Teachers thinking psychodynamically

Introduction to psychodynamic thinking: understanding behaviour from a feelings perspective

Children who can behave, generally do.

Schools work from a central premise that part of a teacher’s job is to react to children’s misbehaviour, to implement and follow systems and responses that are designed to improve it and them, and to work towards the end game of increasing children’s measurable performance in learning. Governmental guidance overtly works within a discourse of power and discipline as it asserts that ‘ teachers have power to discipline pupils for misbehaviour’ and furthermore, must manage children’s behaviour through a behaviourist method using ‘rewards and sanctions’ (DfE 2014, p.3).

Commonly, when teachers are training and later, as they become more experienced, they become very good at managing children’s low-level, disruptive behaviour by following such behaviourist principles and using a range of behaviourist techniques. By this, I mean that they create classroom rules; adhere to systems of rewards and sanctions; learn to command a low, calm and assertive voice; they mean what they say and they follow through consistently. They can de-escalate angry outbursts, practise positive language of correction and model the behaviour that they want. All of these techniques and ways of being in classrooms are effective and, on most days, in the majority of classrooms, they work well; children work happily, feel valued and know where they stand.

‘Children who can obey rules mostly do’ (Camilla Batmanghelidgh, The Guardian, 7th Feb 2014). They respond positively to routine and to the clarity and consistency provided by an emotionally solid, pleasant and caring adult. For the most part, they regulate their own behaviour and actively seek rewards, positive attention and affirmation. For these children, school is a place that they look forward to coming to each day. Notwithstanding the normal trials and tribulations of being teased when you are seven, being left out of the gang when you are nine or the navigation of the white water ride of adolescence, schools can provide a safe place in which children and young people can play, experiment, create, discover their strengths and talents, be with friends and rely on attentive adults who are interested in them enough to provide boundaries, prepare interesting lessons and set high expectations. To borrow from Winnicott (XXX) This could be described as a ‘good enough’ experience of being at school; never perfect, but good enough for a child to grow, thrive and achieve something worthwhile.


Teachers blame themselves

But this is not the experience of all children. There are those who cannot or will not learn and, instead, behave in ways that would make us believe that school is not a good place for them to be. In these situations, when teachers find that all of their learned, tried and tested techniques are not working, what do they do? They blame themselves. Somewhere in the making of a teacher a belief has been born, reinforced and perpetuated that they have the power and ability to change children’s attitudes and behaviours. More than that, there is tacit expectation that they have total responsibility for that change and when transformation doesn’t happen, that they have failed. These feelings of failure, in turn, lead to teachers finding themselves frustrated, confused, exasperated, exhausted and most commonly of all, believing that they are ineffective. Alternatively, and sometimes additionally, they believe that the child who won’t engage, who challenges their authority and who very often creates mayhem in the classroom, both dislikes and despises them. They feel personally persecuted and, at the same time, often find themselves disliking the child to the point of hatred.


As an example, these are quotes from newly qualified teachers taken from some research conducted in inner city schools in Manchester.

Teacher B. ‘And there’s one kid that actually I cannot stand him, I hate him, I think the reason I do not like him, he has been re-integrated into the system … I think I have taken a step back and thought how I am with him, he has no idea that I hate him … he is a complete bastard and I really don’t like him, because I do take what he says personally and I think he is out of order and I think he should get into trouble for, and he doesn’t’.


When invited to consider their emotions, these teachers admitted to feeling depleted, deeply dissatisfied, deskilled and even dehumanised by children.

Teacher C. ‘I mean how many times I have been in tears in my room saying, I’m leaving and they’re saying, “No you’re not”. “I am”. I have just been crying.

(Stronach, 2009, p169).1


It is inordinately difficult for teachers to think rationally under the pressure that these circumstances generate. Indeed, their thinking is likely to be chaotic, reactive, emotionally charged and mildly irrational, as in the examples above.


Schools and staffrooms are not always conducive to calm reflection or to providing a space to really think about what might be going on. Moreover, staffrooms can be competitive places where teachers will vie with each other boasting that they do not have trouble with child X or class Y. The usual response to very challenging children is to increase punishments, exclude them from learning or remove them entirely so that they become someone else’s problem; most commonly, someone from the Pastoral or Special Educational Needs (SEN) team or even the task of a specialist from outside school.


This adherence to behaviourist principles and the reliance on specialist intervention keeps teachers at an emotional distance from the painful fact that children who disrupt and challenge, who attack and at the same time reject both learning and the teacher, often have lives where they too are rejected, uncared for, neglected, abused or traumatised. It is very difficult to perceive a child who tells you that you are a rubbish teacher as a terrified and despairing young person.


