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Conduct Disorder in Children: An Overview

Updated: Aug 23, 2022

Whether you have taught in mainstream schools, SEN/SEMH Schools or Alternative Provisions, you will have no doubt come across children who display some form of challenging behaviour. A possible explanation for these behaviours could be Conduct Disorders.

Conduct disorders are a pattern of persistent, repetitive antisocial,. aggressive or defiant behaviour that are beyond what you would typically observe in a child at their age. An example of a conduct disorder is Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Conduct Disorders are one of the most common mental health conditions in children, according for approximately 5%. It is far more prevalent in boys than girls.

Signs & Behaviours

Children with conduct disorder have a difficult time following rules and behaving in a socially acceptable way. Their behaviour can be hostile and sometimes physically violent.

There is a key distinction between socialised conduct disorder and unsocialised conduct disorder. In the former, children can still maintain good peer and social relationships despite their behaviours, and may even engage in the disruptive behaviours with other children. Unsocialised conduct disorder, however, is when a child is not great at social interactions and is typically more solitary.

In their early years, children may show aggressive behaviours such as pushing, hitting, or biting others. As children get older and enter adolescence, these behaviours may escalate into bullying, physical fights, theft, and vandalism. In extreme cases, some young people with Conduct Disorders may engage in animal abuse and arson.

Children with conduct disorder are also more likely to have comorbid disorders, such as ADHD, anxiety disorders or even depressive disorders. Often, the mental health disorders can go undiagnosed for a long time as the behavioural needs can mask any underlying emotional or mental health needs.

Also note that any behaviours you see in school may not be present at home or with other people that are key in the child's life. This can result in difficult conversations with parents/carers who may not understand if or why you are having difficulties with their child in school if they are well-behaved at home.


Many factors seem to contribute to conduct disorder. Research has found that children and teens with conduct disorder seem to have an impairment in the frontal lobe of the brain which interferes with their ability to plan, avoid harm, and learn from negative experiences. This does mean that typical behaviour management strategies may not be that effective with children with conduct disorder.

Some of the possible causes of conduct disorder include;

  • inconsistent and/or harsh parenting

  • conflict at home or exposure to violence

  • experiencing abuse, neglect or parental rejection

  • exposure to substance misuse

  • living in poverty

  • parental psychopathology

  • being involved with child protective services

Just remember that if a child has one or more of these in their lives, it does not mean for sure that they will develop conduct disorder but they will need some additional support. See this blog on how to support students with trauma.

Effects on Life

Now that we understand why children may have gone on to develop a conduct disorder, we can see that any one of the causes could create life-altering effects on a child. If we now combine the underlying causes with the behaviour a child may display, the possible impacts on their life are extensive.

Short-term effects;

  • elevated stress within the family

  • impaired peer relationships

  • decline in academic and school performance

  • impact on self-esteem and mental health

Long-term effects;

  • difficulty hold down a steady job

  • future poor family relationships

  • likelihood to engage in criminal activity

  • severe mental health problems

As educators, we can try to intervene as early as we can to hopefully prevent any of these effects impacting a child's life too much, and we can also help them in gaining access to further support outside the classroom.

We also have to be aware of our own biases. As humans, we can tend to focus and draw attention to negative behaviours more often than positive ones. Children want attention from adults, so if they know that acting out or being disruptive will get them attention, chances are they will keep repeating those behaviours.

If a child's behaviour is really quite different to their usual behaviour or to those of their peers, it could be just a brief phase they are going through as they mature. However, if you start to see consistent patterns of disruptive or challenging behaviour, consult your SENCO and create a plan of support for that child as best you can.

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