Supporting Challenging Behaviour: Top 5 tips from an Educational Psychologist

Supporting Challenging Behaviour: Top 5 tips from an Educational Psychologist

Lloyd Chilcott
by Lloyd Chilcott
Published on Apr 15, 2024
0 min read

Challenging behaviour may be the biggest challenge in our schools. Here is how to get things back on track.

As an Educational Psychologist, I often work with teachers and parents on supporting challenging behaviour in children and young people. Challenging behaviour can take many forms, such as physical and verbal reactions, disruption or withdrawal. It can have a negative impact on the child's learning, wellbeing, and relationships, as well as on the adults who care for them.

So how can we support challenging behaviour in a positive and effective way? Here are my top five recommendations from my practice:

1. Investigate the behaviour from the child’s perspective

Challenging behaviour communicates an unmet need or emotion. For example, a child may act out because they are trying to solve a problem, communicate a message or protect their needs. By identifying the underlying cause of the behaviour, we can address it more appropriately and empathetically.

Let’s get inquisitive next time we have a challenging behaviour.

- What was going on before an event?

- What was the outcome of the behaviour?

- What need did the behaviour achieve? For example, belonging, connection, calm and safety?

- Does this behaviour fit a pattern?

- If the child could calmly talk, instead of using the behaviour, what would they say?

2. Learn from the child

The child is most often the expert on what is going on, so let’s talk to them. Start conversations non-judgmentally, reflecting on their difficulties during a calm and positive interaction.

“I noticed you have difficulty leaving your morning drawing activity. What’s up?”

Use reflection and clarifying statements to build your understanding.

“Can you say more about that?”

Ask about who, what, where and when about the unsolved problem. If needed, make suggestions to help the young person reflect on the difficulty.

“I wonder if you find it tricky when you haven’t finished your picture?”

This conversation will provide the basis for solving the problem together.

3. Find solutions together

Work together to identify the unsolved problems. Consider the expectations that the child is having difficulty meeting. For example, “difficulty walking to maths from the end of the drawing activity”. Once you have your list, prioritise which difficulties to tackle first. Focus first on the difficulties that keep the child and others safe.

Once you have a priority problem, work with the key people, including the child, to see if there is another way to solve the problem which does not rely on the child’s current behaviour. Consider:

- Learning and curriculum expectations

- Supporting materials

- Personal, social elements

- Choice and structure

- Key relationships, both with adults and children

4. Teach skills and problem-solving strategies

We understand that if there is a skill missing in a child’s learning, such as times tables or spelling, we provide teaching opportunities to develop the skill. Let’s do the same for behaviour. When we have noticed they are encountering a difficulty or have a lagging skill, let’s provide them with skill-building opportunities.

- Dedicated teaching opportunities (e.g., 10 minutes in the afternoon role-playing the skill alongside an adult)

- Process feedback. Give clear, regular, positive feedback on the desired skills. Focus on what is going right, rather than what is going wrong.

- Start small. Set the child up for success with achievable aims and objectives. If it’s not working, it’s time for a change.

5. Support the adults around the child

Supporting challenging behaviour can be stressful and exhausting for both the child and the adult. It is important to recognise when we need help and to seek it from others who can offer advice, guidance, or practical assistance. This could be a colleague, a friend, a family member, or a professional. By taking care of ourselves and our own wellbeing, we can better support children and young people.

In conclusion, supporting challenging behaviour requires patience, empathy, consistency, and collaboration with others. By understanding the underlying causes of behaviour and using positive strategies to address it, we can create a more supportive environment for children to thrive.