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To what extent are stressed or traumatised individuals in control of their behaviour? How does perceived control affect staff's emotional and behavioural responses to behaviours of concern?

Low Arousal title - Control.jpg

Perception of Control

Imagine that you have just been involved in a challenging incident from your own experience for the first time. Rate the following statements in terms of whether you agree, disagree or are unsure:



They are trying to wind me up

They can’t help themselves  

They are doing it deliberately  

They know what they are doing  

They have no control over their behaviour  

They could stop if they wanted  

They are trying to manipulate the situation 

They can think through their actions  

They don’t mean to upset people

They are in control of their behaviour

They mean to make me feel bad

They have chosen to behave in this way

They are not to blame for what they do

They know the best time to challenge  

They don’t realise how it makes me feel


[Adapted from the Controllability Beliefs scale (Dagnan et al. 2012)]

This short exercise helps practitioners examine to what extent they perceive individuals to be in control of their behaviour. Practitioners of the low arousal approach tend to view people as less in control of their behaviours. They often see people as stressed and traumatised and are usually a little more accepting of behaviours. 

It is not unusual for staff to catastrophise events, which is often typified by predictions about negative future outcomes. For example, ‘It is only a matter of time before I really get badly hurt’; ‘He is a ticking bomb’. Attribution models stress that staff perceptions of a situation mediate their behavioural responses. Staff may have negative thoughts about working with a particular individual in a service setting (‘Oh god, I’m not working with him again’) which directly affects their deeper held beliefs, such as ‘I can’t cope with stress’. If the person is perceived as in control of their behaviour (‘He’s manipulative’ or ‘She know’s what she's doing’), it can feel more difficult to manage challenging behaviour and feel in control. 

Low Arousal approaches to managing challenging behaviour examine assumptions of perceived control, and stress that individuals do not always have control over their behaviour. Often, challenging behaviour is the result of trauma or stress rather than mal-intent. 

Trauma-Informed Work


Understanding a person's trauma is an important component of the Low Arousal approach. Trauma Informed Care and Practice (TICP) is a strengths-based framework that is responsive to the impact of trauma, emphasising physical, psychological, and emotional safety for both service providers and survivors, and creates opportunities for survivors to rebuild a sense of control and empowerment. Giving  a sense of control to traumatised individuals is very important for low arousal practitioners. 

In general, Low Arousal approaches aim to develop a care plan and behaviour support that contextualises peoples behaviour. Managing the challenging behaviours of highly stressed and traumatised people requires staff to be highly reflective and to view the person as traumatised. 

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