Podcast: Behaviour and mental health in schools

22 June 2023

How is children’s behaviour in schools linked to their mental health? And what impact are behaviour management approaches having on young people’s mental health? This episode, Thea Joshi sits down with Charlotte Rainer from the Children & Young People’s Mental Health Coalition and Daisy*, a member of the Coalition’s parent-carer advisory team, to discuss the Coalition’s new research on behaviour and mental health in schools. They consider how children’s behaviour is currently managed, how more punitive processes affect children’s mental health, and how schools could better meet the needs of every child. They also do some myth-busting, unpacking the polarised discourse around mental health and behaviour management. 

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Listen to the episode on Spotify or Apple PodcastsThe full transcript is available below

*Daisy’s name has been changed to protect her privacy

Show notes


Alethea Joshi (AJ): Hello and welcome to Centre for Mental Health’s podcast. I’m Thea Joshi, and in each episode I speak to people with experience of mental health difficulties, someone working in a specific area, or a member of our team about advancing mental health equality. And this month, I spoke to Charlotte Rainer from the Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition, and Daisy, a member of the Coalition’s parent-carer advisory group, to discuss their year-long inquiry into behaviour and mental health in schools.

We know that school behaviour, behaviour management and this whole area is quite a hot topic. So it was really great to dig into the nuances of how children’s behaviour is addressed in schools, the links to mental health and neurodivergence, what helps and what hinders. And Daisy, whose name we’ve changed to protect her privacy, shares some deeply pertinent and personal reflections on the impact of these behaviour approaches on her family, and what still needs to change. Hope you enjoy.

Today, I’m really excited to have Charlotte and Daisy with us. And we’re going to be talking about behaviour and mental health in schools. So hi, guys, thanks for joining me.

Daisy (DA): Hi

Charlotte Rainer (CR): Hi , Thea

AJ: This is great. I’m so glad to have you guys here. And so yeah, we’re going to be talking today about behaviour and mental health in a school setting. And that’s really topical for us because the Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition has just launched its new research, following a year-long inquiry into this area, which we know is challenging and thorny, and throws up lots of interesting questions. So I’m really delighted to have both Charlotte and Daisy here to talk about it and unpack this a little bit more and give us a bit more insight into it.

So Charlotte, I’m going to dive right in. And, you know, for people who aren’t working in an education or a sort of childcare setting, what do we actually mean when we talk about behaviour in a school setting?

CR: Thanks, Thea. So yeah, when we talk about behaviour within a school setting, we basically mean any actions that school children take that anything that they do at school, or anything that anybody really does, it can be classed as our behaviour. But what we [found] here through our inquiry is that definitions of behaviour in school are mainly focused on the negative. So it’s very much looking at the behaviour that schools don’t want. So: don’t run in the corridor, don’t talk during lessons, it’s very much don’t do this, don’t do that. So at the very outset, behaviour is put in a negative light.

We also know that a wide range of factors can influence our behaviour. So there can be things happening within us as individuals, there could be things happening at home in the family environment, there could be things happening outside of home and school, there also could be things that are triggering within the school environment itself. There’s a whole wide range of factors that can influence that. But what we consistently kept hearing throughout the inquiry was that behaviour is a form of communication. And it could be a sign that a child has unmet or undiagnosed needs. And there was one quote in the inquiry that really stood out to me when someone said that “behaviour is a manifestation of children’s internal worlds”. And I really thought that that summed up what behaviour is and how we should be looking at it.

In terms of how schools are responding to behaviour, it’s really hard to get a clear picture. So it’s really down to schools to determine their own best practice in managing and responding to behaviour in schools. And we heard a range of responses. So we heard predominantly that schools focus on reactive approaches to behaviour. So when something goes wrong, that’s when they kind of step in and put behaviour management techniques in place. And that the use of punishments are quite predominant. With that said, we did speak to other schools in the inquiry who are doing loads of work to really focus on relational approaches, they’re looking at how they can embed relationships as part of the whole school approach to behaviour, and how actually, that has really resulted in positive change.

AJ: Yeah, that’s a really helpful background for those of us, like myself, who might not be working in this area. I know the Coalition has been working over the last year to research the views of young people, parents, carers, professionals in this really wide ranging topic. And I guess I was just interested to know, why did the Coalition choose to launch this inquiry into this specific topic? What was the motivation behind that?

