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  • Writer's pictureDr Chris Moore

What is the behaviour communicating? The RETHINK Model

Following on my most recent blog on Heather Geddes’ Learning Triangle, this post looks at another innovative model for considering behaviour as communication and reflecting on how we interpret and respond to behaviour effectively.

In the book “What can I do with the kid who…”, Marie Delaney (Educational Psychotherapist and Teacher Trainer) outlines the RETHINK model. She applies this to a number of case studies, including students who find it hard to settle, try to assume control, engage in confrontation and withdraw from interaction. Much like the Learning Triangle, the RETHINK model looks at students’ words and actions with a trauma-informed and attachment-focused lens. This blog will explore the four stages of this model.


This initial stage is concerned with recognising what is happening in the classroom right now. As behaviour can understandably evoke strong feelings in school staff, it can be easy to dwell on particularly memorable moments or even become numb to frequent stressful episodes. Taking the time to step back and look at exactly what’s going on is essential. This is not just about what the student is doing, but also what we are doing in response. The following suggestions are by no means exhaustive.

Describe the behaviour in detail

What do you see? When and where does it occur? How often does it happen and with whom? These details are important in pinpointing an issue that occurs at a low level throughout the day or one which may only happen in particular tasks or before/after specific transitions.

Walk through a typical response to the student’s behaviour.

How do you approach the student? How is the student spoken about (both directly and elsewhere)? How successful are the strategies? What are the responsibilities of different members of staff and are these carried out consistently? Even with the best of intentions, some responses may feed into the factors which trigger or exacerbate the behaviour.

Consider the general learning environment.

What are the verbal and non-verbal methods of delivering instructions and communicating routines? How are rules and expectations talked about and acted upon with the whole class? Where does the student sit for learning tasks and how does he or she engage with general transitions and changes in activity? What kind of relationships does the student have with other young people and how do they respond to the behaviour? This type of contextual information can give important clues for what could be changed or adapted.

What preventative measures are in place?

If the student has learning needs, how is the curriculum differentiated to accommodate their strengths and preferences? How are sensitivities to sound, visual clutter, tactile input and other sensory needs managed? What kind of de-escalation and stress reduction strategies are implemented and how effective are they at different times and places? Proactive measures could make an enormous difference to the frequency and intensity of the behaviour.


Our thinking is easily distorted during stressful times. This is an overview of some common distortions. Reframing involves opening ourselves up to new perspectives. This is by no means easy in the heat-of-the-moment, which is why the opportunity for debriefing or supervision with a colleague, a member of the senior leadership team or an external professional may be helpful. Here are some examples of initial thoughts and how these might be reframed.

No matter what I do, he never listens. I feel so irritated when he doesn’t pay attention”


Maybe he has a lot of thoughts and feelings buzzing around his head and it’s hard for him to block them out and listen to me”.

She doesn’t want to engage. It’s as if she doesn’t care. It frustrates me when I try so hard and get nothing in return. I just can’t get through to her”.


I wonder what it’s been like for her when she’s tried to participate with other people in the past? Perhaps no-one tried as hard as I have and she’s used to keeping to herself”.

When he tells me to go away, I feel like a failure. I dread approaching him because I know he’ll just reject me or have a complete meltdown”.


Does he feel safe in the classroom? Has he learnt to look after himself, in case others hurt him or disappoint him? Maybe my approach reminds him of someone else?”.

I wish she would ask for help. It’s exhausting having to check on her constantly. I’m here to help and yet she doesn’t let me know when she needs it”.


How much experience does she have with asking for help? Has she always received help when she asked for it in the past? Maybe it’s hard for her to acknowledge that she doesn’t understand or can’t do something by herself”.

It’s impossible to get anything done as he’s constantly wanting to chat to me. There are just no boundaries. It’s as if he wants to run the class with me!”.


I wonder if this is his way of showing how important I am to him? It’s possible that he hasn’t always received the level of connection and reassurance that he wanted and he’s determined not to be forgotten by me”.


In this stage, we consider how the behaviour is communicating an underlying need which is not being met. The behaviour may be symptomatic of the student’s lack of experience with early fundamental social and emotional skills. This has implications for how the student relates to school staff and engages with learning tasks. Marie Delaney provides four key frameworks which underpin the REFLECT stage.

