By Dr Robert Jackson and Catia Malaquias

This is Part A of the fifth article in a series of short articles aimed at providing practical tips for teachers to improve the inclusiveness of their general education classrooms.  You can read the other articles at SWJ IncludED and their respective titles and weblinks are also listed at the end of this article.


Teachers are, or become with experience, skilled socialisers of students. A regular teacher is given 20 to 30 or more individuals with a huge range in backgrounds – from nurtured to neglected, from language-fluent to less so, from locally-born and raised to recently arrived migrants and refugees.  In almost all cases, within a short period of time, the teacher has that diverse group of individuals working cooperatively.  The teacher has transformed them into a socialised and inter-connected group of students.

However, we also know that teachers will encounter students, both with and without disability, that exhibit behaviour that is seen as “challenging” – often in the sense that it is perceived as having a negative impact on the running of the classroom or on interactions within the classroom.

Many teachers are finding that for all students, traditional strategies around punishment and exclusion have limited or no beneficial effect, whilst raising significant social-emotional consequences (e.g. they can be stigmatising in the eyes of peers, decrease a student’s motivation and connection to the classroom and contribute to self-esteem and even trauma issues). If the application of the traditional strategy is perceived as unfair by the student then, together with the usual approach of increasing the severity of consequences over time, the result will often be spiralling anger and indignation in the student, without the real reason for the initial ‘challenging’ behaviour necessarily being identified and therefore addressed.  In addition, some traditional strategies now raise human rights concerns.

Generally speaking, most “strategies” that have been developed to address “challenging” student behaviour, are based on one of the following approaches to understanding behaviour:

  • the “internal approach”, which frames “behaviour” as being primarily caused by the student, reflective of an outdated “medical” perspective of disability that is entirely focussed on “treating” the “deficits” of the individual;
  • the “external approach”, which frames behaviour as being primarily caused by the environment (e.g. noise and light levels, how information is provided to a student, how education is delivered, including school structures, systems and culture); and
  • the “interactional approach”, which considers the interaction of both internal functional factors and external environmental factors as being primary in understanding how students behave.

The “interactional approach” reflects a more contemporary understanding of disability which is consistent with the human rights framework in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.  In this regard, the Preamble to the Convention describes disability as resulting from “the interaction between persons with impairments and attitudinal and environmental barriers that hinders their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others”.

While there are many reasons why a student may behave in a way that others will perceive as challenging, it is considered by many that at its essence all behaviour is a form of communication so the beginning of any behaviour support strategy should be the consideration of the reasons for and purpose of the student’s “challenging” behaviour. In considering both internal and external factors, a number of questions should be asked:

  • What is the student trying to communicate through their behaviour? When the first discrete opportunity presents itself, ask the student to explain “why” they acted in that way. Listen for clues in their response. Try to interpret the situation from their perspective.
  • What unmet functional needs of the student may be driving the behaviour? Consider frustration in communicating, lack of security or anxiousness, insufficient control in decision-making, lack of engagement and stimulation, a need for a sensory break, etc.
  • What environmental triggers in the classroom and school context may be contributing to or increasing that unmet need? For example, is the classroom environment further compromising the student’s communication skills, is the curriculum or nature of instruction inaccessible, is there conflict within or exclusion from the social landscape of the classroom or playground.
  • Is there a pattern in the timing of the behaviour? For example, does it seem connected to a particular seating arrangement, a particular lesson or transitioning back into the classroom after playtimes.

In essence, adopt a pro-active “problem solving” approach.

We should also keep relevant neuroscience in mind – that, broadly speaking, behaviour for all children matures over time from automated behaviour (deriving from the autonomic parts of the brain) to more self-controlled or deliberate behaviour (deriving from conscious control areas of the brain).  This developmental process of moving from minimal control of behaviour to comparatively full self-control typically takes around 25 years.  Of course, as with all human development, this varies enormously between individuals, but in all cases it involves a learning process.

Any strategy that is adopted should be clear on what we are aiming for in our teaching supporting students to learn and develop the skill to self-control their own behaviour, rather than for others to ‘manage’ or ‘control’, recognising though that encouraging that learning may involve some initial graduated support.

In this article, we explore some core concepts that have been identified and developed in over a century of research and are intended to help teachers to understand why a student may be behaving in a way that is challenging and to adopt appropriate strategies to support the student within a positive classroom environment.