CR: We’ve been hearing concerns from our members about the way behaviour is being approached in schools and the use of more punitive approaches like these permanent exclusions and isolation rooms, and how these could actually be harming children’s mental health rather than responding to the issues. It got raised as an issue in our Members’ Report 2020 and again in our Members Report 2021. So we just wanted to explore this a little bit more and find out what’s going on. We wanted to understand what are the links between behaviour and mental health? What is evidence out there saying? We wanted to look at how school behaviour policies are impacting children and their mental health. And we just really wanted to understand, what can we be doing differently to support both behaviour and mental health in schools?

I think anecdotally as well, through our networks, we’ve been hearing from families, we’ve been hearing from young people about some of the impacts that different behaviour management techniques were having on them and how, you know, their needs weren’t really being addressed or responded to. So we just thought this is a really timely and important issue for us to look at in a little bit more detail.

AJ: As we alluded to before, it’s quite a thorny issue. And obviously, there’ll be probably quite a few people out there saying: well, children who are naughty need some sort of discipline and punishment. And, of course, that’s not pleasant. But that doesn’t mean we can just kind of excuse behaviour that’s unhelpful or problematic. So yeah, I’m interested to understand a bit more of the nuance behind this. I think it’s been quite a polarised debate. So what what would you say to that? Is the idea that we’re just saying children should be able to do whatever they want? I mean, presumably not?

CR: No, not at all. And just to be completely clear, we’re not saying that schools shouldn’t have boundaries, expectations, consequences in place. That is an important part of the school environment and we absolutely agree that that needs to be in place within the school. But what we’re saying is that sometimes putting behaviour management techniques in place, sometimes doesn’t help behaviour, or a young person’s mental health, particularly where they have existing needs. And sometimes it can exacerbate the behaviour, rather than actually addressing the underlying causes. What we really think we need to do as well is support schools to be able to respond effectively. So you know, putting in place specialist services, mental health services, services that are responding to SEN and disabilities, so really building that infrastructure around schools. So where schools are identifying children and young people who may potentially have needs, they can easily access support to be able to help them with that.

And we also think that schools need to recognise diversity and understand that actually, some of the expectations that are put in place around behaviour are very much a one size fits all approach. And that we need to make adjustments to make it easy for children and young people to be able to respond to those. But then when they do misbehave, actually, what adjustments can we be making, there might be something more going on for this child. And then finally, a point I really want to make is that in the inquiry, we heard from nearly 500 parents and carers and over 100 young people, and these families’ experiences are really reflecting the reality of what’s going on in schools at the moment. And we just can’t ignore their voices, we really need to listen to families and what’s going on for them at the moment.

AJ: Thank you so much, Charlotte, for explaining that a bit. And I guess my sense from what you’re saying is that we’re not saying let’s welcome in anarchy into schools, and rules aren’t necessary. We know actually, that boundaries are really helpful for children’s mental health. If we’re saying that we want to really support children to thrive in a school setting and to support their mental health, we have to do that across the whole school system; we can’t be say, for instance, providing school counsellors, which is amazing, but then potentially enacting punishments or disciplines which are potentially really harmful and think that those two things aren’t going to affect one another. We have to look at this whole school approach, which I know is something the Coalition is talking about a lot.

CR: Exactly, Thea. I think the approaches that we have at the moment can be very contradictory, where we’re promoting children and young people’s mental health, but then sometimes also using these really harsh disciplinary measures within schools. I think one of the parents within our parent-carer advisory group really summed it up for me when they said, “we just need to be more kind and more compassionate to young people and more understanding of their needs”. And I think that just kind of sums it up really well.

AJ: Yeah, I completely agree with you. And before we dive in more into the report, and obviously hear from Daisy, I want to just clarify what do we mean by behaviour management techniques? What kind of things are we talking about there?

