Managing challenging behaviour


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Understanding the communicative function of behaviour is an important issue in managing challenging pupils’ behaviours. The following is an adoption of the multi-element model based on the work of La Vigna and Willis (1995) and described in more detail in an article by Tim Cooke (2012). The core message is that challenging behaviour refers to a child`s attempt to communicate a need or solve a problem in an inappropriate, and often ineffective, way.

To understand what a child wants to communicate, it is helpful to formulate hypotheses about its message in order to address the problem. A next step involves making necessary modifications in the environment and of teaching in order to support the child in solving the problem appropriately. This interventional measure can include support finding alternative ways that either fulfil the same purpose or accept that the problem can’t be solved. If the pupil’s need is not addressed, it can lead to frustration and behaviour disorders.
Keeping accurate records regarding the instances of the challenging behaviour helps to identify consistent patterns and therefore consistent messages.

The multi-element model follows two main lines, which comprise different approaches based on the understanding of the communicated message expressed by the pupils’ challenging behaviour. The first line includes so called proactive approaches, which focus on the future impact of intervention by teaching new behaviour. The second one focuses on responsive strategies for dealing with present incidents. A comprehensive intervention should include both lines, according to proponents of the multi-element model.

The proactive approach follows the following strategies:

  • Adaption of the child’s environment according to its needs.
  • Support of acquisition of new skills, respectively helping the child to deal with situations by finding alternatives or accepting that needs are not met.
  • Reinforcement: Reinforce the understanding that the acquisition of new skills and changing behaviour are more difficult than staying by old habits. The intervention should make clear that it is more rewarding for the child to put effort into demonstrating the new skills.
  • Responsive strategies reflect the response behaviour of the teacher in case of challenging behaviour of the student. It is suggested to clarify the consequences of such behaviour in a situation when the pupil is calmed down instead of in the middle of a problem situation in order to prevent escalation.
According to this model, a comprehensive plan should include the following:
  • Understanding of the communicated message which is expressed by the child`s behaviour.
  • Adaptations to the environment in order to fit the needs of the concerned child.
Suggestions for strategies to apply in order to support the child in changing its behaviour can be:
  • Rewarding when the desired behaviour is shown or related efforts are made.
  • Prepared ways of response when challenging behaviour is shown.


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Title: Criteria of disruptive behaviour

Objective: To raise teachers’ awareness for identifying pupils’ change of behaviour

Contents: Certain behaviour of pupils can become “challenging”, if the following criteria are met:

  • Persistence: disruptive behaviour is repeating or even becomes persistent. For example, an isolated incident of calling out in lessons is not cause of concern but if a pupil shows this kind of behaviour persistently and it is not addressed, the disruption will have an impact on the classroom atmosphere and concentration of the whole group.
  • Severity: pupils` behaviour can be characterised as challenging, when situations are emotionally charged and threaten to escalate. These situations require immediate action of teachers, i.e. when violent behaviour occurs.
  • Unusual for the age/stage of the child: pupils` behaviour needs to be considered in the context of the age and stage of their development. For example, most children of elementary school age are able to sit still and quiet and concentrate on a task for a significantly longer period than younger children, who have a shorter concentration span.

In this activity, think of each one situation for every criterion, which you probably already experienced in your professional context.  Please describe them in form of a short story and reflect on the following points, which should be included in the text:

  • Who was involved?
  • What was the problem?
  • What kind of disruptive behaviour did the pupil show?
  • How would you interpret it?
  • How did you intervene?
  • Was this method was the right choice?
  • What you would do now, if a similar situation would occur?

Material: Paper, pens


Title: Create your own behavioural plan

Objective: To analyse challenging behaviour and apply appropriate coping strategy

Contents: In this activity, you are asked to draft a behavioural plan that can function as tool for you to use in class for pupils who show challenging behaviour. This behaviour plan is inspired by the multi-element model of communication. In a first step, take a piece of paper and a pen and draw a simple matrix with two rows and two columns. Above the table, indicate the target that should be reached. In the first row, indicate in the left column “environmental changes” which need to be made, and “new skills” which should be acquired in the right column. In the next row write “reinforcement” on the left and “reactive strategies” on the right. The structure should be comparable to the following illustrative example:

 Environmental changes

 New skills


Reactive strategies

This simple draft can support you as a tool for defining concrete actions on how to deal with individual challenging behaviour. Based on this draft, you are invited to develop it further and to create your personal “behavioural plan”. You are free to include any criteria that seem appropriate for you and your pupils and based on what you know from your professional experience. If you want inspiration, suggestion for criteria to be added could concern:

  • Progress documentation
  • Modification of target
  • “Best practices”
  • Inclusion of further actors like principal, parents etc.

Material: Paper, pens

 Case studies

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Description: In this exercise, the fictive case of a pupil with special health condition is described. The challenging behaviour comes from her classmates. You are asked to read the text and answer the questions.

The pupil named Mona is eight years old and has a condition that makes the bones in her legs grow differently. As a result, she moves slower than her classmates. These pretend that they would like to play with her, but then run away. Unable to catch up, she stays on her own. This happens mainly at lunch time and during the breaks. In practical activities of science class, the classmates indicate that they do not want to work with her or even come close to her. In sports, she is the last to be chosen at team games. Mona has sleep problems and no more joy at school attendance.

Reflecting questions:

  • Would you say that the classmates bully Mona? If so, in what kind of way?
  • If you were Mona’s teacher, would you intervene?
  • If yes. In which way? What intervention methods would you use?
  • How can awareness raised in class?
  • What can be done to integrate Mona and prevent her from becoming more depressed?