Recently, I was approached by authorities at a school to conduct psychological assessments and provide direction regarding the care and management requirements of the thirteen most challenging children in the school. The school’s criteria for why these children were challenging was based on their experience of these children as difficult to manage, disruptive, and time-consuming. This request was made following a long history of other endeavours by the school, such as standard disciplinary measures, failing to achieve positive engagement in learning at the school and conformity with expected standards of behaviour amongst these children. In responding to this request, I interviewed and administered psychological questionnaires to school authorities and the children’s parents. I also interviewed the children.
Not surprisingly, I confirmed that all thirteen children were behaviourally maladjusted, according to standard psychological criteria. My assessment also revealed that most of the children also met diagnostic criteria for emotional disorders; principally, anxiety disorders and Reactive Attachment Disorder. On the basis of my assessments I prepared individual reports regarding each child, which included information about their care and management requirements. I met with educational authorities and the parents of most of the children to present the outcome of the assessment and my recommendations. I prepared a general document for parents and educational authorities about care and management strategies that promote positive engagement and adjustment in children, outlining the strategies contained in this book. I gave a presentation to teachers and support staff of the school regarding my diagnostic formulations regarding the children and recommended management strategies. During this consultancy I made reference to further therapeutic interventions that might be expected to facilitate improved engagement with adults, peers and learning amongst challenging children.
Two terms later I was invited back to the school to deliver further training to specific school staff regarding the implementation of a play therapy program aimed at improving the engagement of children at the school about whom there was ongoing concern. Upon returning to the school, I was informed that only one of the children I had assessed two terms previously remained a significant management challenge at the school. As the summer holidays had intervened, two of the students had moved on to high school and one was attending a different school. There were new students who were causing school personnel concern, as there will always be. Nevertheless, the school and I were impressed with the success of the initial intervention.
So, what was it about my initial intervention that achieved this positive outcome? Discussion with school authorities seemed to confirm that, in addition to the effects of providing direction to parents and school authorities about the care and management requirements of these children, there was a change in the perception of teaching and support staff regarding these children. Whereas the children I assessed had previously been viewed as in negative terms, I had provided evidence that the behavioural difficulties exhibited by the children stemmed from emotional difficulties, and there was a shift in perceptions of these children from bad to sad. The power of such a change in beliefs cannot be underestimated when one considers the impact of adult perceptions on the behaviour of children from the perspective of self-fulfilling prophecies, which I did. At the presentation I gave to school staff I put to those present a scenario similar to what follows (start at “thought“):
I then provided an alternative, similar to what follows:
When children misbehave, as all children do, it is important to consider that there is always a reason for the behaviour and to respond to the need as well as the behaviour. It is okay to be angry and frustrated with them from time to time, as children need to learn that relationships can be repaired. In order to raise resilient children it is important to maintain a positive attitude and disposition toward them, to love and delight in them, to spend quality time with them, to understand their thoughts, feelings and intentions and to support them in their efforts.
This post is based on material presented in my book A Short Introduction to Promoting Resilience in Children (London, Jessica Kingsley, 2011)