The psychodynamic perspective

There are two main things to understand about psychodynamic thinking. The first is that children who behave in challenging ways are almost always troubled. Somewhere in their emotional development they have built up a belief that they are not valuable, indeed that they are worthless, useless, and unlovable. In other words, they have developed a weak ego or fragile and distorted sense of self. They may have become angry, envious, frightened and may feel immensely vulnerable and out of control. The second, is that these feelings are unbearable and so are transferred or given to another (namely a teacher), to feel and bear on their behalf.





[1] Emotional Development

Psychodynamic theory is based on the following beliefs: that emotional development occurs alongside physical, sensory, cognitive and language development; that these are linked and together, result in the development of an individual personality. Healthy emotional development leads to a healthy state of mind, a zest for life and learning, the ability to make and sustain positive relationships and resilience to adversity.


In good enough circumstances, the earliest experience of infants and young children provide them with what is referred to a secure inner world. From the first days of life, infants rely completely on their caregivers to feed them, to keep them warm and allow them to feel safe. They know that someone will come when they cry. But they also rely on their caregivers to ‘read their mind’. Anyone who has had a child or who has seen a mother (it could be father or another caregiver) with a baby will recognise how she actively works to ‘tune in’ with the baby. The baby is screaming at the top of his lungs; it’s the ambulance cry which cannot be ignored for long. The mother moves her infant from her arms to her shoulder, she rocks, she pats, she sooths, she asks, Are you hungry? Are you wet? Have you got a pain? The baby screams on … and she keeps asking, keeps trying….she attempts to feed him, he screams louder….she changes his nappy, she paces the room with him. Eventually he is soothed. Everyone recognises this parental behaviour. Psychodynamic thinking calls it containment, attunement and holding in mind, all of which are crucial to the baby’s developing sense that he is understood, can be soothed or simply connected with and, more importantly, that he is safe and is loved and therefore lovable.


Misattunement happens as a consequence of maternal interaction that misunderstands, misinterprets, or ignores the baby’s cries. A mother who panics, shouts, ignores or responds in ways that makes it worse, can create feelings of absolute terror in the baby. This has a profound impact on the psychological and mental formations of the developing infant and such adverse experiences very quickly become marked in the personality. Maternal neglect in the intimacy of an attuned relationship can take many forms, from mothers not perceiving infant signals, to perceiving them but assuming that no response is needed, to simply being unable to find a response. A baby who experiences a mother who is inconsistently available and unreliably present, where he is habitually ignored, rejected or misinterpreted first, protests wildly, then disengages and eventually withdraws.


Essentially children whose mother cannot tune in to their needs (attunement), cannot manage their distress (containment) or cannot think about her baby’s needs (holding in mind) experience both neglect and trauma at a very early age. For infants who are traumatised by their mothers, the effects are profound and observable. The infant’s stress levels are likely to be permanently high as he is in a constant state of extreme fear and helplessness. Cortisol produced by heightened and prolonged anxiety affects development of the hippocampus, the part of the brain that organises memory and may also alter the balance between serotonin and dopamine. Being with a mother who is unpredictable and frightening, a child will similarly resort to an array of defensive behaviours which continue throughout infancy and into later phases of childhood, adolescence and adulthood. Secure attachment will not develop. Research shows that by the age of 3 years, such an infant will already be aggressive and lack empathy.

A child who has experienced an unresponsive or emotionally frightening mother will sense danger everywhere. He may also develop a heightened sense of arousal to danger. He may not be able to be still and be desperately anxious or he may behave in opposite ways and become closed down, avoidant, depressed and disassociated so that the thinking part of his brain becomes inactive. Such heightened physiological responses are a sign of a highly activated sympathetic nervous system. Research has found that maltreated boys are more likely to be hyperactive and hyper vigilant and girls tend to be more dissociative.

Lisa Miller has written that these ‘bad experiences’ can predict that for this infant, the scene is set…

to have the potential of growing up suspicious and mistrustful, easily upset, provoking negative reactions that will confirm the idea that people are innately hostile and the world is a hard place. (Miller, 1999, p.38)2

For a baby who is neglected or traumatised, who is left alone to manage his distress for too much of the time, who does not experience the love and care of a reliable adult and cannot develop a sense of his place in the world, the risk of severe emotional damage is inescapable.