CR: Yeah, so we’ve used the phrase behaviour management techniques within our report, as a way to define how schools respond to behaviour. So they could also be called sanctions as well. But there’s a whole range of things that schools can do, different techniques that they can put in place to respond to misbehaviour. And guidance from the Department of Education sets out what these can be. So it can be something where, you know, you respond to the behaviour in the classroom, you send a child out, it could be a phone call home, it could be in-school community service, it could be detentions. So you know, there’s some real kind of low level responses. It also encapsulates things like permanent exclusions, suspensions, isolation rooms. So it’s really, when we talk about behaviour management techniques, we talk about that whole range of different things that schools can use to respond to misbehaviour.

AJ: Thanks. That’s super helpful context. And Daisy, I really want to bring you in now. I know that you’ve been on the parent and carers advisory panel as part of this work. From your perspective, why were you interested to get involved in this?

DA: So my interest in being involved in it comes from a really personal lived experience perspective. So I’ve got three children, all school age. All three of them have completely different personalities, completely different needs. Some of them have additional needs, disabilities, and some of them are more frequently than the others subject to the behaviour management techniques. So, yeah, but all those different presentations that they have, along with everyone else at the school, they’re all there for the same reason: to get an education in a safe and healthy environment. Unfortunately, they haven’t always achieved that. So I was really keen to get involved to sort of be part of the process of exploring the reasons why. Why were they not able to be safe and healthy at school? What was it about, like one of my children in particular, that they couldn’t achieve that, whereas the other two could? And then just speak to other parents and other like minded people? I just really valued that opportunity to be part of that process.

AJ: Thanks, Daisy. That’s really helpful. And we’re really grateful to you for bringing that lived experience to this conversation today. And as you were speaking, again, I was recalling what Charlotte was saying earlier about moving away from a one size fits all approach in schools. And as you were saying, Daisy, that some of your children were finding that harder than others and kind of recognising that, you know, we can’t just assume that every approach will work for every single child because every child is unique and different. I do want to talk about their new research that the Coalition’s brought out. So Charlotte, I mean, I guess I’m thinking about the links between say mental health and behaviour. What did you find there?

CR: So we heard really clearly that behaviour is linked to a young person’s mental health needs, and their special educational needs and disabilities. And so just to give you some statistics to kind of frame that: 81% of young people and 87% of parents and carers agreed that a young person’s behaviour is linked their mental health; and 61% of young people and 81% of parents and carers agree that behaviour is linked to special educational needs and disabilities.

We also heard from professionals around the links between mental health especially educational needs and disabilities. And we heard how experiences of trauma, adverse childhood experiences can really help drive and contribute to behaviour, but also things around being able to access timely assessments. You know, we’ve heard from some families and professionals who are talking about not being able to access a timely assessment, which means that children and young people are left about a diagnosis. And in that time, without a diagnosis, no support can be put in place by the school, so they’re kind of left in limbo. And all of this is contributing to a young person’s behaviour.

So whilst we heard all of this, what we also heard from young people is that school behaviour policies aren’t always responsive to their needs. So we asked young people, when a school responds to your behaviour, do you think they’re taking your mental health needs or your special educational needs and disabilities into account? And the majority of young people said, Actually, no, schools aren’t responsive to my needs. And then more young people said that actually, no, we’re not even listening to when our behaviour is being discussed by schools. There just needs to be that more understanding that behaviour is driven by a young person’s needs, and then we need to cater our approaches around that.

AJ: Thanks, Charlotte. That’s really helpful insight. And I think it’s clear from that research that a huge proportion of the people that you spoke to are saying that behaviour is inextricably linked to our mental health, our general wellbeing, but that often that isn’t being taken into consideration. And that kind of almost feels like a bit of a no brainer, that schools would need to take that into consideration. But we recognise they’re working under a huge amount of pressure. And we we will get on to that. But first, Daisy, I’m really interested to learn a bit more abou what did the inquiry hear about the impact of behaviour management techniques, you know, both on the young person themselves, but also on the wider family? Do you want to tell me a little bit more about that?

DA: Yeah. So being part of the parent-carer group, we met quite regularly, and the discussion was really open and honest about people’s experiences. But there was one, well several key themes, but the main one that everyone had sort of experienced was the idea that the behaviour management techniques, everyone found them punitive and definitely felt that they weren’t developed from a holistic or a personalised point of view. So in the sense that they were very reactive to the observable presentation of the child in that current moment. Whereas, as we we mentioned earlier, behaviour for the child in the classroom or in the school setting, a teacher or an adult there would see it as the child’s being disruptive, and they need to be contained immediately. That was the impression that we were getting from the schools.

