How to Talk to Children Whose Behavioural Signs Cause Us Concern?

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“What’s happening to you?” not “What’s wrong with you?”: Discover how you can talk to children who are showing worrying behavioural signs associated with neglect and abuse.

When behaviour challenges – it really challenges. As teachers, our sense of authority, professionalism and self-worth can be triggered.

It begs the question, what do we do when a child simply refuses to comply with our directions?

The Challenges of Children Showing Behavioural Signs

Often behavioural challenges can result in a stalemate where the child refuses, the adult increases insistence on complying, and we repeat the process.

So then behavioural sanctions can be added into the mix. A detention, time out of class and often, eventually, a child is excluded.

In the worst scenarios, this potentially puts a child at risk of being groomed into child criminal or sexual exploitation right where the abuser wants – home, potentially alone and with no professional checking on their wellbeing during the period of exclusion. Or we send a child home to spend more time in an environment where there is increasing domestic abuse.

Addressing How We Talk to Children

Worryingly, the question needs to be asked – have we, as professionals, fully exercised our duty of care towards a susceptible child if we have seen this process worked through?

Were there times our interactions could have led to a different outcome? Have we used every time we interacted with a child susceptible to exploitation or familial harm as a chance to gain an insight into the child’s lived experience?

Did we use every opportunity where there was a reachable moment, maybe during a one-to-one conversation, to learn about the child as an individual?

Real trauma-informed practice – not as a tick box of having received training, but as a daily way of working – means we need to adapt our language to help children.

For example, does every adult in your setting understand the difference between reacting to a child’s failure to follow procedures by asking “What do you need from me?” or by enquiring “What might be happening for you?” instead of asking “What is wrong with you?” or “What’s the matter with you”?

Our safeguarding systems are only as strong as the weakest link in our setting. Unless all professionals are alert to contextual safeguarding concerns for children or vulnerabilities in a particular child’s life, then the risk is someone has a purely behavioural response, rather than a safeguarding one.

Does your behaviour policy acknowledge that some children struggle to follow the accepted rules due to external factors in their lives? This flexibility is a strength in your safeguarding system. A one-size-fits-all approach isn’t safe for everyone.

All staff don’t need endless expensive training courses on trauma-informed practice and how the brain reacts and develops due to past experiences (though it’s important for key pastoral and safeguarding leads to have this knowledge).

However, all staff need to truly understand that behaviour is communication and to pause and think about what the child might be communicating.

Perhaps one child didn’t have breakfast as there was nothing in the cupboards at home, so the lesson before lunch every day sees them struggling to focus as they are not only hungry but fearful there may be no food for them at lunch. As a result, this might lead to poor behaviour in a lunch queue – so who is spotting the patterns?

Perhaps another child is on the fringes of frightening gang activity and is the child who doesn’t seem to want to participate in school life, but is also the child who wanders the corridors after the school day has ended.

Would your site staff and cleaning staff ask the right question – or pass it on to someone else to enquire – asking “What is going on for you that you don’t leave when everyone else does?” rather than “What’s wrong with you? Go away!”.

Get Further Safeguarding Support

If this short blog has resonated with you, remember that our multi-award-winning organisation is here to help. Our experienced Safeguarding Advisers offer a range of courses to help current DSLs and school leaders develop processes that will keep everyone safe.

Also, don’t forget to subscribe to our Safeguarding Subscription, where you will find dozens of webinars and resources on all aspects of safeguarding ready for you to share with staff within your setting as CPD.

About the Author

Jo PerrinJo Perrin - Adviser, Services For Education

Jo Perrin is a seasoned Education Adviser with a strong background in safeguarding. She has held key roles as a Designated Safeguarding Lead and pastoral lead in the education sector. Facilitating training to enhance the knowledge and skills of professionals working directly with children and young people is her passion.

With a wealth of experience in teaching PSHE and expertise in childhood trauma from her time as a foster carer, Jo is dedicated to supporting organisations that work with children and vulnerable adults on safeguarding issues. She is actively involved in professional safeguarding groups in the West Midlands and is currently collaborating on a research project with colleagues from the University of Birmingham and the NHS focusing on FGM awareness within communities. Jo’s has worked as a West Midlands' Adviser for national PSHE resources, presented at the Sex Education Forum National Members' Event and authored an advertorial for PSM magazine and an article for SEND magazine.

Jo's expertise extends to training on topics such as Safer Recruitment and Mental Health at Work. She is also a facilitator for the nationally recognised NPQSL qualification, supporting senior leaders in education. Her contributions to publications and development of resources for RSE provision have been well-received by schools nationally and internationally.

With her extensive experience and dedication to professional development, Jo Perrin is a highly respected figure in the field of education. Her guidance on safeguarding, mental health awareness, personal development, and relationships education is highly valued within the industry.


Our expert advisers can provide in-school visits to deliver sessions on any specific safeguarding issues that are relevant to your setting. We also offer consultancy and a detailed safeguarding audit. We will work with you to understand your exact requirements.

Get in touch with us today if you’d like to discuss bespoke Safeguarding training for your school.

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