An angry, stressed or upset pupil is not one who is likely to open their minds to your new lesson on the reproductive cycle of a daffodil.
Before we can teach, pupils (and ourselves) need to be feel safe and regulated to be able to take in new information. Biologically this makes sense – when we are in a heightened state, sections of the brain such as the amygdala are in use – the section that deals with extreme emotions; this then overrides any activity that was going on in the sections responsible for logic or reasoning – such as the pre-frontal cortex. (I write more about the teenage brain and how it supports learning, in my book “Miss, I don’t give a sh*t” Engaging with Challenging Behaviour in Schools).
In the rest of the body, we recognise dis-regulation easily – the quickened heartbeat, the shallow, fast breath, the sweaty palms, the urgent need for the loo…
So when we have a pupil(s) in front of us displaying these how do we help them?
- (Temporarily) put the lesson plan aside
It’s a tricky one, especially when LOs, Ofsted expectations and a looming ‘Learning Walk’ in on the prowl… however, in the long run it does save you time, and can often prevent conflict and challenging behaviour.
- Be a role model
“YOU NEED TO BE QUIET!” Screamed at a shouting child rarely does anything. We are not regulated ourselves. In order to hold a safe space in which pupils can re-regulate themselves, we need to be facilitating that firstly in the learning environment and in our own way of being in the classroom. Pupils are learning from us all of the time. So when a wasp/inspector comes into your classroom, the pupils will be looking to you to see how you react and to know whether the space is still safe. How you react to scenarios affects how they will.
- Check in
Time for all of us to check in helps us realise if we need regulating, whether we’re working on adrenaline, stress or hunger. Take one minute now: put both feel on the floor, close your eyes sand take three deep breaths. That’s it. Your body will tell you what’s going on and if there’s anything you need. I did it myself now, I noticed I was typing urgently – I’m hungry.
An easy way to fit in these check ins with the pupils, that requires no extra time or planning, is to use the register. I describe how to do this in the blog post A magic tool to improve behaviour.
When pupils are encourage to regularly check in with their bodies, it sets up a habit to help them spot early warning signs of dis-regulation.
- Get physical
There’s anxiety or stress in the room, you may notice this from unconscious self-regulation going on – pupils won’t sit still, they won’t stop talking, they’re swinging on their chair. These are often actions identified as ‘low level disruption’ and may need consequences with them depending on your behaviour policy. In addition, give pupils tools to be able to help with this. In one double period lesson on Thursday afternoons, I stopped for 5mins halfway. I did yoga-type stretches and breathing with my reluctant year 11s. There was some moaning, but it did work. Biologically it aided the flow of blood and oxygen going around the body – the organs could function better and the concentration was re-ignited for the second half of the lesson.
For more ideas on how to incorporate physical activities into lessons I recommend Family Action’s resources here.
Some pupils will need more help regulating than others; especially those with SEMH (Social, Emotional, Mental Health issues. You can read more on that in the blog post Why Can’t they behave?). It is useful to take time outside of the incidents to strategise how they can be supported long term, and if they need any additional support for challenging situations in their lives or health concerns.
Also in your reflection, look out for what has worked! It took me several weeks to work out with one pupil that a timer with her 30secs time out from working was the key she needed to help manage her own emotions and be ready to learn again – it was gold dust once I found this trick! Be generous, share with others who work with those pupils.
- Try again
And of course sometimes it won’t work. Recently I sat through an entire double period with a young person swearing at me and screaming for me to go away (in an SEMH special school). There are much bigger things going on in this young person’s life, his ‘go away’ was not personal, but an accumulation of a consistent low-level dis-regulation and discomfort he experiences due to his challenging circumstances. It doesn’t mean I won’t try again next week…it’s our jobs as educators to help pupils learn, whether that’s by re-explaining that daffodil structure, or providing the space for them to be able to learn in the first place.