Working with challenging behaviour: experiences from working with looked after children

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    Wednesday, 16 September, 2015 - 16:02

While only 2% of young people are taken into care for reasons of socially unacceptable behaviour, some looked after children and young people may find certain social situations difficult to manage and the mix in a group can be volatile. As with all groups of young people, certain behaviours can undermine physical safety, social relationships and the creative development of the group.

The visualisation below presents some of the ways of working with challenging behaviour used in music making with looked after children. Click on the dots for more information.

Waypointwaypoint/significance-challenging-behaviour-looked-after-childrenSignificance of challenging behaviour with looked after children183.0172.6""#0000002
Waypointwaypoint/use-social-pedagogic-approachesUse social pedagogic approaches256.5270.2""#0000002
Waypointwaypoint/reduce-causes-challenging-behaviourReduce the causes of challenging behaviour448.5196.2""#0000002
Waypointwaypoint/personalising-activity-and-giving-individual-attentionPersonalising the activity and giving individual attention835.5530.2""#0000002
Waypointwaypoint/balance-familiar-and-newBalance the familiar and the new44.5394.2""#0000002
Waypointwaypoint/putting-attention-positive-behaviourPutting attention on positive behaviour664.5359.2""#0000002
Waypointwaypoint/develop-respective-skills-individual-musicians-and-care-staffDevelop the respective skills of individual musicians and care staff539.5687.2""#0000002
Waypointwaypoint/emphasising-teamworkEmphasising teamwork49.5545.2""#0000002
Waypointwaypoint/practical-guide-music-making-looked-after-children-2A practical guide for music making with looked after children5.513.2""#0000002

While only 2% of young people are taken into care for reasons of socially unacceptable behaviour, some looked after children and young people may find certain social situations difficult to manage and the mix in a group can be volatile. As with all groups of young people, certain behaviours can undermine physical safety, social relationships and the creative development of the group.

The visualisation below presents some of the ways of working with challenging behaviour used in music making with looked after children. Click on the dots for more information.

Click here for a text version of this visualisation

Significance of challenging behaviour with looked after children

What is the significance  of working with challenging behaviour for musical projects with looked after children?

While only 2% of young people are taken into care for reasons of socially unacceptable behaviour, some looked after children and young people may find certain social situations difficult to manage and the mix in a group can be volatile. As with all groups of young people, certain behaviours can undermine physical safety, social relationships and the creative development of the group.

Use social pedagogic approaches

If the delivery team understands and uses social pedagogic approaches this will diminish the likelihood of challenging behaviour and enable the team to work effectively with it if it arises.

Taking a team approach is central: musicians and social care staff together in some situations, with foster carers. The quality of communication within the team, aided by regular collective reflective practice and growing confidence in each others’ roles, will create the security in which creativity can flourish.

Illustrations from practice

The Evaluation of the Sing Up NCB Programme comments:

"The instability and rejection experienced by many looked after children may lead to behaviour which is seen as unacceptable. Managing children’s behavioural difficulties was one of the main challenges identified by singing leaders who were well aware of their responsibilities for the safety and wellbeing of all their participants. However, singing leaders with previous experience of working with looked after children appeared to experience fewer difficulties in this area."

A singing leader from Myrtle Theatre Company stated:

“These were children who were always being sent out or excluded from school. We decided we would find other ways, other strategies, to contain them.“

Accepting the child as they are, rather than as adults would like them to be, was the only logical position to start from.

Persistence and commitment to the young people was central:

"We would warn those considering projects to expect challenges with behaviour. (We knew this in theory, but experiencing it in practice is different!)  Many of these children have had life experiences which have left them with limited ability to engage in group contexts and with learning.  There is however great value in group sessions for these children and great value in persisting."
(Project Manager FDMM)

A project manager in another project on the programme commented:

"Trying to run this project in accordance with the principles of social pedagogy had many benefits. However, one difficulty that arose was how to manage disruptive behaviour when running group activities. This was partly because of a lack of understanding on our part as we were still learning about the approach when the project started. Staff members were reluctant to discipline children as they felt this would go against the approach we had adopted.  Within a large staff team in which there was no hierarchy, staff were also reluctant to ‘take charge’ in response to behaviour issues.

"We created a nurturing, safe and supportive environment, but I think we needed a more in depth understanding of social pedagogy in order to embed the necessary principles in to the project structure from the beginning..... In the initial stages of the project it is fair to say that the behaviour of the children was affected, as our expectations weren’t reinforced and they thus behaved as any group of excited young people would to a lack of structure. Once this was addressed with staff and more clarity given, the situation improved."

