Across Australia, demand for and utilisation of Outside School Hours Care (OSHC) services is increasing. OSHC educators are often unqualified, yet at times required to work with children who live within complex family structures. My Time Our Place: Framework for School Age Care in Australia (MTOP) clearly outlines the importance of informed and capable educators in the following statement:
‘Educators who are attuned to children’s thoughts and feelings support the development of a strong sense of wellbeing and social competencies. Exhibiting qualities of fairness, humour, sympathy and understanding builds respectful and trusting relationships with children, families, colleagues and other professionals. Educators foster independence and initiative thereby nurturing children’s agency and leadership skills’ (Department of Education and Training 2011, p. 11).
To ensure that quality outcomes for all children are achieved, an ongoing commitment, at all levels, to nurturing educators through professional development is always essential to bringing the intent of MTOP to life in practice. Gowrie Training & Consultancy recently engaged Trent Savill, Director of Complex Care Therapy, Training and Clinical Consultancy to provide specialised Trauma Informed workshops aimed at individuals working with school-age children. Trent’s workshops were designed to assist professionals to reinterpret children’s behaviour by reflecting on their developmental needs and experiences, including stress, trauma, attachment and cognitive skills. Furthermore, they have assisted in the development and implementation of a range of suitable and responsive solutions and strategies that are directly relevant to individual workplace experiences and contexts.
Trent has over 12 years of experience working with complex and high-risk young people in the child-protection system, providing consultancy to the Department of Communities (Child Safety) and Non-government sector, intensive in-home therapy to children and families, training to carers and professionals, and coordinating residential care programs. Trent’s primary role now involves consulting with the Department and other agencies around their most complex cases and delivering training around the provision of therapeutic care (Understanding and Responding to Complex Trauma and Attachment).
Trent has also produced a blog that provides insight into society’s general approach to children’s behaviour and highlights the issue of how differently we engage with children displaying behavioural issues compared to teaching them anything else….
Shifting to competence – supporting children’s behaviour
When you reflect on our society’s general approach to teaching children to behave, particularly the way we engage children with behavioural issues, you may notice that it is very different to how we approach teaching them anything else. Compare it to the way we teach a child to read, to tie their shoes, to learn an instrument or a new language, and you’ll see we approach it in a completely different way. Teaching usually involves a calm and engaging adult presenting information to a child over and over again, in various ways. Most people would not consider it effective to teach a child new skills through threatening, isolating, coercing or punishing the child; so why do we take that approach to behaviour….because it is only in this domain, that we for some reason assume that the child already knows what to do and how to do it, but just chooses not to.
We would never make this assumption in other areas of learning. We would never say to a child “Here are the rules for how to play the guitar, now if you are unable to play the guitar immediately, you are going to start losing privileges until you are ready to start playing the guitar properly”. That would be setting them up to fail. So why do we take this approach to discipline?
When it comes to behaviour, we generally assume that children develop the ability to behave as a simple function of time. That is, as the child gets older, they will become more capable at complying with the expectations of adults. While this appears to be true on the surface, neuroscience has shown us that children only develop skills when provided with the right developmental experiences, that is you do not develop from just being alive for a certain amount of time, you have to be exposed to the right learning opportunities. As someone who has worked in the child protection system for 15 years, I can tell you that there is a very wide spectrum of developmental environments for the children in our communities. There are babies out there in the community all around you right now, who are being constantly supported by an attuned, responsive care-giver who is soothing and safe…and there are babies in the community around you right now who are spending the majority of their early development left in a cot on their own staring at the ceiling. There are children who out there who are being constantly played with, held, spoken to, and soothed, and there are children out there who are being constantly dismissed, yelled at, smacked or just left in front of a TV.
Even when given all the right developmental experiences, some children may develop skills much slower than others, or may be born with delays in areas of functioning that are critical to behaving. We have been taught to believe that children simply choose to behave or misbehave, that ‘children do well if they want to’, but we are now beginning to understand that being compliant is not just a choice, and requires a whole range of cognitive skills (emotional regulation, working memory, social skills, cognitive flexibility, language processing), that is ‘children do well if they can’.
This also means that simple compliance-based behaviour management systems that involve rewards and consequences, will only be helpful if the child has all of the skills required to comply with our expectations, but just needs motivation. If that is the case, we should see a pretty immediate response to giving the child consequences, as their desire to avoid future punishment should outweigh their desire to misbehave. If that is not the case, all we are doing is just reinforcing our expectations over and over again, without ever teaching the child the actual skills required to meet those expectations.
A competence-based approach involves staying focused on building the skills required to meet the expectation, rather than focusing on the violation of the expectation. A great example of this is a growing trend in which schools are replacing detention with mindfulness-based practices like meditation. Rather than sitting in a room feeling frustrated, the child can be learning to monitor and modify their emotional state (emotional self-regulation).
Consequences are still important for motivating, but the adult recognises that they do not teach skills and if you give a child a meaningful consequence for the same behaviour twice and you don’t see a change, it’s probably about can’t rather than won’t comply. In this situation, the focus immediately shifts for the adult from coercing compliance to considering how to help the child consistently meet the expectation in the future. That is, we go back to teaching the child, in the same way we teach everything else, we calmly show them how, over and over again.
I want to leave you with some general principles for teaching that we can all apply more in our approach to behaviour support –
- Remember that is harder to learn when we feel under threat. Children will struggle to listen, reflect, process complex information and express themselves, if the adult teaching them is not calm or appears agitated or rejecting.
- Look for the skills behind the behaviour. Focus your attention on the appropriate behaviour (not the violation) and break the appropriate behaviour down into more simple steps and skills. Does the child have difficulties with impulse control, empathy, emotional regulation, expressive or receptive language, working memory/attention, social skills?
- Try to find creative ways to practice the skills necessary to behave. Such as using mindfulness to build self-regulation. Creating small manageable challenges to practice impulse control, such as waiting an extra 5 minutes to get a bigger reward. Play mirroring games to help build empathy.
- Practice appropriate behaviour away from associated triggers or stressors. Encourage the child to practice the desired appropriate behaviour numerous times when the child is away from the trigger, before expecting them to do it when under stress.