Challenging behaviours

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

Many children and young people go through phases when they challenge boundaries. Often this is nothing to worry about, and most students will move out of this phase given time.

However, some children and young people get stuck in patterns of challenging behaviour and struggle to develop strategies they can use to feel calmer.

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

When a child or young person’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 or young person’s ability to function, but it can also cause distress to others.

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

Identifying the signs

A child or young person with 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
  • struggle to manage the boundaries and rules within the school environment
  • find it difficult to maintain attention and concentration
  • 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 and young people aged 5 and 16 have a conduct disorder.

Conduct disorders are more common as children get older, and they are more common in boys than girls. 7% of boys and 3% of girls aged 5 to 10 have conduct disorders; in children aged 11 to 16 this rises to 8% of boys and 5% of girls.

Top tips

Ask yourself what might be driving difficult behaviour

Try to understand what the child or young person may be experiencing or struggling with. You may want to involve parents or carers to help you understand what may be going on.

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 pupil’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 and further education settings can do

Concerned about a child or young person?

If you are worried that a child or young person is at risk involve your designated safeguarding lead as a matter of priority who will contact the parents/carers and other services as necessary. If the child or young person is at immediate risk, ensure that they are taken to their GP or A&E as a matter of urgency, depending on the severity of the concern.

Find out more

Related resources

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Severe behavioural problems

Severe behavioural problems

Factsheet covering severe behavioural problems.

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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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