When emotional development is impaired, interrupted or distorted by negative or traumatic experiences in childhood, most often at the hands of unreliable, unpredictable, absent, neglectful or frightening parents, it is very likely that the child will develop an unhealthy state of mind and develop an insecure inner world. A child who has a secure inner world has a ‘blueprint’ which tells him that he is worthwhile, loveable, valuable, and competent. A child with an insecure inner world is likely to believe that the opposites are true. He is also likely to have developed skewed and predominantly negative beliefs about his peers and adults.


[2] Projective Identification

A psychodynamic perspective would suggest that unbearable feelings are projected onto another. This happens to everybody, all the time. Think for a moment about jealousy. Our normal reaction when we feel jealous of someone is to boast about ourselves in order to make the other person feel jealous. In other words, we project a feeling that is uncomfortable onto another. The same may apply with feelings of fear, inadequacy and incompetence. How many times in your professional life has someone who lacks competence left you feeling useless? People who feel good about themselves rarely do this. How many times have you felt physical fear in the presence of an aggressive child? You may have actually felt it in your body, your knees have gone weak, your heart pounds, your palms sweat. This is powerful projective identification and a very strong indicator that, no matter what he may be doing, the child is actually terrified.


In this way the feelings that the teacher has about the child act as vital clues to how the child is feeling. This way of thinking requires us to suspend our natural reaction to challenging behaviour; that the child is quite deliberately making our life a misery, has no respect, is wilfully making bad choices, does not care and does not want to behave or learn. Whilst these things may be true on the surface, psycho-dynamic thinking asks that we look deeper and further and consider this destructive behaviour towards self and others as a communication of the distressing emotion that the child is experiencing.


Quite simply, a child who leaves a teacher feeling a failure, has a belief about himself that he is a failure; a child who makes a teacher feel scared, out of control, panicked, himself feels all of these things. A child who is angry, aggressive and even violent in school is likely to be feeling enraged, terrified and believes that he must defend himself from terrible danger. This way of thinking is challenging and not easy. It requires being able to step out of the emotion of the situation and take time to think about the child by examining our own feelings. Understanding ‘projective identification’, or recognising feelings that are too much for the child to bear, are passed from the child to ‘another’ and are felt acutely, sometimes physically, by ‘the other’, takes time, space and practice.


It is when a child and a teacher have a particularly emotionally loaded relationship (positive or negative) and often when one or other of them has invested something additional, that the behaviour is most likely to be ‘passed on’. In the clip, we see an adolescent boy who has driven the trainee teacher to despair. He has been unwilling to engage in learning, despite the teacher’s extra effort and kindly attention. He speaks of the teacher in very negative terms, describing him as ‘useless’, that he is a ‘crap teacher’. In lessons, the boy has been belligerent, rude and disrespectful; he has refused to complete work or adhere to any requests; he has disturbed the learning of others. The teacher has been left feeling an utter failure. He is angry and frustrated. More than this, he has come to dislike the boy and has dismissed him as unworthy of his efforts. He puts the boy on an equal footing to himself, ‘it takes two to achieve respect’. The section at the end when the boy breaks down with the film maker and explains how he is really feeling is heart wrenching. ‘I don’t care about school, I don’t care about nothing. ….. I don’t need nobody. I don’t need no school, no family, no nothing I don’t need shit’. At this point his fear about himself and his future has broken through and it is no longer possible for him to hold on to being the ‘big man’. 3




Teachers are not therapists

Many would say that teachers have too much to do to act as counsellors or social workers and this may well be true. However, learning enough about the ways in which a personality can become damaged and understanding that the consequent behaviours and ways of thinking in children that are destructive to themselves and those around them are as a direct result of negative early experience and the consequent development of a negative sense of self is a very powerful tool for teachers. Every day, children act out for their teachers and their peers, their emotional need, their feelings of despair, abandonment, helplessness and lack of control over their lives. The invitation that children offer teachers is to demonstrate to them that as adults we can bear their powerfully negative, and sometimes overwhelmingly destructive, feelings.


Melanie Klein believed that ‘children unconsciously work to create a world which mirrors their own internal world’ (Klein, 1946), 4 and so by listening and watching the children and ‘feeling’ our responses to their behaviours we can construct a meaning for those behaviours, not as deliberate attempts to undermine us but as desperate attempts to communicate pain and anguish. To see, to listen and to hear do not come without personal cost but to take the time to think together with colleagues in non-competitive ways about troubled children in order to find a perspective that is, at the same time, empathetic and objective, cannot be a luxury.








Department for Education (DFE) (2014) Behaviour and Discipline in Schools. London: HMSO.


Batmanghelidgh, C. (2014) Michael Gove’s punishment policy won’t solve discipline problems. The Guardian, 7th February








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