For the child, that single moment of disruptive behaviour, that’s typically known as disruptive behaviour, actually comes from a whole host of different things that are going on with their body and their mind. And it’s an outward communication of how they’re feeling and that’s how they’re communicating their needs. So the impact of that being managed, that behaviour being managed in a punitive approach, for the child, it’s sort of a signal or a communication from the adults involved that actually, that behaviour, and that feeling that’s associated with that behaviour isn’t good, isn’t right, and it’s wrong.

So my child, who’s been in that situation, started to view himself as naughty. Whereas, as an adult, what I actually know, it’s not a naughty behaviour, it’s just a nonconforming behaviour, something that doesn’t fit with the needs of the classroom at that time. A child has a limited understanding of that, and just sees themselves as a problem. They’re the problem. They’re the one that’s been taken out of the classroom, because they don’t fit in. And it’s just a big, massive emotion, to add, on top of how they’re feeling already, that they’re trying to desperately communicate, it just has a massive impact on them. So that just leads on to the child having a negative association with themselves and their personality. So when their way of expressing themselves is labelled wrong, disruptive, school then,is not seen as a safe place for them, it’s not somewhere that they want to be, and they start to lose the trust in the adults at the school. So they don’t want to be there, they no longer want to be there. And then that triggers the attendance policy. So they don’t want to be there. So they start not attending or they start being late. So then we’ve got the disruptive behaviour, but then it brings in the low attendance or the continuously late policy, which is then just another thing for the child to unachieve. They’ve then not even met the basic needs of getting to school. And it’s just a continuous cycle, because then it just becomes this really hostile relationship where the child doesn’t trust anybody. So they’re not welcoming, they’re not open, they don’t have the skills to accurately communicate their needs. The teachers aren’t responsive in a friendly way, they’ve got to be at school, because they’re then getting the stress of low attendance. So they have that impact. Then the fines come. So then the parents start receiving these massive fines. They’re not like tiny amounts, they’re massive amounts. And the fines are actually to both parents. It’s not one fine per child. It’s a fine per parent. And we’re a two-parent household. So we get two fines every time they decide to fine us, which then adds to the stress of family life.

Like I said before, I’ve got three children, two of them attend school absolutely fine. One of them doesn’t. So we’re like, hang on a minute, we’re meeting the needs, we’re managing to do this with two of them. It’s not us. But that is another key theme that came out: the parent blame. So the teachers ringing us with their set of guidelines. The teachers are telling us, this is what we have to do. It’s national policy, we’re told what we have to do, your child needs to attend school with no sort of awareness of, actually, I don’t think it is anything we’re doing wrong because two of them are coming it’s just one of them that’s not coming. Blaming the parent is actually negating the child completely. It’s taken the onus on them, it’s taken any control that they have out of their hands, and blaming us, blaming everything that we’re doing.

So key phrases that I heard a lot, and actually I’ve had similar ones: so the teachers try and help us take the child to school by saying things like, you know, if your child sees you being anxious, they then become anxious and nervous. They start to view it as something scary. And it’s just really hard to put into words how that completely ignores the child as a whole person, as a whole being. Rightly so, the way that we act as parents does impact on the child. But they do have their own set of needs.

AJ: Yeah. Daisy, thank you so much for sharing that and that’s really helpful insight for people who are who are not in this setting, maybe don’t have school aged children, it’s super helpful to get a bit of a window onto that. And, I’m not speaking as a clinician, but I was really interested in what you said about the way that the narratives around children who are struggling in school, it kind of applies and then sort of reinforces these labels about, ‘oh, this is who I am, well, I just can’t do this, or I just, I don’t work in this way, or there’s something wrong with me’. And it’s like, deeply sad to hear, isn’t it, that a child would be in a position where they feel like that, and again, it just makes me think, again, of what Charlotte said at the beginning about this not a one size fits all approach, and it’s not going to work for everyone.

