Understanding and recognising distress – “they’re not challenging us, they’re asking us for help”

In this class, David Cameron concludes his discussions at Pitteuchar East Primary School by speaking with the Headteacher, Jenn Knussen.

One Friday, Jenn came across a 12-year old boy slumped against a wall, clearly distressed. Jenn approached him and admitted, ”I don’t how to help you”.

“No-one can help me”, the boy responded.

Impacted by this, Jenn spent the weekend thinking through the encounter and others she had come across over the years. She couldn’t think of a single incident in the school that hadn’t been caused by distress…either a child’s distress or an adult’s.

Her Senior Management Team agreed. And so, the school changed it’s mindset and approach – from ‘challenging behaviour’ to ‘distressed behaviour’.

“They’re not challenging us,

they’re asking us for help”

The Approach at Pitteuchar East (14:58)

  • Building trust and providing space – restorative approaches take time and patience
  • “You can’t have any sense of community within a school, if the adults don’t model the school values”
  • “We don’t have to know a child’s background to treat them best”
  • Understanding and recognising distress

...Does it work? (14:07)

  • Improved attainment and high attendance – creating space for children to learn
  • Getting the balance right – ensuring consequences for actions, but not for relationships
  • Effective modelling – making change through modelling values, behaviours and expectations
  • Changing mindsets from “challenging behaviour” to “distressed behaviour” – “they’re not challenging us, they’re asking for help”

Opportunity for Reflection

Take a few moments to consider your thoughts on each of the questions below and jot down your ideas and responses.


How much of the practice in your school was reflected in these conversations with staff and pupils from Pitteuchar East?

Is there anything that you might do more of as a result of watching these conversations?

Is there anything that you might start doing?

(Remember: if you prefer to keep digital notes, use the ‘take notes’ tab at the bottom of the page to record your responses).

Moving from primary level to secondary, in the next class David is joined by Ruth McKay, Headteacher at Portobello High School, Edinburgh. Over the course of two video discussions, Ruth showcases how trauma informed approaches and relational practice have been embedded across the school.

Resources or weblinks can be added here too...