Challenging behaviours

Many children go through phases of challenging behaviour. Most move out of them as school staff help them settle into school routines. Some children though get stuck in patterns of challenging behaviour and struggle to develop strategies they can use to calm themselves down.

Behaviour is often how children communicate hidden difficulties or distress. It is therefore essential to understand what a child is attempting to tell you through their behaviour. Severe and persistent behavioural problems (usually known as conduct disorders) are our most common childhood mental health issue. When these behavioural problems start early (before secondary school), they are a marker for a range of poorer life chances.

Spotting the signs

A child with early, persistent and severe 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.

Find out more about challenging or worrying behaviour

MindEd is a free educational e-learning resource for professionals on children and young people’s mental health. The following session aims to help staff better understand severe behavioural problems in children:

Top Tips

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 rather than your emotions.

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.

Be alert and be curious about underlying emotions.

Offer support to help identify difficult feelings (anger, hurt, fear etc.) and teach alternative strategies to help children cope with these feelings.

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:

  • Many universal school programmes and targeted, small school groups can help primary school children settle their behaviour and even avoid behavioural problems. However, although these programmes have been proven to promote better behaviour in children, they tend to be licensed or involve some costs.
  • The licensed Incredible Years Classroom management system has been proven to promote a positive classroom culture and improve behaviour in the classroom. For this programme to work effectively and sustain improvements, however, it should ideally form an integral part of broader whole school leadership and wider activity to promote positive behaviour.
  • Safe secure and trusting relationships in the classroom promotes more positive pupil behaviours. Children are more likely to reach out to you if you connect with them on a daily basis in your school. Some children may need longer-term investment in building trusting relationships with school staff.
  • What works best for children with identified behavioural problems is skilling-up parents so that they use consistent proven approaches and techniques to help children settle their behaviour. Some schools commission parenting programmes directly; some may be available via local authorities. Effective help tends to come in the form of a licensed programme and needs schools to help parents engage and keep attending the programme. They include group programmes such as:

Often these resources are available in local areas but not always known to schools.

Where behavioural problems are longstanding, school staff should always talk to their special educational needs/pastoral/safeguarding leads and school nurses, for a more thorough assessment and to problem-solve how to help children.

  • MindEd is a free educational e-learning resource for professionals on children and young people’s mental health with a session on how to better understand behavioural problems and educational needs.
  • The Strength and Difficulties Questionnaire can be used to help parents and school staff to understand a child’s behaviour and assess if it’s something to be concerned about.  It can be completed by teachers and/or parents.

Encouraging parent engagement

Parents often feel blamed when school staff suggest they might participate in parenting programmes – so how you sell the programme to a parent is important, for example by emphasising: 

  • Every child is different.
  • No child comes with a manual.

Many children make most progress when parents learn and use particular techniques and approaches consistently. At primary school age, in most instances, these parental techniques are generally much more successful in helping children stabilise their behaviour than referring children on to one-to-one professional help.

Poor behaviour can also be a sign of other difficulties

Behaviour problems can be a sign of a range of other difficulties which may need more investigation, in partnership with special educational needs leads, CAMHS (Child & Adolescent Mental Health Services), safeguarding leads, learning disability teams, and educational psychologists.

For example, children may display challenging behaviour when they have a learning disability or difficulty. They may also have other difficulties such as attention deficit and hyperactivity or speech and communication issues. Children could also be struggling to cope with the after-effects of grief and/or trauma or with attachment difficulties.


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