"Project leaders found it helpful to regularly reflect on and discuss different approaches to children’s behaviour with the staff team. It was reported that social pedagogic reflection was a valuable means of project and workforce development. It supported team building, especially necessary where staff came from different professional backgrounds."
(Evaluation of Sing Up NCB Programme)

Reduce the causes of challenging behaviour

Social care staff and, with younger children, foster carers, will know the individual and collective triggers for challenging behaviour. Strategies which appear helpful include:

  • an emphasis on the building of quality relationships with and between all participants: young people and adults; young people and young people; adults and adults
  • an appropriately paced session which allows for limited attention spans but, through flexible use of staffing, allows individuals to stick with individual projects if they are beginning to engage effectively
  • a variety of approaches including dance, drawing, scrapbook development if a child or the whole group needs a break from music-making reducing inappropriate distractions in the environment and encouraging focus

Illustrations from practice

The Evaluation of the Sing Up NCB programme found:

"The experience of the project leaders suggests that staff should think not of 'managing unacceptable behaviour' but of understanding the whole child and managing the social context so that the child feels  secure and with less need to behave in ways that may be unacceptable to others."

Having other activities on offer, for when children need a break from an activity, is one example:

"(One of the adults) keeps her sketch book out and children can sit with her and sketch in her book – she’s very enthusiastic about some of their work. Children also have their own small sketch books and use them."
(Myrtle Theatre Company, Fieldnotes).

In the same project, children were told that if they didn’t want to join in something they didn’t need to do so, but there was a named person that they could go and sit next to if they wanted some time out.

Several Sing Up NCB projects saw a need for developing 'a group contract' and/or ground rules in an interactive way underpinned by the values of mutual respect and inclusivity, which surfaced individuals’ anxieties and modelled an approach which some participants may not have experienced before.

"Leaders thought it was important to make clear to children and adults the standards expected in a positive way. For example, one project displayed coloured cards each of which had one message, such as 'we laugh with people, not at them. We have fun' and 'You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to' and there was a card about being safe. These were read out at the beginning of sessions and explained in an amusing way. They could also be referred to, as necessary."
(Evaluation of Sing Up NCB programme)

Personalising the activity and giving individual attention

Ensuring a staff ratio and a team understanding which enables individual attention to be given to a young person who may want

  • to practise an individual skill further;
  • to take time out
  • to talk something through.

Illustrations from practice

A good staffing ratio of committed staff enabled adults to give more personal attention to children who were finding life in the group difficult. One Sing Up NCB project reported:

"(D Aged 8) After a lot of contrary kind of behaviour (i.e. anything the group was doing she would want to be doing something else) and would only engage for very small amounts of time she then thrived in some small group work and helped to write some songs that she later sang by herself beautifully in a calm and focussed manner."

So small groups facilitated this more personal attention – the Evaluation of the Sing Up NCB programme noted:

"An observation of one  session and general feedback suggested that small group sessions worked particularly well and offered opportunities for singing solo and song writing, and recording these."

..but small groups alone were not a panacea and persistence in trying to find the key to unlock an individual child’s interest was needed:

"One participant in particular improved dramatically in this area. In the first few weeks he attended he was quite disruptive within his small group and demanded a lot of attention. A turning point came when he was asked to draw a picture to represent his ideas for the song the group were writing. This picture was then used to write lyrics for the song. This really engaged this child in the group activity and he received a lot of praise. Since that point he was much easier to engage and his concentration span seemed to double."
(Project report)

"Involving foster carers in the sessions could be supportive for the children, because of their knowledge of the children and their relationship with them. At Pie Factory, there was a child who was described as having complex needs, struggling in his special school and finding it difficult to take part in group singing sessions. However, with the support of very committed foster carers, he began to join in the sessions. The adults involved in his care had observed a significant shift in his behaviour and in himself."
(Evaluation of Sing Up NCB programme)

Balance the familiar and the new

Getting an appropriate mix of

  • continuity of content between sessions e.g. building up a song;
  • a familiar structure so that participants know what to expect;
  • and stimulus which stretches them and keeps interest high.

Illustrations from practice

Anxiety – about, for example, failing or being humiliated –can lead to aggressive-defensive behaviour. So can boredom. Pitching the level of the musical activity  sensitively, is, therefore, important and challenging for musicians working with groups of different abilities.

Projects on the Sing Up NCB Programme found that a good approach was trying for a blend of

  • the familiar - something, perhaps, they had done and enjoyed the previous week which enabled them to feel safe and not over-exposed

“It’s about finding something that’s within someone’s capabilities and not too challenging and making small steps to progress.”


  • the challenging - which prevented boredom, produced stimulus

One project reported:

"The musicians often aimed to find a balance between meeting children 'in their comfort zone' and broadening their horizons by using unfamiliar repertoire and activities, with songs drawn from different countries. The intention was to extend children's musical awareness.

