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What we SEE affects what we DO

How we intervene with students who display challenging behaviours very much depends on how we 'SEE' these behaviours. At CEBM, we consider behaviour to be a reflection of a student’s maturational level, their emotional state and as the student’s way of communicating to us that they are in distress and need help.

This is very different from seeing behaviour as learned, as intentional, and/or as being only or primarily influenced by outside events. Keys to seeing behaviour as coming from 'inner springs' include:

  • Understanding the impact of immaturity on behaviour

  • Respecting the role of emotions in behaviour

  • Believing in the natural power of relationships to alter behaviour

  • Trusting that growth will happen but that it will take time and that until it does that adults need to manage circumstances to compensate for a student’s immaturity


We are gardeners, not sculptors. A student who is having difficulty needs us to take extra care to change the circumstances in their world, just like the gardener that cares for a plant that is not thriving by changing light, moisture and soil conditions. As a result, we promote managing behaviour through changing circumstances and environment rather than by consequences and rewards, and by ensuring that the student feels safe with the adults who are there to take care of them.

The following are some paradigm shifts that come as a result of this way of understanding human behaviour:



"What's not working for the student?" rather than "What’s wrong with them?" 


By starting from curiosity, and asking what is not working for the student, we open ourselves to a variety of possibilities that allow us to better understand the behaviour of a student. Most importantly, this consideration also helps us approach the student from a place of reflection that is marked by acceptance and empathy rather than from a position of judgment. From there, we will be better able to intentionally and effectively choose how to best help a student who displays challenging behaviours.

When a student is struggling, how we understand what is unfolding will have an impact on how we approach and intervene. If we focus on trying to determine ‘what’s not working?’' in the life of the student, we can better understand what is provoking the behaviour. Is the student experiencing too much frustration in their life at home and/or at school? Is the student facing more separation that they can handle? When we look for the roots of the behaviour, we are inclined to come alongside the student to provide caring support. This benefits the student in their emotional journey. 

If we focus on 'What is wrong with this student?' then we are more inclined to look for ways to change the student, to stop the behaviour, or to look for a quick fix that often only works in the short term without recognition of what is happening in the student’s emotional world.  We try to educate 'yet again', to reinforce specific behaviours and to possibly apply correction and consequences. Unfortunately, these interventions convey to the student that something is ‘wrong with them’ and leaves them feeling shamed and inadequate, especially as these interventions very rarely succeed in helping the student in the long term.

"Can’t do it" rather than "Won’t do it"


When we categorize the behaviour as 'won’t', we tend to see it as intentional, manipulative, willful, or otherwise based on choice. We look for strategies and interventions that will convince the student to make a different choice. Incentives, rewards, contracts, consequences, and reflection sheets are interventions that are usually implemented and 'appear to work' for some students. For students for whom they do not work, we must look at an alternative intervention that comes from a different understanding of the origins of the behaviour.

When we see the behaviour as, 'cannot do so at this time because the brain is overwhelmed', then it is easier for us to find ways to help and support a student who is struggling behaviourally and emotionally. A large number of our students who struggle with behaviour are also those who have experienced adverse childhood experiences or complex trauma. According to the newest neuroscientific research, students who have lived or are living these experiences can be affected in terms of their brain development. More specifically, they experience emotions more intensely due to an overactive amygdala and have difficulty tempering their emotional responses because of delays in the development of their prefrontal cortex and corpus callosum.


Seeing a student as being overwhelmed emotionally should then move us to provide emotional support through 'co-regulation' with a calm and caring adult. Then our role is to look for ways to support them throughout the school day so that they do not become overwhelmed. This can be done by providing places where they can go in the classroom or in the school to reduce overstimulation or places where they can find the emotional support of an adult.

"Needs connection" rather than "Just wants attention"

When a student is constantly acting in ways that cause adults to react, we often dismiss this as 'the student just wants attention'. When we understand that, as humans, attachment is our primary need and that without it we become alarmed, this kind of behaviour can be viewed differently. This student, no matter how inappropriately or irritatingly, is letting us know by their behaviour that they are actually in need of more connection, not less.

The more immature the student is, because of age or because they are stuck in immaturity due to the possible effects of complex trauma, the more they need adults to step in to help them when things are not going well. In fact, we risk retraumatizing these students by not helping them at these times.

