4 Reasons for Challenging Behaviour

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What are the most-common reasons for challenging behaviour?


In an educational setting behaviour might be defined as ‘challenging’ for many reasons. Therefore it is important that every school has a definition of the type of behaviour that it considers to be challenging so that it can be communicated to learners, teachers and parents.

When challenging behaviour does occur, the school-specific definition can be used to offer support to the learner, but it must also be used to offer support for the teacher too.

The needs of teachers who are dealing with challenging behaviour must not be overlooked.

I assume that such definitions are likely to focus on ‘acting-out’ behaviours, but I would urge schools to consider the more passive and withdrawn ‘acting-in’ behaviours too.


Because all behaviour is communication and challenging behaviour requires an understanding of its underlying communication in order to create successful support and intervention for all.

shutterstock_390670672 Hipster girl in checked shirt showing tongue with piercing over yellow background. Impertinent behaviour. Hipsters. Provocation. Aggression. Naughtiness.

Image: Shutterstock

All behaviour is communication:

If we start from the premise that all behaviour is communication, then we must accept that challenging behaviour has a function for every person and the person’s behaviour is communicating that function. The function may not be obvious as it can be driven consciously or unconsciously.

Lets consider 4 overarching reasons why people behave in a challenging way, so that you have something inside your head that can help when you or your school encounters it and decides how to respond.

The function of the behaviour might relate to one of these four reasons, but it is also possible that the function of the behaviour could lie in varying combinations of the four. Understanding the function, the drivers of behaviour, can be very helpful when trying to determine the thinking and emotions that the behaviour is communicating. It also helps you to support the person in making a change. Here are the four reasons, discussed in more depth in my new book Inner Story.

1. Give me some attention:

People may behave in a challenging way to communicate a need for attention, whatever that attention may look like. For some it does not matter if the attention they receive is positive or negative, as long as they are gaining attention of some description.

Young children may display challenging behaviour that is attention-seeking behaviour and on occasions they do not even need to be provoked in order to do so. For example, they can behave in an aggressive way even when they are not angry or emotionally distressed, because the function of the behaviour is to gain attention. The function is not to gain revenge or to release their anger or frustration. Attention is usually the assumed reason for certain types of challenging behaviour, but there are times when attention may not be a factor at all.

2. Get me out of here!

Challenging behaviour might communicate a need to escape from a situation that a person does not want to be in. In this context, a person may behave in a subtle manner to achieve their goal or – due to the lack of repertoire in their emotional skill set – apply less sophisticated responses to help them achieve the same outcome.

Young people who find some aspects of learning difficult may behave in a way that disrupts the learning of others in order to be removed from the classroom by their teacher. It might be because the work reinforces negative aspects of their Inner Story. It is not uncommon for a challenging task to prompt challenging behaviour. Their only option may be to regress and revert to what worked for them when they were younger, in the hope that it will work for them now.

In such situations, a teacher has to model the behaviour that they want because the regressive challenging behaviour of a learner will not diminish when it is met by the regressive challenging behaviour of a teacher.

shutterstock_219179596 Closeup portrait, headshot angry, upset, hostile, furious teenager girl yelling, screaming, hands to mouth isolated grey wall background. Negative human emotions, facial expression reaction attitude

Image: Shutterstock

3. It feels good:

Challenging behaviour may also have a sensory function. Some young people behave in a challenging way because for them, it just feels good to do so. Their behaviour might communicate a need to have some power because exercising power makes them feel empowered; it establishes a sense of control.

This is especially relevant for those who feel an unrelenting sense of powerlessness as individuals within the systems that they exist in. For some learners, the sensory function can create behaviour that feels so good when it is happening that, in the moment, the learner will have no concern about the consequences that will follow.

Perhaps a less obvious example relates to how self-injurious behaviour can feel good. But this is so. Self-harming can be driven by a sensory need. Although it may be difficult for non self-harmers to understand, in the mind of the person who is involved in self-harming, it can feel empowering – especially at the time that it is happening. It can also provide other sensory functions such as relief. It can feel relieving as the physical pain momentarily removes the person’s emotional pain.

4. Give me a reward:

Challenging behaviour might communicate a desire for a tangible reward. The young child screaming in the back seat of the car may not be doing so to gain the attention of their parents at all. The child may have learned that if they persistently scream they will eventually get their favourite toy to play with or a favourite sweet to eat because their parents cannot bear the noise and need it to stop. The child learns that challenging behaviour can be rewarded and the function of the behaviour is reinforced. The parents may find a short-term solution but they are setting up a longer-term problem.

