All children have a unique pathway to our settings that we hope will have built their ability to develop independence and resilience. We welcome learners at varying stages of their journey. Some are resilient, with strong, embedded self-regulation able to manage transitions and embrace new challenges. Whilst others may struggle and find adapting to a new environment a challenge. With a well-planned transition, led by highly skilled adults, most children will swiftly settle and become comfortable in their new environment. But, occasionally there are children who continue to struggle. These children can present as angry, confused and defiant. All behaviour, both positive and negative, is a form of communication. Endeavouring to understand this communication is essential if we are to meet the needs of all learners. Here are some points to consider when creating an environment and ethos inclusive for all, especially those displaying vulnerable characteristics.
Review your environment
Ensure that your physical learning environment is welcoming, relaxed and calm. The setting should reflect the current cohort and their families so that the environment becomes a ‘home from home.’ This can be supported through the use of family photos displayed in the room, the inclusion of objects and visuals familiar to the child and their interests incorporated into provision. Some children need a space where they can be allowed to have some control and ownership. Offer spaces for collaboration and shared experiences as well as spaces for privacy that make children feel comfortable. These spaces need to be respected by both children and adults alike and should provide a calming and private place rather than a punitive space.
Create consistent boundaries
Consistency is crucial in making children feel safe. Clear rules and firm boundaries should be reinforced through positive praise by all staff at all times. Labelling the behaviour you are praising helps children understand what is expected of them. Children need to learn that there are reasons for rules and take part in discussions around these rules. Similarly they need to understand that there are consequences when these rules are not followed. These can be exemplified through stories and discussions. Develop creative ways to encourage children to review their own consequences. Children are often requested to sit in designated places, such as a ‘thinking spot’, in response to adult direction. Rarely will this result in sustained change of behaviour and at worst can have a negative impact on the child’s self-esteem.
Working in partnership
All adults, especially parents, need to be regularly sharing information. Parents are the experts when it comes to their child; they will understand the finer nuances of their child’s behaviour. They might well be able to predict situations and circumstances that their child might find difficult. They are a vital partner in designing routines that will meet the needs of their child. This will ensure that we are developing routines to meet the needs of our cohort rather than battling to fit our children into an established routine. Consider sharing developmentally appropriate ways to communicate the events of the day to children so that they can be used in the home. A visual time line, ‘now’ and ‘next’ board or verbal 5 minutes warning prior to the end of an activity can be used in the school and home. These strategies can reduce stress and support children’s transitions from one environment to another.
Make time to talk!
Ensure that all adults make time to really listen to children and make them feel valued. A child sharing their thoughts with you will enrich your understanding of their current emotional well-being and enable you to skilfully support them. Consider how your daily routine currently affords the flexibility required to follow children’s interests. How many thoughtful conversations take place in your setting between adults and children and between children and their peers? Have your staff got the skill set and confidence to support children’s communication and are they afforded the time in the day to do this? Adults need to be aware of their body language and non-verbal cues. Research tells us that when words and nonverbal communication are inconsistent, people will trust non-verbal communication rather than the verbal.
Pick your moment
Think carefully about how and when to support a child in a state of high emotion. If a child has become distressed they will need support to regulate themselves and to feel safe. This is not the time to negotiate or go into battle! Do not shout, overreact or make a big deal of the situation. Saying “Play nicely” has little meaning to a child if they are in the middle of a high energy tussle for a dinosaur! Instead; support the child with resolving the tussle but wait until the child is calm before offering them support to reflect. It is essential to always use calm and clear communication in language that the child can understand. Get down to the child’s level and establish good eye contact. Remember the child’s strengths and the positive things about them. Unless there are concerns regarding the immediate safety of the child or others refrain from raising your voice. Offer the child alternative choices and use positive vocabulary (e.g. use the phrase ‘Let’s…’ and avoid using ‘Don’t…’)
If a child is persistently trying to communicate through their behaviour they may need further support. An ‘iceberg analysis’ would support with addressing underlying causes for visible behaviours. It is important that you keep careful records to help with the possible identification of patterns and potential triggers. These findings could be used to inform your next steps. Ensure that these records are shared with parents, external professionals and the staff team as appropriate.
By endeavouring to understand all communication we will be better placed to meet the needs of our children who struggle the most and provide the support needed to develop self-regulation, intrinsic motivation and guide them on a pathway to future success.