So when it’s not working, it’s not just taking this kind of punitive approach, as you say, and saying we just need to show harsher discipline. It’s that kind of curiosity that I know the report has talked about, taking a more curious approach about like, hey, what’s what’s going on behind this? What does this communicate, it might be kind of easier and more reductive and simplistic to say, well, this is bad behaviour, and we just need to discipline. But it’s counter-effective, it doesn’t actually lead to the outcome that schools are looking for and obviously that parents are looking for.

DA: Absolutely, yeah. And I think that the report mentions it, but a lot of the parent-carers were also discussing this idea that if a child is presenting as disruptive, or not following the rules, it’s not because they don’t know what the rules are and it’s not because they don’t want to, it’s because they actually can’t. And that’s usually something that’s happening internally. And it could be their low mental health already. So as a baseline, their already disruptive behaviour is communicating: I’m not feeling great, I’m not feeling where I need to be right now. And then when the teacher responds with behaviour management techniques that are punitive, it just adds on more negative feelings, and almost validates that feeling that they’re having: actually, yeah, I don’t fit in here, I can’t fit in here, yeah, definitely take me out of here and put me in isolation. It’s just a continuous cycle of just negative reinforcement all the time.

CR: Everything that Daisy has just spoken about really encapsulates everything we just found in the report. You know, young people reporting that they felt really negative about themselves. They felt displeased, they felt isolated. Young people feeling like they’re more anxious, that they don’t want to attend school, that they don’t like school, they don’t trust schools. And then parents really talking about how, you know, it exacerbated their child’s mental health needs, exacerbated their special educational needs and disabilities.

As Daisy said, it has an impact on wider family life, parents telling us how, you know, some of them had to stop working so they could be at home to support their child. And I think from parents and carers, as Daisy said, one of the things that massively came out was the impact on parents’ mental health, particularly where they felt blame, and they were at the receiving end of parent-carer blame. I think that parent-carer blame can be really damaging to parents and their mental health, particularly when they’re trying to do the best by their child, and then being blamed, I think it is really negative and can be really harmful.

AJ: As we’ve been talking, I’ve been thinking about, you know, one of the other kinds of criticisms that’s levelled at the stance that we would all take at the Coalition and at Centre for Mental Health is that people will say, what about the other 29 pupils in the class? What about the teacher? What about their mental health? What about their learning? And that to me feels like quite a reductive argument. But you know, it’s a fair point. And so I wonder, Charlotte, what your thoughts are on that, and what we’re saying here from the research.

CR: Completely, and it’s something that’s often said to us, what about the other 29 in the classroom? Firstly, and foremost, and we set this out in the report, we should be at a place where every child in that classroom is valued and every child matters. So every child in that classroom is important. And we need to make sure that all individual children are supported. We do accept and we explore this in the report, there’s a whole kind of summary on it, that misbehaviour in the classroom does have an impact. It can cause learning to completely stop in its tracks. It can cause disruption and it can make some other children feel less safe in the classroom. And it can impact on peer to peer relationships within the classroom. So yes, it does cause disruption. We also asked children and young people, how does it make you feel when you see another young person in the classroom being punished? And young people said, well, you know, actually, if it’s fair, and they have done something wrong, and it is a fair punishment, then yes, we feel fine about it. But actually, if we think it’s unfair, sometimes it can make us feel really embarrassed. It can make us feel really uncomfortable that we’re seeing that and we don’t really know what to do.

But ultimately, what we heard, someone said in the report that actually children’s behaviour and disruption in the classroom is seen as a zero sum game, where if we provide attention to the disruptive pupil, it’s at the expense of everyone else in the classroom. And actually, that’s not the case, it goes back to what I just said that every child in that classroom matters and is valued. So we need to really create these inclusive in-school environments where everyone feels safe, and that we have expectations that are adjusted to meet everyone’s needs, so that everyone can reach them.

AJ: And Daisy, what would you say to that and this argument around what about the other 29 students in the class? Have you heard much on that in the past?

DA: Yeah, I’ve definitely heard that. And actually, as a mother of multiple children, my other children are part of that other 29. And they also have children in their class that are disruptive. So it’s never been a case of I go to school demanding extra attention, or extra resources or anything extra. Like I said before, all the children are there for the same reason. There needs to just be this awareness and willingness to change. And when the rules are so strict and rigid, like, for example, we had this this period of time where my child was doing something that needed the behaviour management techniques, they were doing the same thing every day when my child was displaying this certain behaviour. And it wasn’t working in the sense that the behaviour wasn’t stopping. The same technique was used every day and this went on for at least 10 days, a couple of weeks. And so when I went in to the school to sort of discuss it, and say, like, what can we do? And the teacher’s response was, well, this is our technique, this is how we manage this. I had to pose the question, how long are we going to do this for until we start a new conversation of this isn’t working, let’s try something new? So that was my personal experience of it.

