steps you can take to stop this happening in the first place. For instance, for a child who is triggered by scent, ask staff not to wear perfume and change to hypoallergenic cleaning products.

Identifying SEND

When you are faced with a pattern of extreme behaviours from a young child, this is often an indicator that the child has some form of SEND. Get your SENDCo to undertake some observations of the child and ask for support from your local authority SEND team.

A Needs-Based Analysis

A useful way to analyse extreme behaviour is to look at the issue from the point of view of what the child might need, and what you can do to meet those needs. Young children find it difficult to communicate or express their inner emotional state, and so we need to look at their behaviours and interpret these on their behalf.

Make a list of the behaviours you observe happening in the child. Now consider, what might the child be telling you that they need through these behaviours. For instance, a child who screams and has tantrums might be telling you that they don’t understand how to calm themselves, or that they are finding their experience in the setting overwhelming. In response, you might adapt the way you organise your environment, to create opportunities for the child to have some calm and quiet time out.

Sue Cowley is an author, teacher and trainer who has helped to run her local preschool for the last ten years. Her latest book is The Ultimate Guide to Differentiation.

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