Children’s behaviour; why kindness matters

Children’s behaviour; why kindness matters

“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong” H.L.Menken

Recently I wrote about the essential place for kindness in schools. In 2021 we have a  mountain of evidence accumulated over the last four decades which points to the need to take into account the biology of kindness in how we respond to children’s behaviour.

In the middle of the rolling Covid emergency we see the effects of stress and trauma on the mental health and wellbeing of children and young people, for many building onto previous adverse experiences. We know from long-term clinical research and reporting how to support their recovery and mental health. The children we meet in these reports have experienced serious physical, psychological and sexual violence and communicate their inner turmoil in their challenging or frozen behaviour. 

In their book “The boy who was raised as a dog” Perry and Szalavitz give us detailed insights into childhood trauma, as highlighted in the title. As an infant this child passed from his mother to an aunt and, on her sudden death, to her unrelated partner, a man with no experience in caring for children, who ran a dog-training business. He asked for help but didn’t get, so he did what he knew best. He put the young child in a kennel with his puppies and raised them together. We now know that children who have experienced the sharp edges of trauma behave differently to those where kindness in steady, calm relationships steer their healthy growth and development. Perry and Szalavitz talk about these extremes of behaviour of children who live in a permanent reactive state of fear and stress, lashing out and testing new people to see if they’re truly safe or shutting down and freezing on contact. These clinicians expect to meet trauma-experienced children in clinic and are funded and supported to meet their needs. School staff can expect to meet these same children, in a state of toxic stress, as a daily reality too, whether or not they are properly funded, trained and supported. 

Recently (Guardian) John Harris wrote; “Exclusions in English schools have gone from a last resort to the go-to punishment for children who are deemed disruptive or simply don’t fit in.” 

Harris interviewed a young man, Lewis. In Year 9 Lewis “started being bounced around the school system. At one point he spent every school day for six weeks in a single-room facility called ‘the annex’. He (was) forced to spend time at home. Sometimes work was sent for him to do; sometimes he spent whole days doing nothing”. 

So what, you might say. Here’s an average wayward teenager causing problems and an average school doing what it thought best to get him to toe the line. School behaviour policy placed segregation in ‘the annex’ leading on to exclusion as the necessary levers for changing Lewis’ behaviour.  

Lewis puts this punishment routine into context. “I was in top sets for lots of things, and there weren’t many Black kids in those classes, so I tended to stand out. But also I was acting out.” He talks about his experiences, “I had a lot going on. My mum had a miscarriage. My grandma was diagnosed with cancer. I had an uncle who was sectioned”. He acknowledges he was ‘lashing out’, but with careful clarity says  this; “…. but the worst part was I’d spoken to some of my teachers about the reasons.” 

His said his treatment was “was like being in prison”.

Harries writes “Those involved tell me it’s impossible to separate permanent and temporary exclusions from ‘isolation units’ within schools where pupils are forced to send days in ‘internal exclusion. …. Most exclusions are the result of zero-tolerance behavioural codes common to a huge number of schools, whereby answering back or refusing to follow instructions can take someone from a relatively trifling punishment to exclusion in short order.” 

It’s good to know that Lewis is now making a success in the Activist Academy in Brixton, South London. But others fare worse, their lives blighted by a system that offers an apparently clear, simple answer to the complex problems raised by children through their behaviour, and in turn to the complexity of behaviour in response to stress and trauma. One-size-fits-all reward and punishment?

The clinicians accept that the behaviour of traumatised children’s was the initial focus of attention and their first response was to prescribe powerful drugs, mind-altering chemicals which acted largely unknown ways to modify behaviour.

But gradually a change happened. The child as a person began to emerge more clearly as the focus of the work. From careful observation it emerged that talking and listening to children and young people about their hopes, successes and resources was effective, with or without prescription drugs. Noticing and talking about the strengths and resources that enabled them to survive and cope, in a relationship of empathy and safety was often the difference that made the difference. 

Engaging the child as a person shaped by experience, building a reliable and safe relationship, laughing and playing together as an integral part of treatment, was central to recovery and re-engagement with the world. Dr. Perry and Maia Szalavtiz give us detailed accounts of the process in “The Boy who was Raised as a Dog”, as does Dr. Nadine Burke-Harris in her book, “The deepest well”.   

We now know so much more about what drives the unsettled, withdrawn behaviour and the in-your-face challenge of anxious, worried children. We know that these can be signals from adverse childhood experiences, a term that smoothes the harsh roughness of the lives of children who grow up without sufficient love, isolated, scared, moved around from one place to another, with little chance to speak about their hopes and fears, with no-one listening when they do. 

We now understand that punishment can cause further harm children to already harmed – that the use of punishment-based Behaviour Management in schools where it fails to meet children’s needs, is clear, simple and wrong. 

In contrast, I know through my own work with the structured kindness of Solutions Focused Coaching a pastoral approach based in relationships with reliable adults, offers children a route to a better future. 

Across the UK many schools are focusing on relationships and finding that children can learn to behave well, learn more and achieve their goals when they experience true care and deep safety. And hidden in these changes, children’s mental health and wellbeing rises as they experience kindness, empathy and a sense of agency and flow. 


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