How to manage challenging behaviour

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When a child engages in challenging behaviour which interferes with their own learning or that of their classmates, it must be managed accordingly. If left unchecked, it can deprive that child’s peers of the right to enjoy a safe and orderly learning environment. This is easier said than done, however! Especially when you consider that all children have differing attention spans, unique needs and may display different behaviours.

There is a whole spectrum of challenging behaviour, but this typically falls into 6 categories: 

1) aggressive behaviour – such as biting, kicking and scratching
2) destructive behaviour – including damage to toys and furniture
3) disruptive behaviour – which can include verbal abuse and non-co-operation with instructions
4) stereotypical behaviour – especially in children with learning disabilities or autistic spectrum disorders (repetitive vocalisations and ritualistic hand movements)
5) self-injury – including head banging, head punching, scratching and poking
6) withdrawn behaviour – a tendency for children to avoid the unfamiliar, either people, places, or situations.

A child’s behaviour can also be affected by not having enough sleep or food. They may be thirsty. So, by having good relationships with parents and finding out any factors which may affect a child’s behaviour, this helps you to support the child throughout the day. For example, you can have water out all through the day for the child to drink when they want to. If they have suffered from lack of sleep, they may need to have an hour’s nap or to do quiet activities such as reading, drawing or painting rather than being physical.

What causes challenging behaviour?

Challenging behaviour can have a root cause in a number of different areas and the more that is known about that cause, the easier it is to find a solution to it. Again, there are broadly 5 main causes for challenging behaviour: 

  • If a child is struggling to communicate their needs or wants to others, for example if they have a speech impediment or a learning disability, they may resort to inappropriate behaviour to express themselves.
  • Environmental factors such as certain noises, temperature and invasion of privacy/space may cause children to display challenging behaviour. This is often true of children who have autistic spectrum disorders.
  • Some children are seeking attention – it may be that they have resorted to this behaviour in the past to get what they want. Children may seek positive or negative attention, depending on learned patterns of behaviour.
  • There may be an underlying medical reason for some children’s behaviour, for instance, children with autistic spectrum disorders may perform repetitive or ritualistic behaviours such as ordering, arranging, counting, or touching/tapping.
  •  Some children who come from socio-economically deprived backgrounds may display challenging or anti-social behaviour as something which they have learnt from family members.

We interviewed Chantelle* and Amy*, who are both teaching assistants, to ask them how they deal with challenging behaviour. Amy works with children from 4-7 years old in an infant school and Chantelle with 6-8 year old children in a special needs school.

What kind of challenging behaviour do you encounter working with children?

Chantelle: “I encounter various challenging behaviours such as biting, hitting, scratching etc. Defying instructions, damaging/breaking property, head banging, refusal to walk or stand.”

Amy: “Low level behaviour such as talking whilst the teacher is talking or calling out without putting hand up, name calling or ignoring instructions. I also encounter higher level challenging behaviour such as walking out of class, running in corridors, throwing objects across the room, punching/kicking other children, swearing. This is extreme behaviour and is only actioned by a handful of children.”

 What strategies do you follow to manage this?

Chantelle: “We use strategies such as a daily schedule for each child – they thrive on structure. We make sure to get to know the children so we can identify and avoid ‘triggers’ of behaviour before it starts.”

 Amy: “For low level behaviour, we use a traffic light system where ‘red’ behaviour means the child will miss break time or be sent to speak to the head/deputy head teacher. For ‘orange’ behaviour, they get warnings, and reminded of expectations and good/bad choices.

“Strategies for dealing with higher level challenging behaviour will involve: individual behaviour plan detailing agreed strategies, building good relationships with the children, listening to them, getting other agencies involved and regular contact with parents.”

How do you cope with any negative emotions/stress as a result of the environment you work in?

Amy: “I ask for help from colleagues and transfer the child to another adult if things become too stressful. Also, I’d advise talking to your colleagues.”

Chantelle: “Working as a team is always much easier and effective. I talk through situations with my colleagues and remember that there will always be good and bad days.” 

When it comes to managing challenging behaviour, is there anything you should avoid?

Amy: “Avoid thinking that all children respond to the same sanctions or rewards. No one child is the same. Also to avoid thinking you know it all – children surprise you every day! Finally, I try not take a child’s behaviour personally, children respond differently to different adults.”

Chantelle: “Getting to know each individual child is the most important thing in my opinion. That way, you can identify and avoid triggers of challenging behaviour. You should also adapt your approach depending on which child you deal with. Some need talking to calmly, whilst others need a stern voice to get their attention. Working as a team is brilliant to find which approach works best.”

*not their real names for reasons of confidentiality

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