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Behaviour: A ‘naughty’ child is trying to tell you something

The idea of behaviour as communication is older than we think, says Susannah Jeffries

Behaviour: A ‘naughty’ child is trying to tell you something

In Scottish education just now, there is a great deal of valid and useful debate about the language we use to describe the behaviour we see in the children with whom we work.

The simple change from “challenging behaviour” to “distressed behaviour” led by Jennifer Knussen, headteacher of Pitteuchar East Primary School in Fife, has been incredibly helpful for so many of us in changing the emphasis on how we interpret and approach the behaviour we are seeing. It helps us to react with the compassion and understanding that the child needs rather than with an intention to control and correct.

Recently, I was talking to a parent and she was speaking with great frustration about how “naughty” her son was being and oddly, in the moment that she said it, I noticed for perhaps the first time that this word contains the word “naught”, and with it a whole different perspective.


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Having investigated further, it transpires that “naughty” is a Middle English word which dates back to the 14th century. Its original meaning was “needy, having nothing”; the “naught” in “naughty”, then, indicates that you need something. The apparently modern idea that all behaviour is communication is built into that word – it was built in there centuries ago.

Over time, we have changed the way we use that word to imply that the cause of the behaviour is largely rooted in the intent of the child, but that wasn’t where the word came from. The word “naughty” implies an understanding that the way children behave – especially when that behaviour is outside the realms of what is expected of them – is them trying to tell you something, even if what they are trying to tell you is very difficult to decipher from the behaviour they are displaying. They might be trying to say “I can’t do this” or “I can’t cope with being here right now”. Maybe they’re saying” “I need your help” or “I am scared”, or perhaps “I am hungry”, “I don’t understand”, “Something isn’t right with me” or “I don’t feel safe” – there is a plethora of possibilities.

No one can expect any of us to be mind readers and also, critically, no one can expect that child to find the words to articulate their true needs – even when given the opportunity to do so. But responding to the “naught-y” child’s need with understanding and an attempt to offer security and calm – rather than anger and rebuke – is a critical part of getting it right for every child.

Susannah Jeffries is a primary depute headteacher in Edinburgh. She tweets @MrsJTeaches

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