But as part of the group we did talk about this as well. Even parent-carers that were part of the group that didn’t have other children, we’ve all been to school, we’ve all got experience of classrooms. We all know what it’s like. So we did have that really open discussion about like, actually, there is no easy answer, we’re not demanding this additional help or like sole help just for our children, we’re just advocating for their needs. And actually, every parent has that right to advocate for their own child. And what it came down to was the funding. So a lot of the answers and a lot of the solutions were things like additional staff in class, or an increase in the therapists that are available and counsellors that are available in schools, which, as parents, we’ve got no control over. And it all does come down to funding.

AJ: Yeah, exactly. And I guess it’s that thing of when we talk about a whole school approach, and every child’s mental health, we really mean that. It’s not just good mental health for the 29 who find it easy to get on in school and act in a certain way. It’s good mental health for every single child. And so, to ask the question, ‘what about the 29?’ is the wrong question to ask. It’s actually, what about the 30? And their needs are going to be different. And so it shouldn’t come down to do we have enough money to cater for everyone’s needs? No, then not everyone’s needs are going to be met. It should be: how much do we need to really support the needs of every single child in the classroom? Like that’s the question to be asking, isn’t it?

And Charlotte, obviously, we talk about this all the time at the Centre about inequalities in mental health, that while anyone can experience a mental health difficulty, our chances of doing so aren’t equal. And I’m kind of interested to know how we see this playing out across this topic of behaviour in schools.

CR: Yeah, we definitely see this inequality being played out in responses to behaviour in schools. So we uncovered that there’s groups of children who are more likely to experience a behaviour management technique at school, who are more likely to experience the more punitive approaches such as permanent exclusion. These groups included children from racialised communities, particularly children from Black communities, and Gypsy, Roma, Traveller communities, children from low income backgrounds who may be excluded or may not be able to fully take part in education. And then children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities, who we found are massively impacted by punitive school behaviour policies. And we found that actually, sometimes school behaviour policies don’t always take into consideration the school’s duties under the Equality Act, which sets out that schools need to make reasonable adjustments where a child has disabilities which can include special educational needs.

DA: From my experience, because the focus in school is to achieve like the optimum educational setting, which is generally to get the children to sit still, to be quiet and behave. When there’s children with additional diagnosis that present with non typical behaviour – and I’m thinking specifically things like ADHD, autism, dyspraxia – then that tends to become the focus. And the mental health of the child gets overlooked, especially when the child appears academically capable. So you often hear things like, oh, they’d do great if they could just listen better. They’d move up a level if they would just sit still and focus. The key point from that is the gap between what the child knows that they have to do and what the child is capable to do in that moment is much bigger than what the schools anticipate.

AJ: We’ve talked about whole host of things here. And I guess we can’t leave the episode without asking what needs to happen to turn the tide? We’ve highlighted there are loads of problems in this area and it’s a really, really tricky one to get right. But there are things we can do, right? So we want to look at the solutions for that. So Charlotte and then Daisy, we’d love to know, what does it look like to turn the tide on this area?

CR: Yeah, I think firstly, it’s really important to set out that schools cannot do this alone, schools need to be supported. And they need to have the infrastructure of specialists, effective specialist services sitting around them, so that when a child presents at school with mental health needs, or special educational needs and disabilities, schools are able to refer those children out to services, able to get the support in that they need and that support needs to be timely, it needs to be accessible.

We all know the challenges within specialist services, specialist mental health services, with long waiting times, really high thresholds for referrals. So I think as a first step, we need to really address that infrastructure that sits around schools and families, and make sure that that is working properly. it’s effective, so that schools aren’t feeling like they’re in this alone. We know that schools are facing so many pressures at the moment with rising need, they’ve got rising mental health need, there’s been a continuous increase in the number of children with special educational needs and disabilities. At the same time, they’re facing reduced school budgets. So how can we expect schools to respond and do this work effectively? We really need to make sure that infrastructure is in place to support schools.

