Challenging behaviour: help yourself and your pupils

Do you feel equipped to deal with increasingly challenging behaviour? Adele Bates suggests strategies and resources to help

Author details

Adele Bates is a teacher, speaker, writer and educator for students with emotional and behavioural difficulties. She is a TEDx Speaker 2020 and forthcoming author of Miss, I don’t give a sh*t with Sage publishing. With over 17 years’...

Since the start of the pandemic, schools I work with up and down the country have reported an increase in challenging behaviour situations.

The severity of the behaviour has increased (for example, Jo, who used to need a quick word to get refocused, has taken to leaving the classroom whenever she wants), along with the numbers of pupils displaying behaviour that’s challenging for staff (for example, it used to be 4-5 pupils across the school, but now it’s gone up to 10… or 20…).

There has been an increase in mental health disorders in children and young people since the pandemic

Of course, this is stretching us.

Most teachers received about half a day’s training on behaviour in their initial teacher training, which could have been 5, 10 or even 15 or more years ago. For teaching assistants and support staff, that training might be zero.

That’s zero hours training on supporting behaviour and building positive relationships for learning.

When we look at these stark numbers, it’s no wonder that many staff don’t feel equipped to deal with the issues arising.

Dealing with difficult circumstances

In my recent blog post, You’re not on your own, I note that there has been an increase in mental health disorders in children and young people since the pandemic.

According to an NHS survey, in 2017 one in nine (11.6%) 6- to 16-year-olds had probable mental health disorders, going up to one in six (17.4%) at the end of 2021. 

Ofsted has reported regressions of learning in pupils since the pandemic; young children who were previously potty trained have returned to nappies and older children have lost stamina with basics around reading and writing, and some have lost physical fitness.

Even better than calling for support in the moment is to have ongoing support, from many angles

I also know that teaching staff are doing their best level in the circumstances, because of course those mental health statistics are not solely for our pupils – as a profession (nation? Species?) we have experienced a global change in our wellbeing, mental state and our anxiety levels.

This affects how equipped we feel to deal with Sandra who refuses to obey the seating plan, and who is distracting Jahed – again.

First, take care of yourself

If we can’t hold a boundary for ourselves to eat lunch every day, how can we hold a boundary for a pupil who we know is on the verge of self-destruction? (page 9, Chapter 1, Miss, I don’t give a sh*t: Engaging with challenging behaviour in schools, A Bates, Sage & Corwin Press)

Which brings me to my first invitation:

1. Step away

We cannot find a more effective, positive solution to a problem whilst our body, biologically, is still telling us we are in the problem.

Before we can solve any difficult scenarios, we need to re-regulate ourselves.

  • Take two minutes to catch your breath. Check your heart rate, the depth of your breathing, the position of your shoulders and jaw.
  • Actually take the lunchbreak.
  • Make time to debrief a tricky lesson with a colleague.

These are the first quick steps to self-regulation but there are many more advocated by wellbeing practitioners in education.

I would particularly recommend looking at the work of Kimberley Evans at Nourish the Workplace and Maria Brosnan on her podcast The Pursuit of Wellbeing – both working specifically with school staff and their wellbeing.

2. Find support in the moment

In the heightened moment of tricky behaviour, when the pupil’s about to climb out of the window, when you’ve got bottom-set Year 10 on period 6 on a Friday… find support.

We all have our trigger points, we all have our weak spots where we are more likely to react – and escalate a situation quicker than it needs to. If you know what these are you can plan for it.

Even if no one else is available for that cover-lesson-with-36-pupils-teaching-geography-in-an-art-room-after-wet-play, then arrange that you spend the breaktime with your favourite colleague, or in the reception area where you know they always have biscuits.

3. Find ongoing support

Even better than calling for support in the moment is to have ongoing support, from many angles.

It’s all about being part of a team. Many teachers I interviewed for my book reported that the most challenging behaviour had not been their worst experience – the worst experiences were when they felt alone and unsupported with that behaviour.

We have to get behind the behaviour

One teacher said that, although she had worked in one of the most challenging schools behaviourally in the country, because the team around her were so good, she was able to do it.

By contrast, another mainstream school with few behaviour issues from the pupils became unbearable precisely because the culture of the school staff was not just unsupportive but actively shaming.

We need different ongoing support for behaviour in different ways:

In school Outside school
Professional advice Emotional support
Fun Fun people
Emotional support Spiritual and wellbeing support
Practical support Family or chosen family support
Tech support Support for particular physical or mental health issues
Sometimes distraction Additional support for challenging times


For more support

Many organisations support school staff professionally. I recommend these:

  • Education Support – UK charity providing mental health and wellbeing support.
  • The Teacher Empowerment Project – Supporting and inspiring teachers to take control of their careers.
  • WomenEd – Connecting aspiring and existing women leaders in global education.
  • BAMEed – A network for BAME educators to gain support and advice.
  • LGBTed – Empowering LGBT+ educators to be visible and supported
  • DisabilityEd UK – a network for disabled educators and school leaders, led by disabled educators.

Alongside this, teaching unions can provide a lot of support, legal advice and free CPD:

Supply teachers: Please note that you are able to access these support networks too, as some of the staff working in the most isolated settings it’s super important for you!

Delve deeper into the pupils’ behaviour to find long-term solutions

Back to the pupils.

No matter how high expectations are or how often the behaviour policy is restated, some pupils are unable for some reason to conform within school and access the learning.

Essentially, to be of help and to find sustainable ways to support these young people with the greatest needs, we have to get behind the behaviour.

What is the pupil communicating to us? What barriers are they facing that are blocking them from being able to concentrate in lesson, pick up a pen or even enter the school?

As the class teacher you may not have all the answers – that’s OK. This is where we go to the Team Around the Child, a concept used widely in alternative provisions and pupil referral units. It is a great practice that can be easily adapted to mainstream, and in some cases help prevent the exclusions that could be coming for a pupil.

Working together

There’s a huge list of possible professionals attached to a child’s learning, and for those with the most needs the list will increase. Here are some ideas:

  • key worker in school
  • a previous teacher or teacher in another subject
  • pupil premium lead
  • educational psychologist
  • doctors
  • first-language translator
  • parents or carers
  • social worker
  • family support worker.

Communicate, listen and learn from the other adults in a child’s life – talk to old teachers, the dinner lady they get on with really well, do a home visit.

By knowing what a barrier is for a young person who is causing the challenging behaviour, you are then able to start building strategies that overcome it.

Last Updated: 
23 Feb 2022