What is a “problem” or challenging behaviour?

A ‘problem’ behaviour is a particular behaviour, defined by its context, intensity, and frequency, which is expressed in an inappropriate social situation (Conway, 2005, p. 211).

While a student’s ‘problem’ behaviours may offend, annoy, or irritate their teachers and peers, they are rarely meant to be spiteful. Such behaviours are associated with poor social skills, and usually indicate an attempt to avoid work, seek attention, or communicate frustration (p. 211).

Is it fair to blame the ‘problem’ student for their behaviour?

Many teachers blame ‘problem’ behaviours on the student’s poor self-control and parenting, laziness, or their special needs ‘label’ (e.g. Autism, ADHD). Unfortunately, this attribution ignores the underlying causes and communicative purposeof the behaviour.

There are many factors which can contribute to ‘problem behaviours’, and very few lie with the student.

Causes/Triggers of Problem Behaviours

The Student

  • Frustration & anxiety – they may be unable to work independently, or may not understand the task.
  • Poor social skills
  • Underlying learning difficulties
  • Special needs (e.g. ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder)

The Home Environment

  • Unstable / dysfunctional family environment
  • Low socio-economic status
  • Family values and attitude to schooling
  • Lack of parental support
  • History of neglect or abuse
  • Culturally acceptable behaviours (e.g. attitudes towards women)

The Teacher

  • Negative attitude towards student’s behaviour
  • Inappropriate (unintentional) reinforcement of problem behaviours – providing negative attention, being drawn into power-struggles.
  • A classroom management style based on power and dominance, rather than relationships.

The School & Curriculum Environment

  • Boring and unstimulating classroom environment
  • Peer provocateurs (students who instigate / negatively respond to their peer’s problem behaviour)
  • Inappropriate level of curriculum difficulty
  • Lack of appropriate teaching and learning adjustments
  • Reliance on teacher-centred strategies – ‘chalk & talk’

(Conway, 2004, pp. 210-213)

Exploring the Purpose of a Student’s Challenging Behaviour

A student’s challenging behaviour is purposeful, and may fall into one/more of these categories – Power, Attention Seeking, Withdrawal (Assumed Disability), or Revenge/Anger.

When you understand the underlying purpose of the challenging behaviour, you are better able to respond to its underlying causes and incidence in the classroom/playground. This can prove invaluable knowledge.

For further information, I highly recommend reading the relevant chapter in Classroom Management: A Thinking & Caring Approach(Bennett, B. & Smilanich, P., 1994).

I also recommend the Quick Strategies notes on the Behaviour Needs websites, which provides a list of graduated responses to common misbehaviours (e.g. attention-seeking, confrontation, disruption). (http://www.behaviourneeds.com/quick-strategies/)


Summing Up:

Advice for Teachers on the Firing Line


As a relief or subsitute teacher, I know what is like to be on the ‘firing line’ – I’ve worked with a range of students exhibiting ‘problem’ or ‘challenging’ behaviours. I’ve been kicked, sworn at, received “attitude”, and dealt with my fair share of fights and runaways.

I’ve made my mistakes, but gee, I’ve learnt some fundamental lessons along the way.


To work effectively with challenging students, teachers need:

  1. To try and understand the causes, environmental triggers, and underlying purpose of the problem behaviour(s). (This is easier said than done)
  2. To identify appropriate proactive and reactive behaviour management strategies for the individual student.
    • Proactive strategies target the underlying causes of the ‘problem’ behaviour & promote social inclusion (e.g. high expectations, teaching social skills, dealing with peer provocateurs)
    • Reactive strategies guide the teacher’s graduated responses to the incidence of the problem behaviour (e.g. Time Out, Buddy Class, Loss of Reward Time)
  1. A commitment to building a positive teacher-student relationship; building trust and mutual respect, and working to engage the student in their learning. This may involve the formulation of an IEP / Behaviour Plan.

These fundamental lessons, drawn from university research and relief teaching experience, form the basis of my “Three Keys to Working with Challenging Students”, as outlined in my previous post.



Conway, R. (2005). ‘Encouraging positive interactions’. In P. Foreman (Ed.). Inclusion in Action, Melbourne: Thomson, [Chapter 6: pp. 210-251].

Keen D and Knox M. ‘Approach to challenging behaviour : a family affair’. [online]. Journal of Intellectual and Developmental Disability;.29(1), pp.52-64. Retrieved March 25, 2008, from http://search.informit.com.au/

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