What happens when a child is clearly really struggling in school?

Their behaviour changes; maybe they get more withdrawn, or more aggressive. Maybe they stop communicating or start shouting. They become explosive or hard to reach at all.


They become unpredictable…and it can be really hard to know what to do for the best..
So here is my question…

What happens when a child is really struggling in school?

…and I am not meaning with the child.
Experience has shown me that when things get really tricky with a child in school (and it happens in the nicest of schools from time to time), it causes an increase in staff stress. It is understandable. It is hard to be with a child when you don’t know what they might do next, when you don’t understand what is making them tick…or what is making them boom.

In your school when this happens with a child maybe it is time to stop and check-in with the list below…

1.  Consider that 1 child may be being dealt with by up to 8+ people… too many cooks (19)

who may include Learning mentor, CFSW, Teacher/s, Class TA, Senco, Deputy and or Head, and then any external professionals…
For children who are already struggling this many interactions or number of adults involved directly with them, increases the amount of people they need to ‘work out’. It actually increases their sense of needing to be on alert, and keeps their nervous system activated at such a level that explosions can happen easily from one seemingly small trigger.

2.   Every one of the above adults may each have an increase of their own emotions around what is happening.

Anxiety at what might happen next, fear about how they may be criticized or regarded for not being able to ‘control’ the child, anger at what other staff do or don’t do, mixed with emotional and physical exhaustion (these kind of times can start to affect sleep)… Etc etc.
Every one of these internalised emotions will change each of the adults nervous system activation. The child will sense the tension in the individuals they spend time with as well as any lack of unity or respect between the adults and again this fuels their sense of not being safe. Another way of looking at it is the way children get nervous when they know things are not ok between their parents or close family members. They don’t have to hear disagreements or shouting to know things are not all ok… And ‘things are not ok between my special adults who look after me’ also means ‘I am not safe’.

3.  Each of these adults will have their own take on what needs to happen.

too cooksIf there is no cohesive and shared understanding of what is going on with this child and why they are behaving like this, then each adult will start to chip in their own ideas as to what needs to happen.
Very quickly the struggling child now has several different changes happening and may or may not understand why, may or may not feel happy with the changes and may be caught in the middle of mis (or non) -communication between the various adult parties and their various new ideas for how things should be. This can so easily add to their sense of being out of control and too much change. If it doesn’t help increase their sense of safety, it will almost certainly significantly DECREASE it…leading to more of the ‘I’m struggling’ behaviour.

4.  Children can be complex. They can also be incredibly straightforward. There will always be a reason for a change in behaviour.

At times like this it is so important for a school staff ‘sub-team’-around-a-child to be contained, well led, clearly guided, trained-up and brought together to work as a complete container for the child. If it is not clear to those in school as to what is going on and why, then it can be really helpful to get an outside perspective. But not one that only looks at the behaviour!
The home background may be a significant factor and if the child is not understood in light of this then the child is not understood.
The issue may be something in school.
The issue may be a combination of home and school dynamics.
The issue may be finally they are no longer able to keep a lid on their previously internalised feelings about something that happened to them a while ago (that others may have forgotten or thought didn’t affect them).

When a child is struggling it can be really easy to put all the attention and focus on the child and changing them. The big unspoken desire of the adult – collective involved is often for the behaviour to just stop. This focus may mean missing out noticing some of the key ways a child is being helped or hindered by school staff, through a difficult time. Above all, children and adults want and need to feel safe.
Qu: What needs to happen to increase that sense of safety during the school day?
Ans. child:……………………………………………………………
Ans. each key adult involved:………………………………………………………………………

Further Questions to Consider If/When this situation arises

  1. Is the reason for the behaviour or why the child is struggling clearly understood by anyone?
  2. Who are the adults in daily contact with the child & family?
  3. Is the behaviour understood in light of the reason by all the adults in daily contact with the child?
  4. How is this situation making each of the adults feel?
  5. Is there clarity as to how the adults and their emotions and subconscious feelings and thoughts might be affecting their own behaviour, their nervous system and the child?
  6. Is there clarity as to what helps this child feel safe?
  7. What do the key adults need to help them feel safer (ie to lower their own nervous system activation?)
  8. Are all adults briefed and agreed together before any new changes are brought in?
  9. How is the communication between these staff?
  10. How is the sense of respect, team and being on the same page between staff?
  11. Who and how and when is this sub-team around the child being supported / contained through this time?