Reading time: 3 minutes
When we talk about physical behaviour, it’s easy to focus on distressed behaviours that come from frustration, anger, and upset. But we may see physical behaviours that are simply overexuberant, particularly in settings working with children and young people.
Teenagers in particular can have a lot of energy to burn off and, in a classroom setting, they’re often trapped behind desks. Pushing, shoving, tripping, and the like can be a means of blowing off steam.
However, physical behaviours come with risks, and an important part of our role, regardless of setting, is to spot and reduce risk to keep everyone safe. Instead of ignoring physical behaviour and hoping it will end naturally, there are ways we can help minimise it.
Here are some strategies to support and de-escalate such situations.
Calm is crucial. Physical exuberance is often born of frustration, boredom, and just simply messing around. Don’t throw oil on the fire by making it into a big situation.
De-escalation is the name of the game. That’s what’s required 95% of the time. Their behaviour, to them, is just a bit of mucking about: horseplay. Shoving someone into a door could be followed by, “We’re just having a laugh. We’re mates.”
We have to use professional judgement. A smile and a brief reminder of what we want to see may be sufficient. We can show them we have a sense of humour and encourage them to move on. Every occasion throws up the opportunity to establish rapport and build relationships.
Make use of distraction techniques
Distraction techniques are surprisingly effective. They’re bored. They want to be entertained. In a classroom, we might realise they may have gone off task and need to get back to work. In other settings, they may have nothing to do, or be waiting for something to happen.
Offering something different to think about or do can provide something new to focus on without the need for physical behaviours.
Consider the causes of excessive physicality
Our initial default response should always be to ask ourselves why they are behaving this way.
In the moment, it may simply be boredom. But, more worryingly, it could also be an assertion of power. Are they demonstrating their physical strength over those who are physically weaker, or don’t have their confidence? We want to work on this before it becomes ingrained “accepted” behaviour and can develop into long-term bullying. Talking to colleagues about concerns can help us identify if this behaviour is part of a bigger pattern that needs addressing.
Other triggers include environmental factors. Could something as simple as cramped seating be triggering restlessness or stress? Are they hungry or is it nearly the end of the day? We also need to remember the specific needs of the individuals we work with and provisions needed to support them.
Do certain activities exacerbate the situation? Has boredom set in, leading to expressions of frustration? Is this behaviour always happening at the same time of day or in similar circumstances? For education settings and running structured activities, we may have to rethink lesson/ activity planning to reduce these “pinch points”.
If a further response is needed
We can be assertive rather than aggressive when supporting individuals showing non-distressed physical behaviours. Instead of a confrontation, we can be confident in approaching an individual to discuss the situation calmly.
We can explain why their behaviour is inappropriate and unhelpful, especially if it’s in a confined space such as a corridor, classroom, or social space, where others may get hurt. Explain the natural consequences if they continue to act in an excessively physical way, for example, “If this space doesn’t feel safe for everyone, we will need to leave.” Focus on respect for the other individuals and shared values, rather than blame and punishments. This will help take the heat out of the situation.
We can also seek support from colleagues to consider the best ways to respond. Sharing expertise is a simple way to get a better understanding of individual needs.
Working with children, young people and vulnerable adults is all about lifelong learning and reflection. What works for one situation or individual might not work for another. Building relationships and understanding individual needs helps us find the most effective ways to de-escalate situations.