Challenging behaviour can often be the result of students’ inability to manage their emotions. What skills have you taught your students to help them cope with the everyday problems they face in the classroom?

Many of the previous issues of Behaviour Matters have focused on techniques used by adults to manage challenging student behaviour. While there is a clear need for adults to possess key skills in these areas – and to be able to use them in a consistent and confident manner – there can be a gap in students’ own ability to take responsibility for their own actions and employ their own coping skills, thus managing their own behaviour.

When faced with the question ‘what do you want your children to learn from their time at school?’, parents will often mention qualities like motivation, honesty, ambition, self-control and social skills. Yet when the question is followed up with ‘and what do you think we teach them at school?’, all too often the replies will focus on specific curriculum areas such as literacy, numeracy, humanities and so on. So when do we take the opportunity to teach the coping skills which are so vital in order for students to develop the qualities listed above?

It’s true that many behaviours are ‘caught’ (via role models or peer pressure), but they can also be ‘taught’ (in the form of skills such as self-calming; techniques to cope with having to wait and take turns; listening skills; owning up; and problem-solving).

If we rely entirely on these skills being caught from role models then we run the risk of them being modelled inappropriately and therefore interpreted incorrectly. Simply assuming that when a student is told to calm down or wait they will know how to deal with the instruction is bound to cause problems.

The student who has never been taught specific techniques for calming down or waiting patiently will often react in the opposite way to what is required. Unless the student has the necessary understanding and strategies, the ‘waiting’ or ‘calming down’ can turn into pestering, shouting, arguing and other disruptive behaviours. So take some time out to teach a variety of coping skills to your students. Ensure they fully understand them and are able to apply them in a variety of different situations.

Practical tips

Below are some everyday problems that are encountered in the teaching and learning environment, and some skills for dealing with them.

Being faced with a challenge or threat
Students should be aware of the physiological changes that are happening in their body at this point, and what they are telling them – eg increased heart rate; rise in body temperature; dry mouth. They should also be aware of their own emotions and perceptions – for example, a feeling of annoyance; a desire for revenge; negative memories of what happened last time in a similar situation.

There are a variety of self-calming strategies for managing all of the above – for example, self-talk; calm stance; regular deep breathing; relaxation; counting; moving away, and so on?

Being asked to wait

Students should try to overcome the natural instinct to insist that their needs are listened to immediately (they may need to use some of the self-calming techniques above). They can then consider some or all of the following:

  • smiling
  • making a positive verbal comment (‘OK’; ‘Thanks Miss/Sir’)
  • moving away
  • engaging in another activity until the problem can be dealt with
  • making a statement of understanding.

They should avoid sighing or making inappropriate comments.

Being faced with a difficult problem to solve

  • Can the student solve it him/herself using the following problem-solving model?
    • Think of five possible solutions.
    • Consider whether each of them would work, and be fair; think about each would feel and if they would be ‘safe’. Go ahead and try whichever comes out on top.
  • Can someone else help the student? They could try asking three or four people to help with the problem.
  • Has the student ever faced this problem before? How did they solve it last time? Was the solution effective? What would their friends do? What advice would they give to someone in a similar situation?
  • Can the problem wait? Can it be ignored for now? How important is it?
  • Where else could a solution be found (for example, in reference books)?

Try listing as many situations as you or your students can think of which require specific coping skills in order to be managed. Now list the key points needed in teaching students to recognise each problem and manage the situations.

When teaching the key coping skills it is important to remember the teaching techniques of clarity of instruction, regular checking of understanding, giving the opportunity to practise the skills in a safe environment and making regular, specific, positive reference to skills as taught. Behavioural skills should be taught in the same way as any other area of the curriculum.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in February 2011

About the author: Dave Stott has 30 years’ teaching experience including seven years as a headteacher. He has worked in mainstream and special schools, and Local Authority behaviour support services. Dave is now a writer, consultant and trainer.