I have a three-year-old boy (for the purpose of this article I will refer to him as Oliver) in my cohort that has been expelled from two early years settings previous to joining my setting. I was horrified by what I heard from his previous settings; he constantly swears, bites, kicks and punches. There seems to be no common triggers for this behaviour and his latest expulsion was due to him breaking his key workers nose. I was told, ‘It’s Oliver’s way or the highway’, by his previous key worker. Upon hearing all of this there was a moment I questioned if we could facilitate his needs taking into account the best interests of all the children I teach. However I am a strong believer that every child deserves another chance and I am an even stronger believer that someone needs to step up and make changes when all else seems to have failed.
Oliver’s first few weeks at nursery went really smoothly, he was happy and rarely misbehaved. Once he became comfortable with his new surroundings the negative behaviour began, we soon realised that he targeted both adults and children and he would misbehave 20-30 times per day. He would scream at the top of his voice and accuse adults of hurting him, he would use strong language, act out adult behaviour, bite, growl and refer to himself in the third person saying, ‘Oliver is an angry dog’, ‘Oliver is an animal’. Do not get me wrong we all have that one child at our setting who we think is a handful but this was more than a handful, this was the biggest challenge I was going to face in my career so far.
We had tried out many techniques to combat his behaviour including talking about feelings, behaviour charts and positive reinforcement. If you gave Oliver time to reflect by himself in the quiet area he would become even more enraged, if you spoke through his actions with him he became even more enraged and distraction did not work one bit; once Oliver was in that frame of mind he would continue on a path of destruction throughout the day. We then referred him to our local Special Educational Needs co-ordinator, upon assessing Oliver the conclusion was that it was a behaviour issue and we were given more ideas as to how we could try to combat it. Oliver’s mother was involved however seemed to be helpless and unwilling to accept support, she made it perfectly clear that she didn't have the time to deal with Oliver’s behaviour at home and so put up with it. This was only making my job even more difficult. By this point I felt I had well and truly exhausted all my resources and patience, I must admit that I had just about given up and resigned myself to the fact that for the next 18 months I would have to follow him around ensuring that he did not hurt the other children. The most frustrating thing about the whole situation was that from time to time you would see these glimmers of a loving, caring little boy with a willingness to learn.
It was time to rethink everything I knew and understood about behaviour management, instead of looking at the negative behaviour and how to combat this I needed to look at the triggers for the behaviour and combat those triggers. It was true what his other settings had said, on the face of it there were no triggers. Usually there is a common denominator for behaviour such as interactions with another child or a technique for managing behaviour however with Oliver this didn’t seem to be the case. I struggled to put my finger on the trigger until I sat back and really observed him. Sometimes you need to forget everything you know and understand and watch what a child is doing.
Upon observing Oliver from a distance I noticed a couple of key themes; he was not interested in playing with anything that had been set up by an adult and he was not interested in adults helping him to choose what to play with. Instead he wanted to play with something that was not available, if the water tray was not filled he wanted to play with the water tray, if we did not have the paints out he wanted to play with the paints. I tried to talk to Oliver and reason with him by saying he could choose what he wanted to play with in the afternoon if he played with a few of the activities I had set out in the morning. This didn’t work. After weeks of going back and forth, trying something, failing and trying something new I finally put my finger on it. Oliver wanted to do what Oliver wanted do, not what I wanted him to do.
I always believed that my approach to teaching in the early years was child initiated, every day I would set up areas to cover the seven areas of learning and I would allow the children to choose where they would like to play. Upon reflection this was not child initiated, although they had choice they did not have complete choice, they did not have to do anything for themselves as I would set everything up with a set way to play. Yes this worked for most of the children but it did not work for all of the children and this meant that Oliver was always excluded because the environment and the approach did not work for him.
After reading about Anna Ephgrave’s approach to teaching in the early years I decided to try out some of her ideas, I changed my room so that everything was available at all times and I started to plan in the moment. In the moment planning relies heavily on practitioners having a good understanding of the children they work with, it is about observing the children and finding teachable moments when they are engaged in an activity. It was a big change, as a team we had to change our whole mindset and learn to embrace the children's interests and expand on these in the moment rather than to note them down for future planning. Some of the children needed time to understand this new concept of play however Oliver thrived in his new environment. No one needed to show him how to play or what to play with, he knew his own mind and knew exactly what he wanted to do. Then I remembered what his previous key worker had said, ‘It's Oliver’s way or the highway’ and why should it not be his way? His way was proving much more effective in progressing his learning and development and much better in equipping him to learn to manage his behaviour.
One of the first activities Oliver chose to play with was coloured sticks and playdough, my first thought was ‘good choice, we can do lots of mathematical development by making patterns in the playdough with the sticks and we can draw numbers in the playdough with the sticks’ my mind was in overload as I thought of all the ways we could use the playdough and the sticks. The first thing Oliver did was make a man and he called him spikey man, he was showing no signs of wanting to think mathematically and so at that moment I had to rethink my role. I decided to make a robot and called him stick robot to follow on from his own interests and ideas, the little boy used spikey man to scare stick robot by making a growling noise, I hid stick robot and said ‘He’s scared’. Oliver then said, ‘It is okay stick robot, it’s only me, I’m your friend’ at which point I brought stick robot back. We sat and played for over 30 minutes with no negative behaviour and what is more he had shown some positive development with regards to his understanding of behaviour. My thoughts as an adult as to what we could use the playdough and sticks for would have been no more beneficial than what he had chosen himself. This was the breakthrough moment for me when I realised that no forward planning was ingenious.
Planning different activities to cover the EYFS whilst taking into account the children's interests, next steps and abilities took up a huge chunk of my working hours, now all I have do is prepare myself for a day full of child initiated play. The children use their own interests to choose activities and myself and the other practitioners work alongside the children to ensure they are challenged and working towards their next steps. This has led to no topics and instead the main display board in our room is sectioned so that each child has an area to display photographs and artwork. Oliver’s section is full and he takes pride in showing his work to other children and adults.
A recent visit from our Special Education Needs Coordinator gave us all the approval we needed, she was full of praise for our new way of teaching and completely shocked at the improvement in Oliver, for the 30 minutes that she was there she watched as Oliver played with his friends and showed his emotions in a positive light. Due to the improvement she doesn't feel the need to come and see him again but she has assured us that she is only a phone call away if we need her. Oliver still has his moments but these are not daily and they are easily managed due to the strong relationships he has with myself and the other adults working with him, relationships made even stronger since implementing the new style of planning which has allowed myself and my colleagues to spend a lot more time with the children, instead of chasing paperwork. This has been an incredible, eye opening journey for me and I thank Oliver for helping me to become a better practitioner.
I truly believe that Oliver has thrived because he is in control and there is no pressure for him to do something or achieve a specific outcome. He is in control of his own learning and he loves it, he spends 10 minutes each morning looking at all the resources on offer and picks bits from here and bits from there, he will sit at a table for 20-30 minutes at a time, fully focused on what he is doing. Other children will join him and he won’t lash out, he will talk to them and laugh and play and most importantly learn. Learn to manage his feelings and behaviour, learn to make relationships and learn to enjoy learning.
I know a lot more about all of the children now I have changed the way I teach. Oliver isn’t the one to keep an eye on, he isn't the handful; he is the confident, loving, cheeky little boy who is a pleasure to be around.
Ephgrave, A (2015). The Nursery Year in Action. Oxon: Routledge.