Challenging behaviours

Persistently behaving in a challenging way is often how children communicate that something is wrong - or is a sign that they may be in distress.

Many children go through phases when they don't behave. Often this is nothing to worry about, and most children will move out of this phase as school staff and parents help them settle into school routines.

But some children get stuck in patterns of challenging behaviour and struggle to develop strategies they can use to calm themselves down.

This behaviour is more serious than a child being rebellious or mischievous, and is often a way for a child to communicate hidden difficulties, distress or trauma they may be experiencing.

When a child’s behavioural problem becomes severe and persistent they may be diagnosed with conduct disorder, which is a mental health condition. Conduct disorder can not only affect a child’s ability to function, but it can also cause distress to others.

It’s important for school staff to consider what a child is attempting to tell them through their behaviour.

Spotting the signs

A child with early, persistent behavioural problems may:

  • be argumentative, angry, uncooperative or irritable
  • have frequent tantrums and angry outbursts
  • be aggressive, provoke or bully others
  • be constantly defiant
  • blame others for things that go wrong
  • tell lies regularly
  • appear cruel and lack empathy for other children
  • seek out risky experiences without thinking about the consequences
  • as they get older, become involved in antisocial behaviour
  • be at risk of self-harm or suicide.

Conduct disorder

Around 5% of children aged five to 10 have conduct disorders.

These children tend to present with repetitive and persistent antisocial, aggressive and defiant behaviour - and are often drawn towards risky activities. They may also struggle to calm and soothe themselves when they are faced with day-to-day stresses.

Conduct disorder is the most common diagnosable mental health problem among children. Children as young as two can present with this; for children to be diagnosed, symptoms must be present for over six months.

It is also more likely for children with conduct disorders to have been exposed to other challenges early on in their life, including poverty, housing insecurity, parents with mental health problems, and development delays, including language difficulties, for example.

Persistent behavioural problems can have a big impact on a child’s life outcomes, especially if they emerge before secondary school years.

School exclusion

The most common reason for children being excluded from school, either permanently or for a fixed period of time, is for persistent disruptive behaviour.

Interventions to address persistent poor behaviour before it becomes entrenched are often not used early enough to prevent exclusion. It is important for school staff to understand what is likely to be driving poor behaviour in school, so that they can identify the best action to take.

Find out more about school exclusion.

Gang involvement

Children with severe and persistent behavioural problems are at a greater risk of getting involved, and staying, in gangs.

Boys from disadvantaged backgrounds are disproportionality affected. These children may also struggle with sleep or eating problems. They are also at greater risk of suicide or self-harm.

Find out more about gang involvement.

Top tips

Ask yourself what might be driving difficult behaviour

This will help you pinpoint the best solutions for stabilising a child’s behaviour (e.g parent support programmes, adjustments to the teaching environment, developing coping strategies etc).

Try not to take the behaviour personally

Many challenging behaviours are not about you. Understanding and accepting this may help you to focus on solutions.

Don't disregard how you feel

How you feel at the receiving end of a child’s behaviour can provide clues about how that child might be feeling, e.g. if you’re feeling overwhelmed, they may be feeling overwhelmed too.

What schools can do

There is good evidence that the right help offered at primary school stage can make a real difference, not just to children’s mental health and wellbeing but also to their life chances.  For example:

Schools should take a preventative and early intervention approach to supporting good behaviour. The Education Endowment Foundation has produced an example of an effective strategy for improving behaviour.

If behavioural problems are emerging, here are some things that schools can do to support these children:

  • consider using tools such as the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire to better understand underlying difficulties. This will tell you how severe a child’s difficulties might be, and can help determine whether a child needs a referral for further assessment by mental health or specialists in working with children with additional needs. You can use this tool in partnership with parents and carers as a joint problem-solving exercise. Any child at risk of being excluded should be screened to understand any hidden difficulties or special educational needs. 
  • explore with the pupil and their parents or carers whether behavioural problems may be linked to the child’s wider environment (e.g. friends, family, the area they live in or school life). Help children get extra support through school and community counselling or child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS)
  • where behaviour appears related to learning difficulties or disabilities, work with the additional needs co-ordinator and parents and carers to investigate further and to develop classroom management strategies and adjustments to the learning environment and process
  • help parents to link up with support programmes which can provide parents with strategies to support their child. Parenting strategies are often the most effective in helping children make progress when children are stuck in patterns of challenging behaviour.


Related resources

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Mental health and behaviour

Mental health and behaviour

Department for Education (DfE) guidance on supporting mental health and behaviour in schools.

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MindEd: should I be concerned?

MindEd is a free educational resource on children and young people's mental health for all adults.

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Coping with and managing anger

Coping with and managing anger

Video (2 mins) telling children’s stories of how they cope with and manage their anger.

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Ariana's story: being a bully

Ariana's story: being a bully

This animation explores why being undervalued at home drove Ariana to carry out bullying behaviour...

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