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What factors can affect the behaviour of Forest School Learners?

Updated: Nov 24, 2021

The Forest School approach believes that each person’s experiences are unique and are based upon four key parts - our thoughts (head), our feelings (our heart), our actions (our body) and physiology (our body). All these components as Cree and Robb (2021, p172) suggest make up our total behaviour. In addition, our direct experiences, relationships, sense of self, locus of control, conditioning, culture, cognitive functioning, and biology to name just a few, are all factors which influence our behaviour and mind, body, and soul. Some of these factors can be external triggers such as the weather, temperature, light, sleep patterns, noise, and our sense of physical comfort, while others are internal such as our sense of security, wellbeing, life experiences, sense of connectiveness, confidence and self-esteem and hunger or dehydration. (Appendix 1)

The Forest School approach believes that behaviour is not simply a choice, but it is the result of many different complex factors which influence, affect, and interact. It believes that all behaviour is a form of communicating our needs and feelings and is the outward symptom of underlying difficulties.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (1943) is a model which splits human needs into five stages. Each need must be satisfied before we can move onto the next. The first four stages are basic needs, and the fifth stage is a place where we can learn, develop, and grow. Many behaviours can be attributed to the demand of satisfying these basic needs. (Appendix 2) This is a very useful model for understanding motivation or the lack of it in students and something that we often refer to in Forest School Education. In addition to this model, I have produced a table which draws together the negative and positive impact of a range of external and internal factors and correlated this with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. (Appendix 3). Alongside the work of Maslow there is also that of Carl Roger’s who wrote several theories on personality, self-actualisation, and self-concept. His "Self-Concept" (1947) describes how our behaviour is tied to our view of ourselves which is formed by our experiences during the identity forming years, and how we feel others evaluate us. He believed that your self-concept is made up of three distinct parts (Appendix 4). William Glasser’s a psychotherapist and psychiatrist created Choice Theory (1970) which argues that we are born with our personality intact, and our personality is made up of the five basic needs (Appendix 5). Our behaviour is always need meeting even if the choices we make are not the best ones. All our needs are:

“neither positive or negative rather it is the choices that we make in meeting these needs that we have control over, and our choices can be helpful or unhelpful.” (

Understanding how stress and trauma can affect our behaviour is another crucial factor in delivering a sensitive Forest School approach that can meet the social and emotional needs of the group. Being considerate of Attachment Theory or Reactive Attachment Disorder put forward by John Bowlby (1951) and Mary Ainsworth (1960) which describes several attachment patterns in infants and how these need to be fulfilled can help develop this understanding (Appendix 6). Taking a therapeutic approach, which acknowledges trauma disorders allows us to unravel and provide support where it is needed. The work of Stephen B Karpman and this theory on the Drama Triangle (1966) which is a social model of human interaction can also help explain and understand how destructive interaction that can occur among people in conflict (Appendix 7). The drama triangle demonstrates how participants within a drama triangle try to unconsciously achieve goals and agendas.

Other aspects such as age, disabilities, special educational needs, and medical conditions will of course also affect behaviour. When planning Forest School sessions, the leader will always take these into consideration look at notes Individual education plans and adjust the content and activities so that all pupils can access it. They will also reflect, consider, and refer to several development models such as Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development (Appendix 8), Vygotsky: Stages of Language development (Appendix 9), Montessori’s four Planes of Development (Appendix 10), Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development (Appendix 11), David Krathwohl Stages of Emotional Maturation (Appendix 12) Kellert’s Maturation of Children’s Values of Nature (Appendix 13) and relevant National Curriculum expectations. Knowing and understanding these stages of development ensures that a programme is tailored appropriately and fits the needs of the group it also makes certain that the rules, routines, and expectations of the group are age appropriate.

Consequently, being aware of these factors and psychological human needs helps us to be responsive, sensitive, and receptive to our students and allows the Forest School Practitioner to plan and create sessions that support and address these needs. All these factors can overlap and interact with one another, and the idea is not to form a diagnosis but empathy, respect and connectiveness.

I believe strongly that when we view or frame behaviour as not simply a choice but of many different and complex factors, we can better understand any negative and challenging actions. It is important that everyone knows that they have the right to express their emotions and it is OK to be fearful, anxious, upset, cranky, frustrated, delighted, excited etc as these are the things that make us human (Cree and Robb, 2021, p172). In Forest School practice we work and focus on the “why” and “how” observing our student’s reactions to their emotions and discuss with them how their feelings are being expressed through actions. We think carefully and try to understand the influences that have had an impact upon behaviour and focus on ways we can help to eradicate these. Through careful observation Forest School Leaders can recognise, predict, control, and alter these emotional states to a greater or lesser-degree and we help and encourage our students to learn how to recognise and adapt negative behaviour. (Blackwell, Forest Unit 3: 3.1).

This blog post has touched briefly upon the range of factors that can explain and help us to understand, gain insight and connect more effectively with our learners and their behaviour. This subject area is wide and diverse and new research is always emerging that can assist us in empathising and connecting with each other. In my next blog I would like to go onto discuss the strategies and methods that we use at Canopy Forest School to help us mediate and positively manage and de-escalate conflict and challenging behaviour, so it is appropriate for the Forest School setting.

I hope that this information has helped to shine a light on the complexity of factors that can affect behaviour. It is beneficial to take a holistic view which does not over-analyse or form a diagnoses but instead takes on board the useful information which can help us in devising strategies and a programme which is understanding and supportive.


Appendix 1: Mind Map of encouraging patterns of behaviour-factors and support

Created by Clode (2021), Hampshire, England

Appendix 2: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Appendix 3: A comparative Table of negative/positive factors

Created by Clode, (2021), Hampshire, England

Appendix 4: Carl Roger’s three components of Self-Concept

Appendix 5: Glassier’s Choice Theory-5 Basic Needs

Appendix 6: Ainsworth and Solmon’s different types of Attachment styles

Appendix 7: Karpman’s Drama Triangle

Appendix 8: Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development

Appendix 9: Vygotsky: Stages of Language development

Appendix 10: Montessori’s four Planes of Development

Appendix 11: Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development

Appendix 12: David Krathwohl Stages of Emotional Maturation

Appendix 13: Kellert’s maturation of children’s values of nature


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