What playful limits look like in school

What Playful Limits Look Like at School

Sarah Charlton on Setting Loving Limits 

I recently begun working as a learning support assistant in a UK secondary school. The job’s going well but there is one girl that I support who has been highly resistant to any help, from me or any of the other learning support assistants.

She covers up her work if you approach, pulls faces, tells you to go away, and refuses any help.

I found her behaviour very re-stimulating and hard to manage. I wanted to respect the clear signals that she sends out about not wanting help, while trying to keep an eye out for where she is falling behind.

Our relationship has been tricky, and at times I have found myself becoming quite authoritarian with her when I need to set a limit and when all my efforts at setting them in other ways has fallen flat.

The result is I have found myself withdrawing offering her help even though she could clearly benefit from it.

Digging Deep For a Playful Response

I wanted things to change, so one day I went in with an open heart and a determination to turn things around for us.

I gave her a couple of very loving and enthusiastic compliments and didn’t try to intervene in her work at all. She responded as usual in a very rejecting and scornful way, and I felt a flash of anger as, once again, my friendly advances fell flat.

The next lesson was Literacy and I saw that Nora had chosen to sit in a different seat instead of her allotted place. This is something which the teachers do not allow because seat plans are carefully chosen.

I set a limit and asked her to return to her normal seat.

She refused.

I had a choice: get authoritarian and order her to move, or try for another angle.

Given how re-stimulated I felt, I had to dig really really deep to find something else, but I did it.

I got really playful.

I said. “Ok then, I’m going to have to chase you to your seat.” I put up my hands like a cartoon villain and made as if I was going to start chasing her. A look of questioning and surprise showed on her face. I took a step forward and playfully said, “Here I come, you better get running.”

Her tone was really light and playful. She jumped up and ran to her proper desk, with me chasing her, a big smile on my face, my hands held up like a big cartoon bear.

The biggest surprise though was for me! For the whole of the rest of the lesson her hand kept darting up, as she called, “Miss, Miss, can you come and help me please.” (You can read more on why play helps children here.)

It was an amazing breakthrough for both of us. Even though her behaviour can sometimes still be difficult, I don’t get re-stimulated by it like I used to. My relationship with Nora is definitely easier and more relaxed than it previously was and I've found a more playful and less authoritarian attitude with other students too.

That one instance of digging deep to find a playful way of setting a limit has paid off hugely for me and the children I work with.

From the Hand in Hand Toolbox

Find out why playful limits can be more effective than direct orders in Three Steps to Setting Limits

Meet the teachers listening to kids and bringing Hand in Hand's tools to classrooms

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Certified Hand in Hand Instructor Sarah Charlton is based in the UK and holds classes in Sussex and London. Sarah runs classes for parents in groups and individuals in-person and online.

Get $100 off Sarah's upcoming Starter Class and get a 6-week personalised introduction to Hand in Hand's connection tools.

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