The impact of Trauma

Adoption UK have a great resource called “The Wall” which shows the many healthy bricks which are built up through nurturing and attuned experiences in the first few years of life. ( When children endure adverse experiences and loss, these bricks may be damaged or missing altogether. How well can the student cope with sharing the attention of an adult or not having control over a task? How prone is the student to feeling forgotten by an adult or fearing that an adult will abuse their position of authority? How easy is it for them to cope with a task which has been left unfinished? How much experience does the student have with naming and regulating emotions?

Thinking about where the feelings come from

A student who presents as confrontational, distracted or aloof may be experiencing a range of powerful emotions. These can include a sense of insecurity, worthlessness, helplessness or humiliation about not knowing how to do something. Marie Delaney also outlines a number of unconscious defence mechanisms which underly the emotions experienced by school staff. These include transference (unknowingly re-enacting the relationship between the student and another significant adult), projection (the student’s unbearable feelings are mirrored by the teacher) and displacement (feelings are directed at a member of staff because this is safer than the real target).

Attachment history

The RETHINK model applies Heather Geddes’ Learning Triangle which I covered in a previous blog - Some students may seek to avoid connecting with the teacher and feel more comfortable when engaged with the learning task. Others may be so preoccupied with staying connected and feeling held in mind that they struggle to engage with tasks independently. There will also be some students who have experienced toxic levels of stress and adversity; their hypervigilance for danger and chaotic patterns of connection may disrupt their ability to both relate to others and participate in tasks.

Play development

The student’s early experiences of play will have implications for their general interactions with school staff and peers. Does the student feel comfortable in separating from an adult and playing on their own? Do they feel safe enough in the learning environment to engage in play activities? Can they play alongside other students, but struggle to relinquish control and follow someone else’s rules? Do they know how to effectively invite others to play and cope with negotiating rules or losing a game? How we meet the student’s needs will require consideration of their current developmental stage rather than their chronological age.


Responses can occur at any of the three previous stages of the RETHINK model. Here are a small sample of potential responses which can be trialled – strategies for more specific cases can be found in my previous blog on the Learning Triangle.

The Learning Environment

- Visual communication of the daily routine and advanced warning of transitions.

- Simplified and positive instructions, which are reinforced by visual cues, written reminders or active demonstrations.

- Consistent routines for starting and stopping work and organising belongings.

- Preferential seating arrangements to accommodate sensory needs.

- Scheduling opportunities for play, sensory input and relaxation.

- Identifying a calm area and a key adult to help the student recover from heightened stress.

The Learning Task

- Breaking the task down into smaller and time-limited steps.

- Setting clear and realistic goals.

- Helping the student to plan their output using bullet points, spider diagrams or mind maps.

- Using concrete manipulatives, checklists and worked-out examples as memory aids.

- Supporting visual processing by reducing information overload on worksheets.

- Providing choice and playing to the student’s strengths and specialist interests.

Relationships with Staff

- For students who seek connection, arrange for positive greetings and show that you have been thinking of them outside of school.

- Agree when you’ll be back to check on them during a period of independent working.

- Name and explore feelings indirectly, through stories, TV shows and other metaphors.

- Wonder aloud about the student’s emotional state, if they are comfortable with this.

- For students who dislike personal feedback, talk about the task or the work produced,

- Acknowledge when the student is successful and show empathy for the tough times.

Relationships with Peers

- Provide clear roles and responsibilities for paired and group work.

- For quieter or less confident students, give them jobs which entail a limited and predictable level of interaction.

- Some students may need to start with non-competitive games, such as show-and-tell or adding parts to a funny story.

- Use role-play and Social Stories to teach conflict resolution skills.

- Ask the student to consider being a mentor/buddy for a younger child and consider if an older student can act as a mentor for them during less structured times of the school day.

The RETHINK model is a really nice way of looking beyond a challenging behaviour and formulating new perspectives on the ways in which students present in school. I would encourage educators to check out Marie Delaney’s book where she talks through a range of typical case studies in detail. During times when we are stressed and vulnerable to negative thinking, it’s important that we take a step back, challenge our preconceptions, consider developmental factors which have necessitated the student's behaviour and respond in a manner which is empathetic and trauma-informed.

References and Further Reading

Delaney, M. (2010). What can I do with the kid who…A teacher’s quick guide to dealing with disruptive pupils (and their parents). London: Worth Publishing Ltd.

Delaney, M. (2017). Attachment for Teachers: The essential guide for trainee teachers and NQTs. London: Worth Publishing Ltd.

Geddes, H. (2006). Attachment in the Classroom: The Links Between Children’s Early Experience, Emotional Well-Being And Performance In School. London: Worth Publishing Ltd.

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