  1. WE CHOOSE HOW TO INTERPRET BEHAVIOUR.  We can choose to look at what is often characterised as “challenging behaviour” in two basic ways: We can choose to interpret that behaviour as “naughty”, which suggests a negative “consequences” path to resolve it.  Alternatively, we can interpret it as the student not yet being in a position to produce the expected behaviour for the situation, including developing a more positive way to express unmet needs.  As teachers, clearly the second path is the choice that should be made.  If a student is not doing what the situation requires, provided the expectation itself is fair, then the starting point is that they may need to be supported to learn how to do it and that educative assistance is part of the teaching function.
  1. STUDENTS LEARN FASTER IN A POSITIVE SUPPORTIVE ENVIRONMENT THAN IN A NEGATIVE PUNITIVE ENVIRONMENT.  One strategy that many teachers have found to be very powerful at establishing a positive learning environment is the “4 to 1 rule.  For every negative consequence or criticism of an individual, they balance it with 4 positive consequences or statements.  By holding to this rule, teachers progressively reduce negativity and build a much more positive and supportive learning environment.  In very effective classrooms rates of 8 positive statements per minute have been recorded (with effectively zero challenging behaviour).
  1. STUDENTS, LIKE ALL PEOPLE, WANT TO BELONG.  Humans are highly social animals who need to ‘belong’.  They will tend to conform and will generally try to avoid doing things that will lead them to be singled out and excluded. However, the desire to belong can be over-shadowed if a student’s primary or ‘core’ needs are not being met.  This means that behavioural outcomes can be greatly developed and improved by a teacher who considers the student’s perspective in trying to identify and address unmet core needs of the student.
  1. TYPES OF CORE NEEDS.  All humans have some core needs that have to be met if they are to achieve a positive state of mind and be receptive in learning situations. William Glasser in his text ‘The Quality School Teacher: A Companion Volume to the Quality School’ (1998, Harper. NY) identifies the following core needs.

Survival needs. This can be as basic as need for food or as complex as the need for security.  A student who comes to school hungry or who is in a constant state of anxiety is not a student who is fully open to learning.  Emotions are closer to the surface and the threshold to trigger difficult behaviour is much lower.  Ensuring students are not hungry and actively trying to minimise anxiety or stress for individual students can have a major positive impact.

Love and belonging. A student who comes to school from a family where warmth is a rarity, or a student who is not included in the peer group are much more likely to respond emotionally when expectations are placed on them.  This is a common experience for children with a disability who can easily remain on the outer of the peer group socially and are at greater risk of being disconnected from the class environments. That can be as a result of how academic instruction is delivered unless there is proactive and assistive action taken by teachers to minimise this risk.  Students with gender identity-related issues or membership of a devalued cultural group are similarly at-risk.

To gain power. To lose control of one’s life and the power to direct it is a frightening idea for most of us. Most teachers try to ensure that students have some degree of power by giving them choices, listening to them in a collaborative way and avoiding being overly directive.  Unfortunately, students with a disability or others assumed as not having the capacity to make ‘good’ decisions can have most or all their decision-making power taken from them.  Appropriate control of decisions affecting the individual is a learning issue and needs to be incorporated into interactions with all students.  A student denied the capacity to exercise decision-making in legitimate contexts may seek to gain it through other means, such as through disruptive behaviour. For example, a student who is receiving a lot of “prompting” from adults throughout the day may feel that they have no control and may start to “push back” against this. In particular, push back against an over-supportive education assistant is not uncommon. Accordingly, building in greater “choice” and opportunities for independence in the classroom and playground may assist.

To be free. This is highly related to the need for power.  Freedom is the ability to choose from a range of options and not be constrained physically or emotionally.  Inevitably in a school situation there are limits on both freedom and choice but maximising these two areas can reduce the pressure and antagonism often underpinning behaviour that is seen as challenging.

Fun! All of us need to have some fun in our lives.  It is what makes living enjoyable and experiences memorable.  If a student feels that the whole school day is an experience of high anxiety and difficulty comprehending what is going on, the opportunity to spend some time in just pure fun activities can reduce pressure considerably.   Programming some fun into every day is likely to have benefits for all students, but particularly those who are struggling.

  1. BUILDING SELF-CONTROL.  A powerful way to teach self-control is to explain the choices available to the student and the consequences of them.  This is in effect mirroring life where some choices lead to positive outcomes and others lead to less positive or negative outcomes.  For example:

“If you choose to stay within the boundaries of the play area we will do a fun activity at the end of play time.  If you choose to leave the play area, then you will miss out on the activity”.

