Hampshire Educational Psychology

Understanding pupil behaviour

These guidelines offer a framework to assist that thinking process through a series of prompts to help in the development of a comprehensive plan. They are based on the following beliefs about behaviour:

Behaviour always occurs in a context

The context usually has some influence over the behaviour. A well-developed assessment will consider the relevant factors in the context (at different levels, including family, community, classroom and school). The Behaviour Environment Checklist used in Behaviour Coordinator training is a helpful tool for focusing on classroom and school level factors. Planning for change at these levels may make it unnecessary to develop an individual pupil-focused plan.

Behaviour is not random

There are reasons why people behave the way they do. It is often helpful to consider the pay-off gained by the challenging behaviour. For example:

  • what needs does the behaviour fulfil? Basic needs include:
    - sensory stimulation or activity
    - choice or task avoidance
    - material resources such as food or particular equipment
    - attention and belonging
    - power
    - confirming an existing view of the world and your place in it.
  • what strong negative emotions (e.g. anger, anxiety, depression) are being removed in the short term by the behaviour? Challenging behaviour in this case can be seen as a strategy to deal with painful feelings.

Pupils' attempts to gain these pay-offs are often very successful in the short-term. They may also have a negative effect on longer term gains, and the rights of others. In many cases, the purpose of the behaviour may be entirely legitimate, but the means of achieving that purpose is unacceptable. An intervention plan should therefore aim to replace these inappropriate means with other ones. The plan should aim to teach the pupil:

  • replacement behaviours which do not cause harm to themselves or to others but meet the same purpose, or
  • tolerance behaviours which help the pupil cope when their immediate needs are not being met.

Challenging behaviour can sometimes be seen as a habit

Pupils frequently do not go through a thought process that prompts them to decide to behave in a challenging way. Their behaviour is often automatic and habitual. Changing such behaviours, which have been developed over long periods, may require lengthy periods of learning, re-learning and practising new strategies. When pupils fall back into old habits, this may be simply a sign of how hard it is to demonstrate a new skill consistently, rather than an indication of failure or lack of commitment. Pupils will need considerable encouragement to try out new and unfamiliar strategies rather than the safe, comfortable habit. This demands considerable patience on behalf of the adults involved, as they provide frequent prompts and support in using the new strategies.

Appendix A contains the "Understanding Behaviour" paper that forms the framework for the developing Behaviour Intervention Service.

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