The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Gareth D Morewood

Emotional regulation in the context of whole school inclusion

Helping pupils understand the importance of emotions and how to regulate them can reduce stress, anxiety and dysregulation. Gareth D Morewood explains how research can inform a nuanced approach.

A range of studies in different countries have demonstrated that autistic pupils are among the most likely to be bullied in school (Schroeder et al, 2014) and have anxiety, depression or anger issues (Hebron & Humphrey, 2014). Considering this specific cohort of pupils is a useful example with regard to my thinking on this topic; which can be applied across school settings as part of an inclusive approach to stress, anxiety and dysregulation.

Parents, carers and members of school staff who work with autistic students may experience intense or frightening behaviour, which sometimes presents a risk of injury to the young person or their peers. This behaviour can be ‘triggered’ in a variety of settings: at home, in school and in the community to name three. Having a diagnosis of autism is a ‘risk marker’ for exhibiting behaviours (McClintock et al., 2003) and this behaviour is a serious risk for these young people (Matson and Rivet 2008).

It is not uncommon for communication/social reciprocity and restrictive interests (which can be a core feature) to underlie many of the behaviours that others find distressing or challenging. Some have traditionally used words such as ‘meltdown’, ‘blow-out’ or ‘outburst’ to describe a wide range of behavior, including:

  • aggression to oneself, to others or to property
  • significant distress associated with high levels of anxiety.

Many schools are struggling to include and educate this growing population, mostly due to the presentation of behaviours of concern and risk to the young people themselves and others as a result. This needn’t be the case: an understanding of emotional regulation in the context of our saturation model (Morewood et al., 2011) can significantly improve the outcomes of these young people as part of a whole-school approach.

Emotional regulation in context

Challenges arise for teachers and practitioners if they cannot recognise and understand when children are displaying difficulties with emotional regulation (Jahromi et al., 2012). As these so-called ‘challenging behaviours’ function as attempts to communicate, it is more beneficial for all involved to develop and provide strategies that help the child or young person understand their emotions and how to respond appropriately.

Staff training is fundamental if teachers and other professionals are to understand that stress, anxiety and trauma are significant factors in behaviours of concern (Lipsky, 2011; Bradley and Caldwell, 2013, McCreadie and McDernott, 2014).

Our personal responses to stress are central to how we understand stress itself. After all, it is virtually impossible for anyone to live completely stress free, and it’s often the case that the school environment is conducive to stress for autistic children and young people. Our coping mechanisms determine how well we adapt to stressful situations, and different pupils can have fewer or poorer coping tools.

Emotional regulation is the use of a range of tools and techniques to:

  • mitigate the impact of stress and anxiety
  • help that person develop the ability to self-regulate in future.

In my experience, it is certainly possible to incorporate emotional regulation into broader support for pupils in both mainstream and special schools.

It is important to point out that the outward physical behaviour of a pupil may not necessarily be challenging or disruptive by intention, but instead an earnest attempt to self-regulate (Jahromi et al., 2012). A young person’s inability to regulate their emotions can unfortunately lead to fixed-term and permanent exclusion from school. Therefore, taking a different perspective on these issues and working to improve that young person’s emotional regulation can prevent unnecessary exclusion and therefore improve outcomes.

Our personal responses to stress are central to how we understand stress itself

As I’ve been keen to point out in my recent work with schools, we should see emotional regulation as a life-long developmental process, essential to the preparing of a young person for adult life. Get it right and we can help a child develop the social, emotional and communication skills they need to form relationships; as part of preparation for adulthood.

With this in mind, emerging work on emotional regulation necessitates a focus on positive mental health. For example, an autistic child may not:

  • be as aware of the relationship between physical symptoms and emotional arousal
  • have as coherent an understanding of their own emotional state and the extent of their emotional arousal
  • have the coping mechanisms they need to stave off depression or anxiety.

We must teach pupils about their emotions to increase their awareness of their emotional state. It is also critical to teach children useful and appropriate coping strategies to deal with emotions as part of a child-centred, metacognative approach.

A personalised approach

It is important to understand that young people with challenging behaviour often have trouble regulating affect. They often react to other’s affects by experiencing and expressing the same or similar affect. This is often contagious, but most people learn to differentiate between their own and other´s affects early in life. Some people don't. They don't know if an affect they feel is their own or somebody else's. That can result in anger if somebody else is angry and telling off the one who tells you off.

We also know that challenging behaviour often occurs when someone experiences a high intensity of affect. Nobody fights when they are relaxed and easy-going. Calm and self-control are connected, and we want the young people in our schools to be in control of themselves, so that they can cooperate and be in the best position to learn.

‘When a person is drowning that is not the best to teach them how to swim.’

David Pitonyak

We need to use this knowledge in monitoring our own affect levels; we need to be calm ourselves, but also be aware of the risk of ‘affect contagion’ from the young person. This means using methods that protect the child and us from an increase in affect intensity, both in the way we talk to and relate to the child and in our methods concerning challenging and even violent behaviour. This is often at odds with ‘traditional’ school behaviour systems and must be embedded as part of a whole school approach if it’s to succeed; however there are a growing set of schools who have recorded some initial early success.

This approach is about creating a caring environment characterised by calm and positive expectations aiming to decrease stress and challenging behaviour. The methods lean heavily on changing staff and parent’s thoughts and conceptions and on body language, physical distance and conflict evaluation along with inclusive classroom pedagogy that explicitly teaches about emotions and promotes strategies to reduce stress.

These approaches, based on arousal reduction are collectively known as ‘low arousal approaches’, and appear to be increasing in popularity (McDonnell et al., 2015; McDonnell, 2010; Woodcock and Page, 2009; Heilskov Elven, 2010) and as part of this developing methodology building upon the saturation model, we have significant early indicators of success.

A good investment

I hope that this developing work will help to reframe discussions and allow for different thinking towards the inclusion of young people in educational settings and how they are supported across their communities.

On the strength of what we know and what the evidence suggests is a good investment, here are some of the key messages for consideration as we develop our approach.

  • An evidence base isn’t always vital: something that works with only 5% of the school population can still be incredibly useful – personalisation (not normalisation) is essential.
  • A zero tolerance policy is a barrier to organisational change – you need flexibility and the scope to make reasonable adjustments.
  • You need the right tools to do the job – specific, bespoke training and development for partner schools and families.

Look out for more detail regarding training and events supporting this approach in 2019. Early indicators are extremely positive and supporting a wider test base for its development will be high on my agenda for change in the year ahead.

References and further reading

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