"Sessions built from one session to the next, first using simple games and rounds, introducing part songs and gradually creating new music by fitting new words to known songs, then by working on new music. They introduced new repertoire such as African circle games, with a strong pulse, as an aid to recognising the beat. Projects also used rhythmical rapping and clapping to help children become more aware of beat and rhythm. The challenges introduced often went beyond those of conventional Western music forms and more complex art forms were not avoided."

Putting attention on positive behaviour

Creating an upbeat atmosphere with plenty of praise and celebration.

Encouraging participants to take pride in their achievement

Illustrations from practice

One Sing Up NCB project took a ‘catch them being good’ approach:

"The social worker who worked at Curve with us was a big advocate of focusing on positive behaviour. He had what he called a blank face when children were behaving inappropriately but as soon as they did something positive he would smile and give them encouragement. All of the children we worked with at Curve were very keen to get attention and were really keen to receive praise."

In a project working older care leavers there was a similar approach with the musicians commenting on a strategy which seemed to have a very positive reaction from the young people:

"Emotions are infectious – instilling positivity and peace to counteract bad vibes, & not reacting and ‘not holding grudge’ – giving the young people a fresh start every week."

Develop the respective skills of individual musicians and care staff

Reflecting together before the first session and  after each session will help develop understanding and trust around the purpose of the project,  individuals’ respective roles and how the team can learn from the young people’s, their own and each others’ experience.

Illustrations from practice

The skills of the music leaders in both picking up on children's interests as well as showing creative leadership were remarked on:

  • As community musicians, the music and singing leaders were able to turn to a wide variety of musical experiences to maintain children's engagement
  • The musicians could be adept at finding what particular children liked.

At a taster session which coincided with the World Cup, there were three boys who appeared to be angry that they had been made to attend (a particular session).

"They refused to get involved at first but rather than be discouraged by this the music leaders used their anger positively by asking them to be drummers. They also used a song about a Warrior to appeal to the boys’ interests. This approach acknowledged the boys’ feelings and encouraged the integration of their interests into the group. At the end, the boys wanted to do the drumming again, a good sign that the strategy had worked successfully and had encouraged their involvement.”
(Singing leader’s reflective journal, SoundLincs quoted in Evaluation of Sing Up NCB Programme)

An example...of a project working in this way, was given by a local authority partner:

“Some of the boys were a bit shouty, so rather than everyone saying ‘shush’ all the time, he [the music leader] got them to use that [loud voice] in the workshop, so we used it creatively.“
(MusicPool, Herefordshire)

The musicians were skilled at finding a balance between structure in a session and the awareness and confidence to move into less-structured mode. This was not only a valuable variation in itself but was particularly useful if the initial activity was not keeping the group's attention and a change of approach was needed. The Curveball project working with care leavers in Manchester showed flexibility:

"We had tried warm ups but they went off these and we learnt to make a prompt music start that's what they had come for after all.. A few of us would start jamming and they would immediately pick up and instrument and join us.

"In the same project, the musicians learnt through collective reflection 'of the need to be confident in our own leadership and authority....This doesn't mean ignoring the young people's rights. It's Important to keep balance of letting young people voice opinions – but being sensitive to guide where unrealistic/inappropriate.''

Emphasising teamwork

The team needs to be well constructed – staff in the partner agencies with the appropriate skills and commitment to the project.

The team needs to be well led with clarity of roles and authority, good in-session and out-of-session communication, inclusivity, and a recognition of the emotional dimension of the work: of the musical activity, the dynamics of the whole group and the dynamics of the team.

Illustrations from practice

Many projects realised the importance of developing a coherent and communicable approach to unacceptable behaviour. This is crucial for successful group work with young people but can be difficult to implement in a partnership when different agencies have different expectations e.g .community musicians, teachers, social workers.  It is only through openness, good communication and collective reflection in the time before and after a session that a policy for managing the group can be developed which everyone can work with.

The role of people brought in as support workers was in some cases given careful consideration. The Evaluation of the Sing Up NCB programme reports:

"Observations and interviews suggested that they worked better where they had been fully included in discussing the ethos of the project and how children were to be valued and made welcome. There were, however, examples where this had not been the case, during a session that took place in a school, the music leaders were working in partnership with the children, writing lyrics and recording some rapping; based on their individual interests and characteristics, the children made contributions to the process of lyric writing.

“Teaching staff who were sitting in intervened frequently to control the children, interrupting the creative process and the relationship building between the children and the tutors, and between the children with each other.”

Things worked better where all the people present were seen as part of the team, rather than some being leaders and others merely support workers or trouble shooters.

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