A relational approach to behaviour

Julie Harmieson, director of education and national strategy at Trauma Informed Schools UK (TISUK), discusses the benefits of a relational approach to behaviour

There are many traditional behaviour management systems embedded in our primary and secondary school classroom practice that have been around so long, that their place in school is rarely reappraised or re-evaluated. But if we consider what is at the root of them – enforcing conformity through public shaming – and its effect on the most vulnerable pupils, we might reconsider their worth.

There are many iterations of these visible classroom management systems and, with each one, any pupil finding themselves on the wrong side of expectations for whatever reason is shamed. Examples include: the ‘good to be green board’ – with any child making a mistake finding their name firstly on orange and then on red; for the younger children a sun and clouds, with a black cloud to represent their failure; the ladder of consequences with names moved down with each infraction; or pupil’s names written up on the board – a focus for everyone’s attention during a lesson. They are all designed to shame.

Pupil’s exhibiting persistent disruptive behaviours maybe reacting to Adverse Childhood Experiences or other traumatic life experience that have left their brains, minds and bodies in a state of chronic unrelieved stress

These systems may seem effective for the majority of pupils, who quickly get back-into-line after the embarrassment of being singled out. However, for pupils whose names are constantly appearing on the red, these systems do not work – and these pupils are those most in need of support, not shaming.

Pupil’s exhibiting persistent disruptive behaviours maybe reacting to Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) or other traumatic life experience that have left their brains, minds and bodies in a state of chronic unrelieved stress. This toxic stress creates neurological, neurochemical and physiological changes as their bodies keep pumping out high levels of stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline. They are in a constant state of high alert, permanently in flight, fight or freeze mode.

Approaches to behaviour management that rely on punishment, punitive sanctions or shame, do nothing to help address the pupils’ experiences, but rather add to their stress. Without the skills necessary to self-regulate or reflect on how they are feeling before reacting, there is an increasing likelihood their behaviour will continue to escalate. With the root of the behaviour remaining unaddressed, the pupil is likely to find themselves removed from the classroom.

There is little more counterproductive than leaving a child, or young person, in a distressed state, in an ‘isolation room’ or similarly segregated space, and expecting them to ‘calm down and think about their behaviour’. They do not have the necessary tools needed to follow those instructions, any more than they have the ability, at that point, to modify their behaviour.

So how can we help these children?

A relational, Trauma Informed (TI) approach, recognises this behaviour as communicating an unmet need. To address their behaviour, we must first understand what fuels it.

When a child is in a state of toxic stress, they are operating at a hypervigilant level with their nervous system responding neurobiologically to information from the environment. They have a low reaction threshold and misinterpret cues – a neutral face can be perceived as aggressive; fearful expressions can be seen as angry. (Dr. SW Porges).1 With no conscious control over their reactions, it is impossible for them to self-regulate.


The first step to de-escalating the stress is to remove the child from the situation to a space that is calm. But this is not a punitive measure, it is done in a non-shaming way, protecting their dignity while they are in the super-heightened state of anxiety, stress and anger. Often, in that moment, the child is completely unaware of their actions.

The child is taken to a quiet place with an Emotionally Available Adult (EAA) or a present, focused care-giver, who can help them self-regulate and lessen stress levels.


The EAA is non-judgemental, empathic and curious about what happened, accepting and validating the child’s emotions – ‘I can hear that it is very annoying when that happens.’ ‘Yes, I can see why that might make you very angry.’ They create a connection with the child before any attempt is made to address the issue – connection before correction.


The child must feel safe in order to move from that highly stressed fight, flight or freeze response, to social engagement when they can be supported to co-regulate. The EAA co-regulates with the child or young person, helping them to relax and be calm. Often play-based or art-based activities are used to help decrease the high levels of stress hormone. This is not ‘rewarding’ poor behaviour; it is a necessary developmental experience to enable the capacity to reflect.


Often, children and young adults who have experienced ACEs or other trauma, suffer from alexithymia and are unable to identify, explain or describe their emotional state. They have no previous experience vocalising or talking about what is happening to them, or what has happened in the past. They literally don’t have the words to explain it. The EAA helps them to mentalize – interpret and understand their behaviour psychologically, in terms of underlying thoughts, feelings, wishes, and intentions.

Once the child is regulated, with the support of the EAA, they begin to reflect and ‘unpick’ what happened, running through the series of events and their thoughts, feelings and behaviour.


It is important to repair the relationship. The EAA models how to take responsibility for their part in what happened – ‘I’m so sorry I had to remove you from the classroom, I imagine that was difficult for you, but I could really see you weren’t managing.’ Where appropriate, together with the EAA, they can reflect on how to put right what went wrong. This is instigated by the child at an appropriate time and allows for reconnection and recovery, re-joining the class and reconnecting with their teacher. It is not about forcing a child to apologise. This can be detrimental and further shames the child.

Over time, this five step process provides the child or young person with the tools they need to understand and address their own behaviour. It gives them the voice to express the situation and the way they feel.

As more is learnt about the child and potential stress hot-spots or triggers are identified, self-regulation routines and interventions can be put in place to counter potential outbursts. Building a picture of the child’s needs provides opportunities for intervention and support.

Trauma Informed schools have boundaries, limits and rules but they are held more gently. Expectations for behaviour are promoted through natural consequences rather than imposed sanctions, so discipline involves learning. Pupils have the opportunity to make amends, rather than continually being shamed with the accompanying impact on self-esteem, wellbeing and mental health.

If a pupil is facing challenges in academic subjects, we tutor and support them to develop their skills. Isn’t it time we did the same with behaviour?

For more information, please visit Trauma Informed Schools UK


1 The polyvagal theory: New insights into adaptive reactions of the autonomic nervous system – PMC (nih.gov)

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