Children who struggle with behaviour can find it difficult to discuss how it affects others, so staff at Robin Launder’s pupil referral unit ask them to empathise with fictional characters in similar circumstances instead…

We all love a story – here’s a true one about Alex.

Alex is disengaged in lessons, can be very disrespectful to staff and when he’s challenged about his behaviour, is often confrontational.

Mum (Andrea) was contacted about this. What she was told didn’t surprise her. “He’s the same for me,” she said. “He’s rude, he shouts at me, he calls me all sorts of names, things I’m ashamed to repeat.”

It was decided that Alex and Andrea attend Thinking Matters, a series of nine afterschool sessions run at their local Pupil Referral Unit. It’s called Thinking Matters because, well, thinking matters.
Everything we do is preceded by a thought. Get the thought right, and there’s a good chance you’ll get the behaviour right; get it wrong, and problems are likely to follow.

Alex definitely didn’t want to be there at the start. He huffed and puffed, rolled his eyes and fidgeted theatrically. But as the programme progressed, his engagement increased. Against his better
judgement, he found the neuroscience and psychology interesting; despite his grimace, he enjoyed the games, quizzes and questionnaires; and though they were “stupid”, he used the thinking skills, particularly COP and SPP (see panel).

What Alex enjoyed the most, however, were the stories. He wasn’t alone; the stories, one per lesson, are the bit of the programme that all participants engage with the most. And it makes sense that they do. Though we access stories through our imagination, we process them as real experiences – in effect, both cognitively and emotionally, we become part of the story. And that makes them a powerful teaching tool.

The story that Alex connected with the most was about a boy called Billy. Billy is having a bad day: homework not done; misbehaving at the back of the class; fight in the corridor; argument with a
teacher. It is, of course, a familiar tale for many students on Thinking Matters.

Billy’s story is delivered exactly like the other eight stories on the programme; that is, it’s read dramatically and interspersed with a range of questions to promote deeper thinking. There are causal
questions to underline the link between thoughts and actions; predictive questions to explore short and long-term consequences; and empathic questions to increase commonality and kindness.
Here’s all three in action. At one point in the story, the school phone mum to inform her of Billy’s behaviour. The students are asked to say what Billy’s mum might be thinking and feeling.

Here’s Alex’s response together with the teacher’s follow-up questions:

Alex: “I think she’d be really upset. I bet she’s angry and sad at the same time.”
Teacher: “Why’s she angry?”
Alex: “Because he’s let her down.”
Teacher: “What’s the actual thought in mum’s head?”
Alex: (pause) “He’s done it again. He doesn’t care about anybody but himself.”
Teacher: “Ok, so if that’s the reason why mum’s angry, then why’s she sad?”
Alex: (pause) “Same reason. It’s like what we learnt last lesson, anger and hurt can go together.”

It was a powerful response: powerful for Alex, Andrea and for the other families. It was also helpful for the teacher because it provided a springboard for an empathy exercise: “Based on what Alex has said, what will be the next thing that Billy’s mum does when she puts down the phone? Discuss this in your own families.”

Now, to be clear, empathy is not the ability to accurately guess what’s happening in someone’s world – in this case, Billy’s mum’s world. Empathy is the attempt to put yourself in another’s world. Empathyfocused questions are always helpful, but they’re particularly helpful in group work because everyone can learn from everyone else’s responses.

This is what the families said:

  • go outside and have a cigarette
  • try to distract herself
  • slam the kitchen door
  • scream
  • text him a “wait to you get home!” message

Alex and Andrea’s response (remember, they were discussing this together) was simply “she cries.”

The teacher could have left this response hanging poignantly in the air, but instead chose to delve a little by asking an intentionally odd question.

Teacher: “If she’s crying, is she crying standing up or sitting down?”
Alex: “I don’t know.”
Teacher: “What do people think? Is she sitting or standing?”
Michelle (another mum): “She’s sitting.”
Teacher: “Sitting?”
Michelle: “Yes.” (pause) “She’s exhausted. Tired of it all. Drained.”
Teacher: “Does Billy know she’s drained, do you think?”
Michelle: “No, he only sees her angry.”
Alex: “Or smiling.”
Teacher: “Smiling, Alex?”
Alex: “Yes, but it’s not a real smile. She’s using it to cover up her true feelings, like that teacher in the first story we did.”


Billy’s story was significant for Alex. He was able to develop empathy for Billy’s mum and Billy’s teachers, and from there, empathy for his own mum and his own teachers. By seeing how others see the world, by hearing their thoughts and understanding their feelings, Alex found (to quote him) that “we’re all more similar than different.” He realised that we share similar drives, similar fears and similar hopes. And that realisation is the basis of empathy.

But why did Alex (and others) engage so well? In the past, when challenged about his behaviour, Alex would become rude and confrontational. So why not this time? Well, here’s the other great thing about stories: they sidestep defensiveness. No one was pointing a finger at Alex, saying he was this, that or the other. He wasn’t being cornered or corralled. Any connection that he had with the Billy story, or any of the other stories, was a connection that himself had made. And he’d made it in the privacy and safety of his own mind. In other words, the story provided the context for the learning, but the learning was all his own.

And that’s the power of stories.

The End


Thinking Skills

EWS = Early Warning Signs. It means noticing those thoughts, feelings and physical reactions that tell you that you need to Stop & Think.

Stop & Think means don’t react, but instead use one or more of the following cognitive skills.

COP = Consequences, Outcomes and Penalties. It means thinking about the effect of what you do or don’t do next on you and on others in both the short and long term.

SPP = See the Person as a Person. It means forcing yourself to look at the person in front of you as a humanbeing with feelings, just like you.

OPE = Other People’s Eyes. It means looking at the situation you are now in through someone else’s eyes. That person doesn’t even have to be present.

PiiP = Put it in Perspective. It includes not taking yourself so seriously.

DIS = Distract, Disconnect, Disrupt. It means putting your thinking somewhere else other than on the thing that is causing you to have an unhelpful reaction.

Be4Me = Benefits for Me. It means looking at the benefits that come out of the negative situation you are currently in. Excellent for moving on and forgiving.