Image of Challenging Behaviour in the Classroom: Why Is It Happening and How Should We Respond?

Challenging Behaviour in the Classroom: Why Is It Happening and How Should We Respond?

In this blog, Karl C. Pupé, specialist in behaviour management, award-winning author and experienced teacher, explains the context of challenging behaviour in the classroom, explores various behaviour management approaches, and offers some techniques which can help to diffuse confrontation and build rapport.

We are living in very challenging times.

Worldwide events are shaking our global societies to the core: the devastating fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns, major wars in Europe and the Middle East, the accelerating growth of AI, the cost-of-living crisis. We are witnessing unprecedented change in every part of human society – and there doesn’t seem to be any sign that it is slowing down soon.

As humble educators, we can’t stop the negative effects from crashing into our classrooms. These bewildering times have increased anxiety and uncertainty in our households, and negatively impacted our students’ behaviour, making classroom teaching harder than ever, no matter how many behaviour management strategies you employ.

Unfortunately, I don’t have answers to these global issues, but what I can certainly help you with is understanding:

  • why these behaviour challenges happen in the first place
  • how schools develop their behaviour management philosophies
  • give you some effective behaviour management techniques that you can use with students, no matter where you teach

What can cause behaviour issues in the first place?

According to recent statistics from Young Minds, a young people’s mental health charity based in the UK, one in six children aged 5 to 16 were identified as having a probable mental health problem in July 2021, a huge increase from one in nine in 20171. That’s five children in every classroom. Some commentators have stated that this may now be one in three in light of the recent global challenges we are all experiencing.

This is why understanding the emotional and mental ‘risk factors’ are so important, and why educators must try to become ‘trauma-informed practitioners.’ Research has shown that there are various reasons why a child’s development can disrupted or ‘arrested’ especially during their formative years in childhood.

For instance, some individuals might be more likely to experience these challenges due to their biology or genetics. Some researchers believe that between 20 – 60% of our personalities might be ‘pre-coded’ before birth2. This is especially important to understand if a child has come from a family with a history of mental illness.

Additionally, the quality of early relationships with caregivers in early life is crucial. If children don’t feel accepted, loved, or supported enough, it can devastate their emotional wellbeing. This behaviour might show up in the classroom through difficulties trusting others, aggressive outbursts, ‘zoning out’ or not attending lessons at all. Similarly, going through traumatic experiences like abuse, neglect, bullying, or feeling excluded can have significant effects on a child's emotional development.

Family dynamics also play a significant role. Conflict or instability at home can add to a child's emotional burden. Moreover, factors outside the family, such as school, friends, and the community contribute as well. By understanding these various factors, schools can create better behaviour management strategies to help support children to navigate their emotions and build resilience as they move through their school career. 

How do different schools implement their behaviour management policies

Now, it’s important to understand that all schools are different. Managing behaviour in a secondary school in inner-city London will look different to managing behaviour in a primary school in a small village in Devon. The school context will heavily influence how the behaviour policy is formed and implemented. In general, there are three types of whole-school behaviour management philosophies: 

  • Authoritarian approach: This approach emphasises strict rules and obedience to authority, with centralised control and strong consequences for misbehaviour. An advantage of this approach is that swift consequences for misbehaviour may deter students from more extreme behaviour. A disadvantage of this style is that it may ignore the root causes of poor behaviour such as trauma and, for some students (especially with SEMH), this could make their behaviour worse. 
  • Laissez-faire approach: This is known as the ‘hands- off’ approach. This style promotes having minimal rules and student autonomy, giving the students the freedom to express themselves and grow creatively. An advantage of this approach is that it helps students build their independence and fosters innovative teaching and learning practices. However, the lack of clear expectations and guidance may result in confusion or inconsistency in behaviour management. 
  • Parental approach: This promotes collaboration, positive relationships, and shared decision-making, with teachers acting as mentors to guide students towards responsible behaviour in a supportive environment. The obvious advantage of this approach is that forming strong classroom relationships increases rapport and trust, which reduces flashpoint situations and severe classroom disruption. But a disadvantage is that many schools don’t appreciate the amount of training and effort it takes to get staff confident enough to build relationships and apply the approach consistently across the board.

I am loathe to say that one style is better than the other. Some contexts may need special consideration, for example, working in the youth justice system or with children with severe special education needs (SEND). The key, like everything in life, is balance: a great school will have a mix of clearly structured rules, procedures, rewards and consequences as well as emphasising building strong classroom relationships and rapport.

Practical behaviour management tips that you can apply to any school environment

It’s essential to understand that, no matter the school context, there are some universal positive behaviour management strategies that you can employ.

It is my belief that you should deal with negative behaviour BEFORE it happens which means that, when you see its signs, you deal with it effectively and quickly before it becomes a flashpoint situation.

I will give you two incredibly easy techniques, that when practised, will stop 90% of flashpoints:

1) Mirroring - simply repeating a couple words that the other person has said, often as a question. The best words to pick are usually at the end of their sentence.

For example, if a student was disruptive and you asked him/her to go outside the class to have a chat and (s)he said, “I’m sick of this school and nobody understands me.”

You could say “You’re sick of this school?” OR “Nobody understands you?”

Mirroring does a couple of things:

  • It builds rapport 
  • It helps the other side connect to their thoughts better. This tells the other person that you are listening and makes them engage with their neocortex, the ‘thinking part of the brain”
  • It helps gather information – people tend to elaborate when they have been mirrored
  • When you combine it with inquisitive inflection, mirroring can be an effective means of quelling the often-reflexive hostility of confrontational people

2) Labelling – verbally acknowledging the other person’s emotions.

“It seems like you are really stressed at the moment.”

“It sounds like you are really angry with John.”

“It seems like you feel really sad.”

Brain scans have shown that the act of simply labelling emotions helps to soothe the amygdala which is the ‘emotional centre of the brain’. Labelling helps your student ‘zero in’ on how they feel and express emotions, helping to calm them down.

If you combine these two techniques with a soothing tone, you’ll find that, over time, your students will become less hostile and more conciliatory. These are also great techniques after an incident has taken place, and can be used in any restorative meetings with the student to prevent further incidents.

As I mentioned at the start of the blog, most students (and adults) are more anxious and dysregulated than ever before. ‘Traditional’ techniques of shouting, demanding, and demeaning your students will light up their nervous system and cause further confrontation. These techniques will help your behaviour management conversations in the classroom go much more smoothly.

The National College offers broad-ranging CPD to help educators manage behaviour, address flashpoints, prevent disruption, promote attendance and take a trauma-informed approach to supporting pupils in the classroom, as well as comprehensive resources to support pupils with SEND.

If you’re concerned about keeping up to date with the latest education policy, practice and research, consider a membership with The National College. Not only does it provide access to thousands of professional development resources for all staff, but also enables leaders to create training programmes precisely tailored to individual and collective needs, to help ensure compliance and drive up standards.