Where’s the turn off button?
Over the past couple of years, I have been working intensively with learners with SEBD, and it is not always the child with the most boisterous and loud behaviour that causes problems in the classroom.
Take Katrin*, for example, who is a very quiet girl and she does not cause any problems in class. That is if she attends class at all or takes part while she is in the classroom. Over the last year her behaviour has changed dramatically. From being able to attend lessons without any major issues towards missing whole weeks of school. Due to severe anxiety she does not participate or come to school without her mother and stays in the classroom (or at least in the spare room attached to the classroom). She rarely sits at her place but might choose to sit at an extra table with her mother. Towards her mother, she often uses quite an aggressive tone, as soon as her mother is out of sight, she descends into a meltdown.
Then there is Tom* who is at least two years behind his classmates in his social and behavioural development. His behaviour often resembles that of a pre-school learner though he is in 4th grade. If he puts his mind to a task, he can focus and work quite well, and his knowledge of vocabulary is at the upper end of the class. Unfortunately, he cannot work well in pairs and groups over a period of time and often pulls himself out of activities and disturbs others, often together with Jim*.
Jim has been officially diagnosed with SEBD and needs to spend several weeks a year in the children’s psychiatric ward. He is a learner with a very short concentration span who only works one-on-one with a teacher as he needs strong emotional support. Then he shows the ability to at least work on tasks even if slower than most other learners. In situations where the learners role play, mingle activities, and other free tasks, he withdraws himself and starts playing around, disturbing others, often together with Tylor*. The other learners are very reluctant to have him in their groups.
These are just three children I have in my English classes at a primary school in Hamburg, Germany.
They are all in the same class and of course there are other learners with similar issues in the other classes, as all schools in Hamburg are supposed to follow an inclusive approach.
But how can you as a teacher juggle all this, especially when you do not have an assistant teacher?
What is SEBD?
It is not easy to find an umbrella to cover the immense variation that occurs in SEBD as is obvious from the three cases described. Marie Delaney (2016) gives the following characteristics of problematic behaviour to differentiate it from misbehaviour.
‘We use SEBD to describe problematic behaviour which
- is severe
- isn’t age appropriate
- happens frequently
- occurs in different situations.’
Typical behaviour includes learners being disruptive, challenging (not only towards the teacher), hyperactive and restless, but also as the case of Katrin shows, withdrawn. This does not mean, however, that they are not able to cope in the classroom, as they have to learn strategies to cope with situations that might trigger their negative behaviour.
Strategies which can be used with all learners but are very useful when working with learners with SEBD:
- Be positive, and do not take the child’s behaviour personally.
- Praise positive behaviour to encourage them.
- Have clear reminders you can use in class for each learner, such as a little note stuck on their desk.
- Give them the opportunity to have some time out when it is getting too much.
- Show a real interest in the learners.
- Get all stakeholders on board, including other teachers, parents, classmates, the child of course, and an assistant or special education teacher if you have one.
- Decide together with the child what strategies can be followed when they feel stressed, anxious and when something triggers their slip into their negative behaviour.
- Be supportive but also show them when they cross the borders.
How to cope with all of this when you are alone in the classroom
First of all, you are not the only teacher facing learners with SEBD. Talk to colleagues, support each other and think of strategies that you could use, when certain situations arise, and not only the ones that affect you. This also helps the individual learner as they can sense the system and will feel more supported and safer in the classroom. There may come the moment when one of your learners actually comes up to you and says: ‘With you, I feel much safer.’ as happened at the end of a school year during which I had been working intensively with one boy with SEBD who had slowly learned to better control his anger and aggression.
That is when you know you have reached at least one of your struggling learners and that your efforts are rewarded.
*All names have been changed.
Now based in Hamburg, Anette previously worked as a DoS, Teacher-Trainer, and a teacher specialising in English and German at International House Brno, in the Czech Republic between 2003 and 2016. She is currently an English and Inclusion teacher at a Hamburg Primary school, and is also a tutor for IHC in the local area.