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How to manage challenging behaviour in the classroom

Not many people could have predicted COVID-19 and it's devastating affect across the globe and of course, in England too. With many schools closed or partially open, one thing we can anticipate is how tough it will be for school leaders and educators when things go back to 'normal' . For some teachers, challenging behaviour from students is very much a part of their teaching experience. However, with children out of school for potentially 3-6 months, we can expect challenging behaviour and poor attitudes to be a problem for many schools when they re-open.

I hold the contentious view that our personality, character and ability to engage others is more important than rules and regulations when you're effectively managing people with challenging behaviour. However, I do believe a combination of both character and structure will lead to effective behaviour management in the classroom.

Here are some tips on how to do this:

Clear Expectations & non-negotiables

The first thing I do when I step into a classroom is let the students know what my expectations are. I tell them my 'non-negotiables' and I explain why I have them.

For example, talking over someone when they are speaking is one of my non-negotiables. It's always good to ask the children why they think this may be a problem.

This helps them to consider how their actions may affect others.

I'll further explain that shouting out whilst someone else is talking takes away that person's right to speak and it makes them feel less important.The key is to help them see it's more about their choices and it's affect on others than me blabbing on about 'rules'.

It's always good to have your expectations thrashed out in the very beginning so that everyone is clear where you stand. You can even go an extra mile and let the students know what they can expect of you and your class team. This will help some students see that you're all working together.

Tip: Let the students construct their own behaviour expectations for the class. Then discuss it as a group and agree on the top 10. They can type these up to be printed and signed.


Being consistent is one of the most difficult things to do, in every aspect of life.

However, it's probably the most important part of effectively managing behavior.

Young people are shrewd enough to know when there's a lack of consistency.

If the consequence for shouting out is 5 minutes, you can't give them 2 minutes when it happens and it's probably not a good idea to give them 10 either!

Consistency is powered by good team work between you and your colleagues because believe it or not, children are experts at 'splitting' adults.

I'm sure we've heard or experienced situations where a child has been told no by one parent and then yes by the other - but the other parent may not know that the other parent has already said no. They played the second parent - who is unaware that he/she has now undermined the first parent. This is a classic example of how the process begins and children do this in the classroom too.

They'll seek the "weak" links in your team and attempt to play the adults off on another other. If you're not careful, one child can have different behaviour expectations from different adults and that's a recipe for disaster. It's key that you and your team are clear on your behaviour expectations for your students so that you're always singing off the same hymn sheet. Consistency from everyone is the best thing for a challenging young person and it will make your job a lot easier knowing there's no 'weak links' in your team.

Tip: Briefings with your class team at the start of the day can be used to plan and agree on strategies that will be used during the course of the day for specific individuals.

Sense of humour

Having a sense of humour is an unusual one because it can be perceived as counter-productive, but it's not. For example, when children are in a 'bad place', they often project their negative feelings on to you and they're very good at it!

They will call you every offensive name under the sun and sometimes make it very personal just to get under your skin and see your reaction.

Over the years, i've learned to not take it too personal because it's clear what they are trying to do. When they insult my looks, I just smile and agree with them. I even tell them I noticed it before them! Sometimes they look stunned, sometimes they crack a smile and sometimes they don't say anything at all. The shock of your response will undoubtedly throw them off.

Turning insults into a personal joke isn't a quality that comes naturally to everyone so my advice is to try and see the funny-side of a situation.It's not easy and it's not always appropriate but it's something worth practicing if you work with children who are non-compliant. Having a sense of humour is beneficial for yourself and for the pupil and it's important to gauge the time and place for a joke. Remember, as long as you are clear and consistent with your behaviour expectations, having a good sense of humour makes you no less of a good teacher. It just makes you a maverick.


Kindness is probably the trait i'm most passionate about. If you aren't kind, you are quite frankly in the wrong line of work. Children are very good at sussing out when someone is genuinely kind and compassionate and just like us, they appreciate it, even if they don't tell you. With that said, i'm always confused when I see people, who are not kind, working with children, especially children who are vulnerable!

The thing with kindness is you have to accept that it's a bit of a dodgy transaction.

When you offer kindness, there's no guarantee it will be valued how you value it and there's no guarantee you'll get it back - but you still do it anyways, especially with children.

I'll be the first to tell you that not all children are likeable and some can rub you the wrong way. However, our duty as humans is to be kind and that doesn't change with disobedient, annoying children.I've learned that more often than not, they are the ones who need it the most!

It's important to remember, that when a child is displaying negative behaviour, It has a source and there's often a story attached to it. Sometimes the story behind it is terrifying. Abuse, bullying, trauma and poor parenting are just a few examples of things that contribute to challenging behaviour.

I know some of you are shaking your head and thinking 'nahhh the child is just rotten'.

Even if it were true, we must still be kind. Every time you show kindness you are depositing a seed into that child you may never see grow with your own eyes. If this process is consistent, we can retain the hope that the child will revisit the times they felt kindness and compassion, even during their worst moments.


Last but certainly not least, Patience is a trait you will definitely need when supporting young people.

Patience is giving the benefit of the doubt. It is giving that student a second chance - even though it may go against your clear expectation.

Patience is combining empathy with discernment and understanding there is more to this particular situation than the child just 'behaving badly'.

Patience is seeing the bigger picture and recognising that the child has made big steps forward and although they are not perfect or well behaved, they have shown signs of progress.

I can't tell you what that moment looks like but when you sense it, it makes everything else you've put in place worth it.

Final suggestions:

Of course, being kind and being patient isn't enough to help support a child who is defiant and disrupting your lessons. Managing challenging behaviour is the school's responsibility as much as it is the classroom teacher. Here are some suggestions that you and your school can use as the foundation to dealing with challenging behaviour. I think this is a blog on it's own.

Here are some extra suggestions for behaviour management in schools.

  1. Good behaviour policy

  2. Individualised behaviour plans/individualised timetable

  3. Seating plans

  4. Reward systems

  5. Highly skilled 1-2-1/Learning support Assistants


The truth of the matter is no child is the same as another. One strategy may work for one child and won't for others but with the traits mentioned above and a good foundation of policies/system, there is a better chance of supporting the needs of your students.

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