Another thing we need to think about is actually how are we looking at behaviour in schools? If we’re constantly seeing it as something to be managed, as something that is problematic, we’re never actually going to address the need that is sitting behind that behaviour. Of course, as we’ve said in this episode, not all misbehaviour is driven by an unmet need, or mental health needs or special educational needs and disabilities. But where that behaviour is being persistent, and that child is consistently showing misbehaviour in the classroom, things are consistently happening that are causing the school concern, we need to be a bit more curious about that and think, actually, is there something more going on here? And we just think if we have that mindset, we might be able to identify needs at an earlier stage, put support in place, intervene, and then actually end this cycle that we’re trapped in at the moment where we have unmet need, poor behaviour, unmet needs not addressed, that leads to poor behaviour. And it’s just means that schools are kind of left in this really kind of horrible cycle, both for the schools themselves and for the pupils and for the families. And we just think if we can just get that early intervention in place.

And finally, I just want to say like, we know that there are schools out there that are doing this really, really well, they’re doing some really fantastic and brilliant work. You know, they’ve got schools that have actually changed their approach. As I said at the start of the episode, really taking a relational approach to their work, looking at different things that they can do, really embedding whole school approaches to mental health. And I just think it shows that it can be done, schools can do something differently. And we’ve highlighted the case studies, the best practices within different schools. So I think I just want to end from my bit on a positive that change is possible and there are schools out there that are showing that yeah, this can be done.

AJ: Amazing. That is that is a really positive note. And Daisy, is there anything else that you would say would really help to turn the tide on this thorny issue of behaviour in schools?

DA: So it would only be to add on to what’s already been said, just allowing the children to be a person. So allowing them to experience the low mental health and everything that goes along with it without being punished, without the risk of feeling even worse about themselves and being around adults that really do care for them and will adapt their approach to meet their needs.

The reframing the behaviour, I think, is a really, really key point. So just as a really quick example, like instead of attention seeking behaviour, which is what it is labelled as quite a lot, if we could reframe that as connection seeking behaviour, it just changes the whole feeling behind it. Definitely one I’ve heard from my child, and other parents in the group, the visual punishment charts that are in schools are just not helpful. So like, they’ve got like clouds, where you move up the clouds, and you go down if the behaviour is not what is expected. So all of that would become part of the reframing, if you could reframe behaviour as something that isn’t punishable. And then just to take an exploratory view on the behaviour and looking at what’s the cause of it. Because children aren’t aware of what their feelings are, they’re quite complex feelings. And if they’re feeling anxious about something, the child themselves might not know what that feeling is. So they can’t tell you they’re feeling anxious, all they can do is a behaviour that they know gets a reaction. So telling them to sit still and behave when they’re very anxious is never going to work.

AJ: Yeah, exactly. And it feels like what’s been said is that we need this kind of culture shift. And literally, as you say, Daisy, like a reframing of what behaviour is and what’s behind it. And equally at the same time for that to be possible for a more curious and compassionate approach to be possible, we need better investment and better funding and better support for the teachers who are meant to be doing that on top of everything else. As you say, I think we’ve got amazing examples in the report of schools who are doing an amazing job of rethinking this whole system and what it can look like. So we’ve got blueprints of an alternative approach to behaviour and mental health, that is better for the whole classroom, as well as better for the pupils and their families. So there’s lots of encouraging work going on there. And I’d encourage everyone to pick up a copy of the report from the Coalition’s website, we’ll put it in our show notes, to really find out more and what needs to happen next.

But I just want to say thank you so much to both of you, Charlotte, Daisy, for joining me today. It’s been just really helpful and interesting for me to unpack this topic a bit more and hear about the reality behind it. So thank you for all the amazing hard work you guys have been doing. And yeah, thanks for joining me today.

CR: Thanks, Thea.

DA: Thanks for having me.

AJ: Thanks for listening in. If you found the conversation helpful, I wonder if you might consider supporting us. Every donation however large or small really does help our fight for equality and mental health. You can donate today at centreformentalhealth.org.uk/donate. See you next time.

Tag: Podcast

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