Understanding the psychology of bad behaviour

Social, emotional and mental health challenges can bring major issues around behaviour, says academic Alice Jones, but understanding the causes can help enormously

SEMH podcast

“Teachers definitely know who these children are,” argues Dr Alice Jones. 

She is talking about young people with social, emotional and mental health (SEMH) challenges and the fact she believes most teachers will not struggle to identify the children in their class who may be struggling in this area. 

“These are the children who you need to bring back into line more often,” she explains.

“Maybe they’re off-task, maybe they’re wandering or not getting on with what they should be doing, maybe they’re calling out, maybe they’re getting into scraps with other students… they’re the ones who are obviously finding the classroom more tricky to navigate on a day-to-day basis.” 

Speaking on the latest Tes Podagogy podcast, Jones – who is director of the Unit for School and Family Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London – explains the psychological processes that impact these children, some of which we may not consider at first glance.  

SEMH

“There’s a really nice phrase that works for students who are having difficulties in this area: these students are ‘actively inefficient learners’.” 

The benefit of this terminology, she explains, is that it removes the behaviour from being the main issue. The behaviour is instead a by-product of the fact that they find the classroom a difficult space to navigate. 

“In an everyday classroom, what we expect children to do, and what most children do beautifully without thinking about it, is multitask,” she explains.

“They have to be able to listen, sit still, write things down, read things and listen at the same time, and be able to tune out the fact that there are lots of children around them.

"They need to tune out the fact that they’ve just come from playtime and there might be something going on later in the day; they might be hungry.

“There's a multitude of things that they're needing to work with and manage, and most children do it without thinking, but for some that's a bit more tricky, for lots of different reasons.” 


Quick read: Are teachers to blame for bad behaviour? Sometimes, yes

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She touches on several of those reasons in the podcast. Some have issues with communication or managing conflict, she explains, while others will display disruptive behaviour because they struggle to inhibit their behaviour.

Some will be among the 15 per cent of the general population who have “no obvious or diagnosed neurodevelopmental condition but have significant sensory issues”, such as sensitivity to light or clothing. Then there are those whose sense of proprioception is poor. 

“These are kids who are a bit like liquid mercury,” Jones says. “You’re working with them one minute, and the next minute they’ve slid off their chair. They're not being naughty and not being purposefully disruptive. It's just they’ve sort of forgotten where they are in space, and that makes life really tricky. 

“So if you're spending all your time focusing on just existing and existing, how do you do the work that's in front of you? It's really hard.” 

Jones often works in alternative education settings, but says the good practice she has seen is just as applicable in mainstream settings. The fundamental factor in ensuring these children are able to learn effectively is language, she says.

Using consistent language across the staff team, with gentle reminders of boundaries and options for students to communicate when they are overwhelmed, can make a world of difference. 

“In one school I worked with, the children came up with the idea of a stop button,” she recalls. “And this is great because the teachers can use that word, children can use the word, everyone knows what it means.

"Some children have a little paper representation of the stop button on their desk, and they can press it or take it to the teacher and say this is a bit much, I need some time out.

“And the teacher can say in a really sort of non-judgmental way, ‘Are you using your stop button?’ It's a nice way of saying ‘Do you think it's time to calm down?’ And if everyone uses that language, everyone's aware and it's a neat way of helping a child learn about when their behaviour is appropriate and when it's breaking these boundaries.”

What doesn't work

She also touches on what doesn’t work, in particular, “heavy sanctions that come without a clear idea of why they're in place”. 

She talks about the ineffectiveness of this approach being seen in the fact that it is “the same kids every day” who are finding themselves in detention, so the sanction is clearly not acting as a deterrent.

What’s more, she says, the idea that their behaviour in this situations is a choice is often incorrect, particularly when they don’t understand what the alternative looks like

“They don't take responsibility for their behaviour, because their behaviour is being dealt with in this kind of a non-discursive way,” she says. “And then you're not needing to think about how you might improve.

“If it's okay for you to come in and make your mistakes. That's alright, but you need to know someone's going to sit down with you and think about how we might do things differently in the future.” 

Learning for life

She also underlines the benefits of building social and emotional learning into the curriculum, highlighting a particularly effective approach she witnessed in one primary school.

As the Year 5s were learning about Vikings, she explains, they planned a raid on a classroom of younger students in order to steal their highlighter pens (identified as the most valuable objects in the room, she laughs).

Prior to the raid taking place, they took time to discuss how the younger children might respond to the intrusion and how they would be able to tell if they were OK.

After much planning and discussion “the politest Viking raid ever” took place, beginning with a polite knock at the door. 

Real relationships

Ultimately, she concludes, the most important element of managing students with SEMH challenges is the thing that teachers instinctively work to develop: good relationships. 

“There was a really nice review lately from the inspector of prisons, on youth justice,” she says. “The first line in their executive report says that positive relationships between staff and those in the care underpin all effective behaviour management systems.

“The emphasis needs to be, above all, on building solid relationships. It’s about mutual respect and modelling that in all of your interactions.” ​

You can listen to the podcast on the player above, or type 'Tes - the education podcast' into your podcast platform (including Spotify)

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