Behaviour - When naughtiness is really a cry for help

16th August 2013 at 01:00
Students who persistently misbehave may have underlying special educational needs. Here are five of the most common signs

When a child misbehaves, a teacher needs to weigh up factors such as context, background and timing before deciding how to react. This internal checklist is crucial to the punishment being a fair reflection of the crime and its perpetrator. Nevertheless, many children are still being punished for behaviour they cannot control, or that has justifiable cause, because of undiagnosed special educational needs (SEN).

Obviously, the vast majority of misbehaving students will not have SEN and teachers should not be looking to haphazardly tag them with the label. However, where children display a recurrent pattern of behaviour, perhaps in particular lessons or at particular times, it is important for teachers to be aware that SEN may be the cause.

A good example of this was the case of a boy with persistent oppositional conduct. On further investigation, he was found to be moderately deaf and in need of a hearing aid. It was not that he did not want to behave, more that his behaviour was a symptom of not being able to comprehend what was happening in the class.

Other, more common classroom behaviours could also betray underlying problems. Below are the five that teachers are most likely to encounter. In each case, it is important to be open-minded about the cause, to seek the advice of professionals to check if your suspicions are correct and to put in place strategies to help the student.


Extremely competent students may surprise teachers with avoidance tactics when it comes to written work. This could be a sign of dyslexia. Seeking a professional opinion is advisable. Aids could include the use of different methods of recording information, such as mind maps or spidergrams, which can be completed with the help of visual cues or single words.

Teachers may also be leaving behind students with language acquisition difficulties by addressing the content in lessons too fast. If a student is avoiding tasks, this could be a veiled plea for the teacher to recognise the challenges they are facing in every lesson, including the expectation that they are able to settle quickly and finish at the same time as everybody else, which they may find impossible.

One valuable way to tackle this difficulty is by getting the student to compile a vocabulary book or visual dictionary - completed in school with the help of a teaching assistant and including subject-specific vocabulary. The student can refer to the book regularly to consolidate words and terms.

You may need to give students such as these extra processing time in lessons. In addition, you should write differentiated worksheets in a concise and unambiguous style - and keep them brief, limited to essential detail. Students should be spared the trial of multiple-choice tests where more complex thinking skills have to be employed.

Clowning around

The class clown may not be vying for attention just because he is a natural comedian. Attention-seeking behaviour could indicate a number of SEN issues.

The most obvious is that the student may be deflecting attention away from the fact that when the work is undifferentiated they simply do not have the same ability to maintain concentration as their classmates. They may suffer from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or developmental coordination disorder.

If the issue is hyperactivity, then the first action to consider is containing the student as they enter the classroom. This could simply involve a teaching assistant asking the student to write down lesson objectives or reviewing the contents of the previous lesson and reinforcing the information before the main part of the lesson begins.

During the lesson, you should present the subject matter in manageable, short slices, since long, dense worksheets or instructions can overwhelm the student with too much information and cause them anxiety. To enable the student to access the curriculum, it is essential to set timed targets for them to complete these small chunks of work, with sympathetic prompting and cueing by the teaching assistant.


How often have you wished that a certain student would bring in all of their equipment at the right time and for the correct lessons? How many times have you heard yourself asking the student why they have left their exercise book at home or have not stuck in worksheets, or why the dog has eaten their homework - week in, week out?

Chronic disorganisation may well be a sign of dyspraxia, ADHD, dyslexia or global learning difficulties, among other conditions. Although technology can really help with these issues - with computers negating the need to write by hand and making recording easier for the student - there are still many situations in which disorganisation can occur.

To avoid this, exercise books, personal textbooks or worksheets can be kept safely in the classroom rather than being taken home.

A visual or written checklist tied to the student's timetable could be useful for them to refer to when they pack their bags. Remember that close liaison with parents or those at home is imperative if consistency of approach in supporting the student is to be accomplished.

Antisocial behaviour

Students who remain isolated at break times are frequently the victims of bullying - but the perpetrators may have problems of their own. Those who struggle with abstract concepts or demonstrate a lack of empathy for those whom their actions hurt may not just be naughty but could have a deeper SEN issue. Although not always the case, this behaviour could be the sign of a student who is on the autistic spectrum, and if the issue is persistent teachers should seek the advice of experts in autistic-spectrum disorders.

If the child is diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum, there are things the teacher can do to help: in school, this student may need a "buddy" to shadow them at breaks and lunchtimes; differentiated work with a wealth of visual cues should be used; and it can also be effective to use flash cards demonstrating facial expressions, which can be rehearsed or studied by the student to enable a better understanding of the nuance of social interaction.


Students' physical impairments are usually obvious but some disabilities are hidden. These include legacy issues, such as when a student who struggled with stammering or Tourette's syndrome at primary school (ages 4-11) has learned strategies to control their problem before transferring to the older 11-16 age group of secondary school. When a student is managing their disability it can sap their energy. This could be mistaken for a lack of interest in learning when actually they are simply struggling to keep up with their peers. Intelligent questioning, on a one-to-one basis, could reveal these issues and the best way of accommodating them.

Other hidden physical conditions include eating disorders. Teachers everywhere will have noticed, for example, students who are weak and faint from lack of calorie intake falling asleep on their exercise books. You must refer any suspected eating disorder issue to the appropriate pastoral lead so that they can contact the parent and ask them to take the student to their doctor.

Similarly, some students do not eat breakfast. This may be because of a lack of parental guidance or limited family income. Such students may also exhibit sluggish behaviours and find learning a challenge. Liaison with home is paramount when addressing such issues.

Daniel Sobel is a UK inclusion specialist and conference speaker and Wendy Knott is a SEN learning specialist

What else?

Don't know where to start? This list will give you 23 ways to get up to speed on special educational needs. bit.lySpecialNeeds23

Learn more about SEN conditions with these checklists of signs and symptoms.


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