If you are a teacher who is dealing with challenging behaviour it is always useful to ask, “Is my response to the behaviour rewarding or maintaining the behaviour in any way?”

Finally, a person’s challenging behaviour may be challenging for others to manage but it is worth keeping in mind that the behaviour may also be challenging for the person to manage too.

We cannot assume that the function of any behaviour is always consciously driven. Young people who find it difficult to self-regulate may find controlling unconsciously driven impulses is one of their greatest challenges.

If you would like to read more about why we behave the way we do and how you can respond to challenging behaviour, you can do so by clicking the book image.

Written by Dr. Tim O’Brien for Teacher Toolkit.

Tim is a former lecturer in Psychology and Human Development at Institute of Education. 

You can follow Tim on Twitter at @doctob.

Dr Tim O Brien @DocTob Inner Story


13 thoughts on “4 Reasons for Challenging Behaviour

  1. I am pleased to see that behaviour is being viewed as a form of “communication”. Often this is forgotten in schools and is seen as a challenge. William Glasser said all we do is behave and I believe we use those behaviours that we are familiar with (have learnt from others) and those that have been successful (discuss successful!) for us in the past. The four areas I like to focus on that form our needs from a teaching point of view and can easily be remembered through my simple mnemonic are: Power, Belonging, Choice and Fun. PBCF, or Please Be Child Friendly. Making sure we meet these needs for engagement can significantly reduce both non compliant behaviour as well as unmask compliant non learning behaviour.

    For more on compliance being a learning disability see my article: http://wp.me/p2LphS-kd

    For more on PBCF the link is: http://wp.me/p2LphS-4

    1. Thanks for your comments. I agree with your point about engagement. Relationships are critical. I shall read your article

  2. Does he cover attachment disorder and controlling behaviour (i.e. responses to attachment developmentally and trauma in children – particularly those in care or SEMH)? If so, it looks pretty well thought through and could be a very useful little book particularly for NQT’s.

    1. Thanks for your query. The book is not solely about children and nor is it directly aimed at teachers – although people who work in the area of trauma such as Mike Armiger are using parts of the book in courses relating to trauma I would say that if you are searching for a book about attachment and trauma then Inner Story is not the book for you. I do suggest intervention methods in terms of responding to challenging behaviour – methods that worked when, many years ago, I was appointed to help turn around a special school that was in special measures. They are respectful techniques and they work with children and adults. i also ankle the issue of why we all behave the way we do.

      In relation to NQTs, I have had feedback from NQts who have found aspects of the Inner Story useful – particularly the first 4 chapters.

      If you would like to see two teacher reviews of the book please look at the reviews of @Ezzy_Moon and @Lenabellina (neither of whom I know. Search the hashtag #InnerStory


  3. Thanks for taking to time to make a comment.

    First of all, this is a blog and therefore written in a undifferentiated style aimed at a broad range of access. Clearly you think it is ‘glaringly simplistic’.

    If it is helpful please read some of my more academic writing about behaviour from the days when I lectured at The Institute. This is more about the complex relationship between curriculum, pedagogy, behaviour and the intersubjective nature of participation in learning.

    Admittedly, these were written a long time ago but it will give you a sense of the framework from which the intended functional analysis in the blog emerges.

    I left the field of education years ago (taught in mainstream and special education and then became a lecturer) but I would be interested in what people who are currently teachers think about the assumption you make that “boring lessons drive much maligned behaviour to begin with”


  4. Hi Tim
    I hope that your other writings are indeed more insightful into the causes of behaviour in students. The point i make however doesn’t need me to venture into that space, as i am referring to the article that was published via Teacher Toolkit’s twitter, a medium potentially reaching thousands of educators. Let’s look at the very 1st and therefore most imperative cause of poor behaviour cited: the wanting of attention. The fact is that if a student presents behaviour that can be characterised by such a despairing fact, the teacher needs to be extremely skilful in communicating empathy, as opposed to reducing such behaviour to a manipulative effort by the student. As soon as the teacher entertains such a negative and pessimistic understanding of student motivation, the slope is indeed very slippery, and pragmatically, incredibly ineffective in adjusting the behaviour.
    In terms of the boring lesson link, i have yet to teach a class where a lesson that didn’t engage students didn’t result in poor behaviour. My concern with your article is that teachers who fail to engage students by delivering lessons that lack relevancy are able to justify such poor teaching by blaming it on the student. This notion of relevancy should then be the first question teachers need to ask about causes of behaviour, because otherwise it contradicts the idea that young people’s first instinct is to learn.

