Jon Severs

What do we mean by ‘challenging behaviour'?

We use the term ‘challenging behaviour’ all the time in education without acknowledging that we are often making a value judgement, not an objective one, writes Jon Severs

Teachers need to get on the same page when discussing challenging behaviour in schools, says Jon Severs

I never got called “naughty” at school, but I am very aware that I was a pain. Easily bored and always looking for stimulation, I would play devil’s advocate when a teacher was desperately trying to teach the content, and I would attempt to derail lessons on to a tangent through ludicrous questioning. There’s no doubt this was disruptive but it was never treated as such.

I was reminded of this when I read Alex Quigley’s fascinating column in the magazine this week. Quigley articulates the long-known connection between poor vocabulary knowledge and challenging behaviour, and asks us to look deeper into this connection – at the fact that it works in both directions and that it is much more complex than a discrete, two-way relationship. It’s an excellent, succinct exploration of the topic and, like all good articles, it led me to wider questions, the main one being: what, exactly, is “challenging” behaviour?

We use the term all the time in education, as if it has an agreed definition. The government talks about it, teachers talk about it, researchers talk about it. Rarely, though, do we properly explore our meaning and, usually, when you delve deeper, there are huge differences between viewpoints.

I am certain that my behaviour, as laid out above, was challenging. It took as much time away from the learning as a classmate who talked over others, messed about and, once, climbed out of the window. He was sent out of the classroom repeatedly, yet I was tolerated. He was “challenging”, but I had a “lively mind”. Why the difference?

Different interpretations of 'challenging behaviour' in schools

Well, you could argue that my disruption was articulate and partly on task while his was physical and decidedly off task. But that is a value judgement rather than a factual one: my disruption was deemed more acceptable but, in reality, it denied my peers as much learning time.

This is, I think, where the key differences in what we see as “challenging behaviour” come from: our individual values and the values of the schools we were taught in, have visited or attended. Value systems are, of course, central to a school but, if we are to make value statements as well as factual ones about behaviour, we need to be more explicit about this in schools. We also need to be clear about the fact that it makes general statements about – and, indeed, research into – “challenging” behaviour problematic.

If value systems change between schools, or between researchers, then so will the definition of challenging behaviour. If I am getting away with being a pain while my mate on the next table isn’t, it’s important that everyone in that class – and anyone watching on – knows why.

Take, for example, the vocabulary research: are we actually making a link between vocabulary challenges and a “certain type” of challenging behaviour rather than a general catch-all and, if so, would it not be helpful to explore that in more detail so that we can better tackle the issue?

This wouldn’t make anything around the issue with behaviour any easier – in fact, the opposite is likely. But what it would do is ensure that we better understand the complexity of the range of behaviours that can disrupt learning and, crucially, it could help us to begin to build a broader vocabulary that would enable better discussions about how to respond to it.


This article originally appeared in the 10 September 2021 issue under the headline “Let’s get on the same page when discussing ‘challenging’ behaviour”

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