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Understanding Challenging Behaviour

Updated: Oct 24, 2023

One of the most difficult things that teachers, teaching assistants and support staff need to overcome in the classroom is managing challenging behaviour. Not only can it be an obstacle to delivering amazing lessons, but challenging behaviour can also affect the productivity of the class as a whole.

All too often I have seen children who present with challenging behaviour labelled as 'naughty', 'doing it for attention' or 'just being annoying'. This is fundamentally wrong and usually ends up with children feeling worse, feeling excluded and has a huge impact on their mental, physical and social health.

All behaviour is a form of communication. Children do not just 'act out' because they want to. There is often a deeper rooted reason behind it and the behaviour may be the only way they see fit to express this to you. Therefore, you need to be able to understand the possible reasons behind challenging behaviour so that you can tailor your strategies to best support the needs of that child in that moment.

What are the possible causes of challenging behaviour?

1. Health

Imagine you have a really bad headache or stomach ache and you are being made to sit down and do maths work when all you want is a lie down and something soothing. Think if the child has any underlying medical conditions. Have you seen any other changes in their behaviour that may indicate they may be feeling unwell?

2. Behavioural Difficulties

Some learning, cognitive or emotional conditions can make it hard for children to understand, process and express themselves effectively. These conditions include ADHD, autism, and many SEMH needs. In addition, if children feel left out or are potentially being bullied due to their differences, this can make them feel worse, hence more challenging and frequent behaviours.

3. Change

We all process and manage change differently. Children with autism in particular have difficulty managing change, especially if it is unexpected. It is worth asking yourself if the child has been through any major changes in their life recently. Have they moved school? Have they experienced change at home, e.g. divorce, bereavement, new baby? Even small changes in the day could cause some children to behave differently, for example if their usual teacher/teaching assistant is absent, if transitions are distressing or if their favourite lessons/activity has to be cancelled for some reason.

4. Home Environment

Sadly not every child has a great home life. Many children grow up in dysfunctional households where shouting, arguing and hostility may be the norm. Additionally, if there are parental issues such as substance abuse, domestic abuse or mental health difficulties, then a child may use challenging behaviour as their outlet. A difficult home environment could also mean that the behaviours the child is displaying are learnt behaviours. If they 'act out' at home to get what they want, they may try to apply this in school too. See this blog for how to help children who have experienced trauma.

5. Boredom

This is why I used to act out in school! Whenever we are bored, we try to do anything to avoid doing the work we are meant to be completing. If a student is bored in class, they may start to display some challenging behaviour. Additionally, unrecognised talent can go unnoticed and also result in behaviour - students may struggle to stay on task if they are doing something far too easy or something that they already know how to do. If you have bright or talented students, ensure to challenge them.

6. Lack of Routine

Routines help us know what to expect of the day, what we need to do and it helps us feel more calm. If a child has a lack of a routine, either at home or at school, this can result in challenging behaviour. At home, if a child has late or no bedtime, insufficient sleep and lack of behavioural boundaries, it can be difficult for them to cope with the structure often provided in school. Likewise, at school, children need structure and routine. In most classrooms these days, you will see visual timetables which outlines each session in the day. It is good to keep referring back to this so that children are aware of what is yet to come.

Always ask "why?"

Whenever you encounter a child with challenging behaviour, always ask why they are behaving in a particular way in that given moment. The reasons could change from hour to hour, day to day. In that moment, they are trying to tell you something that they cannot express with words or any other 'typical' forms of communication. Take the time to listen, understand them, let them vent and keep in mind that this is not the time to negotiate.

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