    1. Hi Paul,

      No need for you to venture into another space. Let me reply to your comments on this particular space

      Your assumption that the list is hierarchical rather than interactive is an interesting one.

      I fundamentally disagree with you about the perception of behaviour being related to attention as being a ‘negative and pessimistic understanding’ by the teacher. It is a one way – amongst many – of making meaning of what is happening before your eyes.

      Lets take an example of a self-injurious child with Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulties in a special school. The behaviour may be sensory, its function may be to achieve environmental reinforcers, it might be a communication to end a task or escape from it and it might be to gain attention. It cannot be assumed to be about one aspect. If the teacher has a working model about the function of the behaviour then the underlying communication may be understood. Not negatively, not judgmentally, not to blame but in order to help a young person be better at critically interacting with their environment.

      What about a child with SLD in a special school who can vocalise but has extremely limited language and is persistently screaming? It could be any singular one of these reasons or a combination. If the function was to gain attention so that the teacher can establish whether the young person is, for example, hungry, in pain, uncomfortable or distressed then the teacher can respond appropriately.

      The same ways of making meaning apply for a young person with complex emotional needs in the type of alternative provision for those who have been excluded from mainstream mainly due to behaviour-related reasons.

      The same for someone presenting with challenging behaviour in a mainstream classroom.

      Having been a teacher in all of these contexts of course I understand that the environment the teacher provides is a factor that relates to behaviour (our environment is always influential in terms of our behaviour) but the teacher also has to reflect on what the behaviour means for the child. It is about communication on behalf of the student not manipulation.

      There is no intention in this blog to suggest that teachers should blame challenging behaviour on the students and take no responsibility for creating a responsive, engaging environment. Your assumption that the list is hierarchal may have taken you to that conclusion?

  5. William Glasser said “All we do is behave”. That behaviour is influenced by our choices and our experiences. Behaviour of any kind is symptomatic of us attempting to meet our needs. We recognise and accept Mazlow’s hierarchy but in teaching I think there are specific learning needs associated with engagement. Using Glasser and my experience (I started teaching in 1977) as a foundation I would suggest four. These are: power, belonging, choice and fun. These need to be put into a teaching and learning context. Power is about having a voice. Belonging about being recognised. Choice about learning behaviour options and consequences. Fun is to be forged from achievement. If our needs are not being met (imagine being powerless, ignored, unknown, having no choice and being “bored”) then we behave in ways we know in order to address the lack of our needs being met. The “class clown” has been with us ever since the first teaching and learning relationship for a reason. Poor behaviour is our judgement as a teacher and we mean a lack of engagement and possibly disrespect. Such behaviour we regard as poor may be the learnt behaviour of the student that exits him from one environment where his/her needs are not being met and into another where they may be. Poor behaviour can also be the demanding of attention, either by overt volunteering for example or by refusing to follow instructions, but we tend to respond to those most forcefully that threaten our control of the class. Students can elect to mentally remove themselves too, a sort of compliance but without engagement, daydreamers perhaps! I would recommend reading Bandura at this point who concludes that those who are most successful are those that have learnt the greater number of strategies for dealing with situation in which they find themselves. Some of our students have few or limited strategies for dealing with situations where their learning needs are not being met, some have greater self efficacy and are therefore more able to deal with situations where needs are not being externally met by finding ways of satisfying them themselves.

    Teachers who naturally meet the four learning needs are in my experience are more successful with a wider range of students and abilities than those who do not. My recommendation is always to plan to meet these needs in some way. Not all of them all of the time but most of them, most of the time.

    Articles that may help explain this point of view in more detail include:
    As a learner how important is self-belief http://wp.me/p2LphS-lg
    Understanding Learning Needs http://wp.me/p2LphS-4


  6. How do i figure out which type of behavior is being demonstrated? I have reason to believe that this behavior is 3/4 on your list. Is it possible that this behavior could be a combination of both?

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