The idea that our behaviour can be motivated by the application of rewards and consequences is so deeply entrenched in our society that it can be hard to imagine any other way. It often seems like a logical and natural approach in our homes, our schools and our legal system.

But what happens if these approaches do not work? What happens if, no matter how many times a child is offered a reward, or how many times they experience a consequence, the desired behaviour never materialises? We could write that child off as a hopeless case, or we could question our fundamental assumptions and look for a different way.

In these exclusive extracts from her book, The Trauma and Attachment Aware Classroom, Rebecca Brooks explains why systems of escalating consequences common in many schools so often fail to meet the mark for children with a history of trauma, neglect and loss.

Such systems make several assumptions about the children who are affected by them. The first is that the child knows how to behave. In reality, knowing how to behave is no simple task, even for children who have been raised in secure and nurturing environments.

The second assumption inherent in consequence models is that the child is able to meet the behavioural requirements but is choosing not to for some reason. Rewards and consequences are rooted in the behaviourist model of learning that assumed that children are essentially blank slates, ready to learn through positive and negative reinforcement.

Children do, of course, learn from positive and negative reinforcement. They also experience ‘social learning’ as they observe the behaviour of their peers and adults in their lives. However, as Gore Langton and Boy (2017) observe, children who have experienced trauma may well have learned different things in their early lives than their peers. Stealing food, for instance, is a well-adapted behaviour in an environment where the adults don’t provide meals. When children are removed from environments where these behaviours made perfect sense, and placed in an environment where they don’t, the children appear difficult and challenging. The behaviours which have served them well in one place are likely to land them in trouble in another.

Unwanted behaviours may be driven by underlying difficulties. A hyper-vigilant child, primed to be on the alert for danger by years of living in an environment of domestic violence, may well be easily distracted in a busy classroom, fall behind with their work, and distract others. Can they control the behaviour? Some may be able to some of the time, but it will take valuable internal resources that will not then be available for learning. Other underlying causes of unwanted behaviour that are common in children who have experienced trauma might include:

  • Heightened anxiety and poor ability to regulate stress responses leaving children likely to jump to fight-flight-freeze responses
  • Attention difficulties
  • Neurological damage caused by Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD)
  • Difficulties with impulse control
  • Poor executive functioning skills
  • Fear: of there not being enough to go around, of not being able to do what the teacher asks, of being humiliated
  • Attachment-seeking behaviour, such as calling out, making noise, being clingy, and otherwise attracting attention
  • Frustration arising from speech, language and communication difficulties
  • Sensory processing difficulties leading to overwhelm, or sensory-seeking behaviour

When a child’s behaviour falls short of our expectations, especially if this is out of character, or is persistent but the usual approaches seem to have no effect, there are questions that need to be asked. Does this child truly understand what is expected? Is this child able to meet the expectation? If not, could they learn if explicitly taught, or do reasonable adjustments need to be made? Recognising that a child’s behaviour may have underlying causes that need to be addressed is not the same as allowing the child’s behaviour to continue unchecked. It is about recognising that the journey towards the desired behaviour may be a longer and more winding one for this child than for others and then putting in place the support they need to complete it.

‘No excuses’ approaches to behaviour management risk becoming inflexible and leaving no wiggle room for situations where an alternative approach might yield better results. For children who have experienced traumatic early lives, carefully structured escalating systems of consequences may have little effect, or even promote the very behaviour they are designed to reduce for a number of reasons:

  • Lack of cause and effect thinking – the child is unable to link the positive and negative consequences meaningfully to the behaviour that triggered them, so never seems to learn from the reinforcement.
  • The child’s negative view of themselves is reinforced by the system, rather than reduced, and they may seek to further confirm that through continuing unwanted behaviour.
  • Resentment grows, especially if the child feels as though the consequence was unfair.
  • For children with difficulties caused by attachment problems and relational trauma, it can cause a breach of trust, damaging whatever relationship existed.
  • Some children have experienced such traumatic events that even the worst sanctions a school can deploy are no deterrent to them – being excluded from school is no match for losing your entire family.
  • Children who are repeatedly cycling through the consequences system may gain a certain notoriety and welcome the brief moment of fame and attention this gives them.
  • For children who have learned that becoming invisible is their best route to survival, the existence of these systems can cause anxiety and fear, even if the sanctions are never applied to them.

If the same children are always in detention, always outside someone’s office, always on the rain cloud or the red traffic light, then the current system is not working for them, or anybody else.


The Trauma and Attachment Aware Classroom, by Rebecca Brooks, is available to purchase here: The Trauma and Attachment-Aware Classroom: A Practical Guide to Supporting Children Who Have Encountered Trauma and Adverse Childhood Experiences : Rebecca Brooks: Books