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Meeting the Unmet Needs of Children with Challenging Behaviour

Updated: Nov 13, 2023

Most children follow rules, but every teacher will have experienced having children with challenging behaviour in their classroom. And, honestly, these children are easy to dislike. They can be disruptive, challenge our authority as teachers and disobey us. It can cause anxiety in the classroom and disrupt learning for everyone. They can make us feel out of control, as if we are failing and are incompetent, and behaviour is one of the biggest reasons as to why many teachers leave the profession all together. In fact, 44% of England's state-school teachers plan to quit by 2027 (half of those plan to leave in 2 years).

However, that feeling of helplessness, out of control, and failure is what these children feel every day.

A child's real needs often lie beneath behaviour and too often they go unseen, unheard and unmet. Children who display challenging behaviour are the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children in our society, and the smallest of interventions with these children can transform their lives.

All too often, mainstream schools cannot cope or manage children with challenging behaviour, and within the last few years, there has been a 40% increase in permanent exclusions. New analysis of those reaching the end of Key Stage 4 in 2015/16 shows just 7% of children who were permanently excluded and 18% of children who received multiple fixed period exclusions went on to achieve good passes in English and maths GCSEs, qualifications that are essential to succeeding in adult life.

Children who receive exclusions are also more likely to;

  • Live in poverty

  • Experience abuse/neglect

  • 7 times more likely to have SEND

  • 50% have some form of mental health condition

Excluded children also make up approximately 60% of young offenders or prison populations in the UK.

Fundamental Human Needs

Everyone is different but our fundamental human needs are the same and the need for human connection is the most important to ensure secure, emotional well-being and emotional/behavioural regulation. When human connections unravel, so too does our ability to cope with everyday life. Children who are 'misbehaving' or being challenging simply aren't coping with the stresses of day-to-day life and simply don't know how to express this.

Children with challenging behaviour often feel as if they've had that disconnect of human connection; they've lost their faith in adults and sense of security. Adults haven't been there for them when they needed them most, so why would they trust anyone to help them now?

Does Zero Tolerance Work?

The psychologist Richard Nisbett recommends that we “should pay more attention to context”. He continues: “This will improve the odds that we’ll correctly identify situational factors that are influencing our behaviour and that of others ... we should realise that situational factors usually influence our behaviour and that of others more than they seem to, whereas dispositional factors are usually less influential than they seem.”

Zero-tolerance or no excuses policies are inflexible by definition and, as such, cannot allow for context, such as when a child with sensory integration difficulties cannot bear to have their top button done up or a child with autism who may struggle to maintain the eye contact that you may insist upon.

What Can We Do?

Mainstream staff can learn a lot from the expertise, experiences and techniques used by AP (Alternative Provision), SEMH (Social, Emotional and Mental Health) or PRU (Pupil Referral Unit) teachers and support staff.

From having worked in AP's/PRU's, the overwhelming finding has been that without a significant relationship with students, you can't achieve anything. As mentioned before, students have a mistrust of adults from the get go, their guard is up. They won't like you or respect you, or do as they're told simply because you are the adult in the room. You need to earn their trust and prove yourself worthy to them.

Children with challenging behaviour often follow people first and rules second. For example, if they like you, they'll trust you, if they trust you, they feel safe/relaxed, and in this state they're more likely to follow rules and learn.

Take a moment to understand what your young people consider to be a great teacher. Some pupils at a PRU described their ideal teacher as;

“Someone who's strict but you can still have a laugh with.”
"Interested in genuinely getting to know you.”
“One you can have a proper bond with”

Shift in Thinking

Instead of trying to simply "manage" these children and palm them off to someone else via exclusions or detentions, we need to take a greater collective responsibility for these children. The current academic and educational environment does little to encourage or facilitate this. Schools are primarily rewarded based on academic achievement and some are encouraged to exclude pupils who are too challenging. NQT's/ECT's often report feeling unprepared for how to teach children with challenging behaviour.

What Can Teachers Do?

Instead of worrying about large intervention programmes and school-wide programmes (though these are important too), think about starting small. It's the small daily acts of care, daily interest in children's lives that can have a the biggest impact. If children believe that you are taking a genuine interest in them and their interests, that bond will former quicker, they'll begin to trust you and eventually follow your lead. You shouldn't underestimate the ripple effect of one good positive teacher/pupil relationship.

If we want children with challenging behaviour to improve their behaviour, we have to teach them explicitly and not just expect them to "get it". We need to take a restorative approach to behaviour, reinforce relationships and explicitly teach them skills such as;

  • develop empathy

  • reflecting on consequences

  • conscientiousness

The current system of issuing detentions, time out, exclusions and isolations do not do this. Evidence shows that these sanctions do not work with children with challenging behaviour and one Headteacher said "Fixed term exclusions are inaction masquerading as action." They can make us feel like we are doing something to help these children, when in fact we are not.

New Way Forward

We can do something to help the outcomes of the most vulnerable young people in our schools. By collaborating, sharing expertise and collectively supporting each other to support these children, we can meet those previously unmet needs.

We need to start questioning and challenging a culture that ignores these children - how is this right? Children with challenging behaviour are just that...children. They are doing their best to cope with life without any of the skills we develop as adults. By taking the time to understand them as human beings, we can rebuild their trust in adults and help them develop the skills to be successful as young adults.

Further Reading;

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