“What would be a good choice?” 

“Yes, staying in the play area.  So let’s see if you can make a good choice during play time.

Then, depending on the choice made, the consequences consistently follow, positive or negative.

“Great choice! I am so pleased that you made the choice to stay in the play area. So let’s go and do that activity”.


“Oh, I am disappointed that you made that choice, so I’m afraid you will have to miss out on the activity.  Never mind, I am sure that you will make a different choice next time.  What would have been a better choice?  Yes, staying in the play area”.

This is teaching the student that the outcome was a consequence of their choice.  It changes the dynamic from a power conflict, which will often occur with straight punitive approaches, to the student being encouraged to take responsibility for their actions.  It also allows intervention before a ‘bad choice’ as a way to support more positive decision making.  If Jane is heading for the boundary of the play area:

“Remember Jane, what would be a good choice here?” 

From a brain function perspective, this approach focusses on development of the frontal lobes, which are the decision-making parts of the brain, and tries to avoid engaging the emotional areas from which challenging behaviour is much more likely to stem.

  1. BE CONSISTENT.  Life is generally pretty disorganised but many students are able to work out the signals sufficiently to understand how it operates.  They will judge whether their teacher is in a good or bad mood; they will see and interpret body language and respond accordingly; they will learn to ‘keep their head down’ at some points in the day and be extremely helpful and constructive at other times.  However, for many other students the signals are way too complex or confusing.  Some students may have difficulty spotting or interpreting another’s body signals; they may be overwhelmed by noise and other stimuli in the classroom; they may not appreciate why certain behaviour is accepted by the teacher in one situation but the same behaviour results in ‘big trouble’ in another; they might not have the capacity to process complex instructions or follow multiple sequential instructions.  In all of these situations, the likelihood of the student becoming emotionally overwhelmed and just “reacting-out” can be quite high.

Most students and especially students with interpretative and processing difficulties will benefit from their teacher giving very clear, consistent and explained instructions well before action is required by the student – this maximises the probability of the student learning to respond in a more positive way.  Some of the research suggests that consistency is possibly the most important skill for a teacher to attain in order to produce a harmonious learning environment.  The classroom environment becomes more predictable for the students and accordingly stress and confusion are reduced as a reason for distraction from their learning.

  1. MINIMISE SOCIAL EXCLUSION AND STIGMATISATION.  When a particular strategy to assist a student is identified always consider whether the strategy would be of benefit to all or a number of your other students.  Singling out a student always has a social cost – applying a strategy to a number of students is socially-binding and inclusive.  For example, if a particular student would clearly benefit from a short break or a burst of physical activity, chances are that a number of students would similarly benefit in having the same short break.
  1. CONSULT WITH OTHER STAFF AND THE STUDENTS PARENTS.  There is a wealth of experience in the school staff room and parents have the greatest insight into their children.  Both are essential in developing a more collaborative and effective approach to problem solving and thereby maximising outcomes for your student.


For most students the basic principles discussed in this Part A will greatly assist in understanding and responding to challenging behaviour in a positive, supportive and educative way.  In Part B of this article we will consider some additional factors and approaches where a greater degree of understanding and skill is required by the teacher.


Other articles in this series:

Creating An Inclusive Class Culture – Practical Tips For Teachers (N.o1)

Supporting Peer Connection in the Inclusive Class – Practical Tips For Teachers (No.2)

Less Is More: The Education Assistant – Practical Tips For Teachers (No.3)

Getting the “Big Idea”: Including All Students in the Same Curriculum – Practical Tips for Teachers (No. 4 Part A)

Making the “Big Idea” Achievable: Including All students in the Same Curriculum – Practical tips for teachers (No. 4 Part B)

Presenting the “Big Idea” for All: Universal Design for Learning (UDL) – Practical tips for teachers (No. 4 Part C)

Summary of General Comment No 4 by the the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities:

UN Committee Clarifies Right to Inclusive Education.

*Dr Robert Jackson is an Associate Professor of Education at Curtin University in Western Australia, a registered Psychologist and a Director of Include.  You can connect with Dr Jackson on Twitter @include108 or through

*Catia Malaquias is a mother of three young children, a lawyer and the Founder of Starting With Julius.  You can connect with Catia on Twitter @CatiaMalaquias or on Facebook

[Cover photo © David Schap]

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