Preventing difficult behaviour

Why do pupils behave as they do?

To prevent, or at least minimise, the impact of challenging behaviour on schools’ staff and pupils, we need to understand why pupils behave as they do. The reasons why pupils may ‘kick against’ the school fall roughly into two broad areas. One set of reasons may relate to experiences or circumstances outside of school and the others are school based. In many scenarios, difficult behaviour may arise from a powerful and damaging interaction between these factors.

External factors

Circumstances which pupils bring to school can include situations within the family, including abuse, domestic abuse, bereavement and poverty. Some may also mix with peers or gangs who are negative influences and become the victims of child criminal exploitation or child sexual exploitation. Regular safeguarding training on the signs of abuse and updates on the context of the school and its catchment will ensure that everyone is alert to these factors. Pupils may also have unmet medical or special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), including autistic spectrum conditions, ADHD or unmet mental health needs, such as anger, anxiety and a sense of hopelessness. At the extreme end of difficult behaviour, according to the magazine Children and Young People Now (November 2016), there are clear links between SEND and offending, with 18% of those in young offenders’ institutions in 2016 having had a statement of SEND. The article attributes this to system failure and, of course, it does not take into account those with SEND who did not meet the criteria for statutory assessment.

Internal factors

Factors within the school are commonly linked to unmet learning needs: the work is too challenging or not challenging or engaging enough. This often leads to low-level disruption which can then escalate if not addressed promptly. Some pupils may have difficulties forming relationships in school, most commonly with their peers, if they feel bullied or taunted. Sometimes too, relationships with adults may prove difficult, because the pupil feels treated, or is treated, unjustly, perhaps because their reputation goes before them.

The impact of Covid

Many schools report that the Covid pandemic has had a damaging effect on pupils’ well-being and behaviour. Some have struggled to settle again after periods of interrupted schooling, remote learning or being in ‘bubbles’. Pupils may still experience anxiety, and some will have experienced loss of people close to them. All of this can have an impact on behaviour in school.

Trauma informed practice

Trauma Informed Practice aims to improve health and well-being for those who have suffered trauma, abuse, neglect and mental health or attachment difficulties. They state that we ‘need to catch these children as they are falling, not after they have fallen’. Trauma Informed Schools, according to Young Minds, are underpinned by six principles: Prepared, Aware, Flexible, Safe and Responsible, Collaborative and Enhancing, and Integrated.

1.      Prepared

So, what does the prepared school do? There will be well trained staff to whom pupils can go. Strong communication among staff and with pupils will publicise who these people are and what pupils might expect from them. This will include clarity about how concerns will be addressed and will promote positive behaviour rather than a punitive response.

2.      Aware, Safe, Responsible

Aware means that the school knows its pupils and the particular circumstances and contexts they face. There will be a close analysis of the context and of particular behaviours, which will be used to inform practice. Regular pupil voice activities which include pupils with SEND and challenging behaviour will be one of the most effective ways of finding out how school life feels for these pupils. This then allows the school to make adjustments accordingly. This will help pupils to feel safe and show pupils that staff and pupils are responsible in their actions. Pupils need to know that any concerns they raise will be taken seriously and that leaders will act on their findings. Sometimes pupils do not express their worries because they believe that there is nothing anyone can do to change the situation. Actions might include an enhanced senior staff presence in some of the areas of the school that the pupils find difficult or where they feel unsafe. It might also mean adjustments to the curriculum to ensure that current issues and concerns both within and outside of school are addressed.

3.    Flexible

A flexible response is a personalised response which recognises individual needs and responds to them accordingly. For example, it understands that some pupils may be restless if they are worried about something at home, have not taken prescribed medicines or if they need to use the toilet more often than most.

4.    Collaborative and enhancing

Collaborative and enhancing ensures that staff work well together to develop and teach a rich curriculum across the different subjects. This needs to meet the full range of needs and enable all to achieve well and to be engaged and enthused. Many children and young people whose behaviour is challenging, struggle initially to sit still and listen and they may not have the physical stamina to write continuously or at great length from the start, so learning needs to be chunked and to include practical and active elements. This also means that the school will use various techniques to secure access for all, such as scaffolding. Modelling to pupils in lessons of what is required in learning is a key part. It also necessitates modelling by adults of high standards of responsible behaviour and of how to treat other people – very definitely acting and speaking with courtesy, care and respect.

Some pupils will also benefit from incentives or rewards to behave well, at least when the desirable behaviours are emerging. In the longer term, when the learning becomes intrinsically rewarding, there will be less need for incentives. It is key to praise and reward those pupils who are always good as well as those whose behaviour improves.

5.    Integrated

An integrated response involves systems and processes which talk to one another. For example, behaviour, curriculum and teaching are intrinsically linked. Pastoral leaders and leaders of teaching and learning should work closely together to meet and understand pupils’ needs. Similarly, leaders recognise the close relationship between SEND and behaviour. They understand that social, emotional and mental health needs, which can give rise to unacceptable behaviour, are a special educational need.


In order to prevent difficult and challenging behaviour, nine actions are suggested for schools to consider:

  1. Develop a whole school ethos and training to support this, which involves all staff and pupils, in order to promote and emphasise good behaviour and to make clear the behaviour that is unacceptable.
  2. Hold regular pupil voice activities so that ALL pupils’ perceptions of school life are taken into account.
  3. Give meaningful responsibilities to all pupils, including those who might be seen as challenging.
  4. Model behaviour and relationships that you want the pupils to adopt.
  5. Make sure that all staff who are likely to encounter the pupils know them, understand their lives and circumstances, and respond to them as individuals.
  6. Ensure that teaching is clear and provides just the right degree of challenge.
  7. Provide a curriculum which is engaging and which the pupils perceive as relevant.
  8. Monitor the use and effectiveness of different sanctions to see where problems might lie and if there are repeat offenders.
  9. Make sure that staff know where the difficult locations are in the school and in its immediate environment, and ensure that these are supervised regularly.


Should you have concerns regarding pupil behaviour and require support to implement the measures indicated in this blog, we are here to provide the extra support and guidance that you need.  You can contact us any time.


References Links between SEND and offending, November 2016, Smithson H and Runswick-Cole K, Children and Young People Now, Mark Allen Group


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