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Looking Beyond Behaviour

‘See the need behind the behaviour’

Karyn Purvis

How to SEE the Goldfish –

  • Consider all extreme behavior within the context of survival to better understand ‘why he keeps doing that?’
  • Repetition is important because with every positive experience the impact on the brain grows.
  • Traumatized children expect the worst and focus on the negative.  If you understand this, you will be better prepared for it.
  • Childhood neglect is the most damaging trauma.  The child must not have basic needs threatened in any way or survival will be all they think about.
  • At the point the child was abused, the brain was focused on survival not learning.  The development the child missed due to abuse will need extra attention.
  • Traumatized children will often score lower on IQ tests than their true ability.  Retest when their environment is helping them heal and watch the scores go up.
  • The goal in healing trauma is when the child becomes agitated to help them learn skills to reduce the agitation.  This repeated cycle is what most helps the child.
  • Promote play with traumatized children.  Play is very healing to the brain and the emotions.
  • Don’t give up hope!  The human brain is capable of healing in ways we do not yet understand.  It may be a long road to healing and the child may not get there while still in your classroom, but every situation makes a difference. (excerpts from Traumatic Experience and the Brain, A Handbook for Understanding and Treating Those Traumatized as Children.) 

This article highlights the need for teachers to understand the impact of trauma and attachment on behaviour. You’ll find a striking image in this article of a goldfish with a shark fin. Sometimes managing behaviour means we just consider the threat of the shark, rather than considering what might be going on underneath the surface.


Considering children’s mental health when addressing behaviour means accepting that their past adverse experiences, challenges and feelings will play out in the classroom. When early years practitioners use strategies tailored to children who might be struggling with these issues then all students reap the emotional and academic benefits.

Top Tip: Until a child is regulated, they are unlikely to relate to you, feel connected & comfortable. Problem solve once regulated.

Shifting the focus

  • Can you think of a time when you have managed the challenging behaviour of a child or young person? This could be in a work situation or caring for a sibling or child.
  • How did you manage the situation? What might have been going on under the surface? What might the child have been trying to communicate?
  • How might you have responded differently to the behaviour by shifting the focus and considering the need behind the behaviour?