Since it is not always possible for a classroom teacher to provide the support that these students need, alternatives must be found or created for these students in the school setting so they can be given the care that they require.

This is why we, at CEBM, have created Nurturing Support Centres, Emotions Rooms, Foster Classrooms, Sheltered Recess and Sheltered Lunch programmes, Check-In/End of Day Re-Cap and many other interventions that put the responsibility in the hands of the adults to provide support to a student in distress who is asking for connection, not 'just attention'.

"Managing the circumstances" rather than "Trying to control the child"


Immature students, whether because of their age or stuckness in development, will have difficulty handling themselves when experiencing strong emotions. Rather than putting all our efforts into trying to control the student through a variety of interventions, it makes more sense to try to determine how the environment or the circumstances can be used to help guide the student to behave as expected.


For example, if students are constantly getting into 'trouble' when lining up to leave the classroom, we find ways to help them maintain their distance, such as putting decals on the floor to separate them. If an adolescent constantly arrives in class without the necessary materials, we have them check in with an adult who can help them get ready for the day. Maturation takes time. Rather than penalize the immature, let’s find ways to help them until maturity kicks in.

"Carrying it together" rather than "Going at it alone" 


When staff find themselves with students whose needs they struggle to meet, they should not have to 'go at it alone'. Well-functioning schools use a team approach so that they can create a 'village' to support these challenging students (Tiers 2 & 3) throughout the school day. Each member has a role to play so that the struggling student can be supported in different ways and in a variety of venues by caring adults who can 'pass the baton' to another adult to care for the student. Students are thus reassured that they will be nurtured and helped. This sense of security allows for growth and maturation to unfold, which ultimately results in better behaviour.

"Needs to get-it-out" rather than "Has to cut-it-out"


A student who has frequent verbal and/or physical outbursts; who is quite agitated or hyperactive, or even one who runs out of the classroom to hide, is indicating that there is something going on in their emotional world. When we understand that emotions have work to do, that they are there for a reason, and are the basis of many challenging behaviours, we must take up a relationship with these emotions. This means that rather than considering emotions to be an “nuisance” factor, we respect their existence and work with the emotional response as a first step. For some students, simply acknowledging what is going on with them can help them to find a way through. For other students we must take a more active role in helping them to find a way to express and 'get out' what is going on inside of them. For students who are overwhelmed by the emotion of frustration, they initially experience a need to 'attack'. If we provide legitimate, non-hurtful ways to let it out (often called venting) then we can move to the next level of emotional intervention, sadness and tears, which then leads the student to adaptation and resilience. This release can happen through play, through physical activity, through writing in a journal (older students), through time in the Emotions Room and often through creative expression such as drawing and dancing. When we ask a student to 'cut it out' we are denying the essential role of emotions in their development as human beings.

"Time-with" rather than "Time-out"


Instead of relying on 'time-out', educators should use 'time-with' for students in order to give them the attention and regulation that they need until they are able to return to a functional state. A distressed student who is having difficulty staying in control does not usually benefit from being sent away to reflect. In fact, isolation for struggling students, especially those who have experienced complex trauma, can be a trigger for either implicit or explicit memories linked with past neglect or abandonment and thus may be retraumatizing. 


When we provide 'time-with', the message that the adults are giving the struggling student is that we will care for them in their time of distress. The more that a student feels cared for and becomes attached to the adults providing that care, the more easily they will look to the adult for guidance and more willingly follow their cues to behave in ways that keep them out of trouble.

"Being the caring alpha provider" rather than "Giving in"


When adults come to understand the inner world and painful experience of struggling students, particularly those whose history is known, it is very natural to feel incredible empathy for them and want to make their life at school easier. The adults are often moved to want to reduce any other source of distress for them and can find it difficult to impose limits or say “no” to their wants.

Unfortunately, caring without limits, which can result in too much leniency, is not what developing students need. When adults take charge of them, they are reassured that the adults care and are willing to be responsible for them. Being in charge means that the adult will protect the student from situations that could get them into more trouble by providing structure and limits.

In the moment, when a limit is imposed, the student will often and most naturally, have a negative reaction. Without changing their mind, the adult can express empathy for the student’s frustration and dissatisfaction. Being an 'caring alpha provider' ultimately gives the student the message that it is the adult who is responsible for them. When students sense being cared for in this way, then they can truly start to depend on the adults in their world for guidance and help.

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