Behaviour Management Episode 9: Supporting students with challenging behaviour

Thanks for downloading this Teacher magazine podcast from our Behaviour Management series. I’m Dominique Russell.

In our annual reader survey, we ask our readers to share one piece of advice they would pass on to a fellow educator. Each year, many of you are wanting to remind other teachers to not take a student’s behaviour personally, because it’s usually linked to a deeper issue a student’s facing.

So, how can teachers go about identifying the underlying causes of a student’s behaviour, and then approach responding to it in a respectful and effective way? To dissect these questions further, I’m joined today by Senior Lecturer at Monash University, Dr Erin Leif, and PhD student and former primary school teacher, Russell Fox.

Erin joined Monash University in 2018 after working as a therapy assistant in a school for children with developmental disabilities in Massachusetts in the United States and completing her masters and doctoral degrees in behaviour sciences. Now, in her capacity at Monash University, Erin heads up a postgraduate course in applied behaviour analysis.

Russell’s PhD research – which you’ll hear him speak about throughout the episode – focused on understanding what is required to support teachers to successfully and sustainably implement evidence-based behaviour support practices, specifically School-wide Positive Behavioural Interventions and Supports (or SWPBIS).

They both bring fascinating insight to our discussion about behaviour management today. So let’s kick the conversation off.

Dominique Russell: Erin and Russell, thanks for joining me on today’s podcast episode. Each year, we ask our readers to share one piece of advice they’d give to a fellow educator and time and time again, they’re always wanting to let other teachers know to not take a student’s behaviour in the classroom personally, because it’s usually indicative of a deeper issue that they’re facing, one that’s perhaps outside of the classroom. So is it quite common for behaviour issues to be a product of a struggle that a student’s having, rather than them deciding to simply act out for no apparent reason?

Erin Leif: Yeah, that’s a great question. I guess my piece of advice to teachers would be that students do well when they can. And this is a quote that I’ve taken from Dr Ross Greene and his work on a collaborative problem solving model for helping students with their behaviours at school.

What this means is that challenging behaviour at school, and at home, is often the product of an environment in which the demands of the classroom exceed the abilities of the student at any given point in time. And challenging behaviour, we think of it like an iceberg. What we see is the behaviour itself, in other words, what the behaviour looks like. But this doesn’t tell us a whole heck of a lot about why the student is engaging in that behaviour.

So, we need to look deeper to discover the reasons why students are acting out; and there can be a whole host of different reasons why. Sometimes it might be related to factors outside of the classroom, but sometimes, actually pretty often, it has something to do with things that are happening at school as well. And when we look to discover the reason why our students are acting out, we call this ‘identifying the function’. And a big part of the work that I do is helping teachers learn to think functionally when addressing challenging behaviour. And this means, again, looking beyond just what the behaviour looks like to discover everything that lies below the surface that’s contributing to the ‘why’.

And one key assumption underpinning this function-based model of behaviour support is that there are no challenging kids, per se, but rather contexts that support challenging behaviour. And we really need to be cautious about chasing the causes of challenging behaviour inside the child and viewing these behaviours as a fixed part of the child’s personality that cannot be changed. We need to spend more time looking into the environment to discover why the child is acting out. We’ll talk a little bit more about how we can do this.

A function-based model really gives us the tools to be able to do this and it gives us hope that there are a lot of things we can do to really help our students with their behaviours at school.

Russell Fox: That’s right. Commonly, students find work or social situations difficult. And schools are one place where young people can’t really opt-out; they’re conscripted, there are so many situations in a school day where academic or social skill deficits can be exposed. And it’s really common for this to lead to the development of behaviours that are problematic for the student and their peers.

An example would be – a student may not have developed effective communication skills and has relied on using physical aggression or threats to access toys or materials that they like. And, alternatively in a high school context, we see high school students who consistently engage in disruptive behaviours in difficult subjects and are then no longer required to participate in that learning (is a nice way of saying that they’ve been exited from the classroom).

So, in many of these instances, it sort of works as escape, their escape from tricky work in a high school setting can often be celebrated by their peers socially as well. And in instances where difficult work is avoided and celebrated by peers, we can probably expect more of that type of behaviour in the future.

And it isn’t personal, but it sure can feel like it. As a teacher when you’re experiencing that, it definitely can feel like that. But as Erin said, students do well when they can. They’re communicating their needs as best as they can with the skills that they have. And when we engage in effective problem-solving processes, like the function-based model Erin described, we can actually better understand what their behaviour is trying to achieve, the skill deficits that we need to address and we can then as teachers start to help them learn new responses to meet these same challenging situations.

And these processes are great, but there are some challenges for teachers in implementing them in their classrooms. And so, some of the findings from my research (which we’ll talk about a bit later on) have indicated some pretty predictable reasons why teachers find this tough. Teachers are busy, they’ve got a lot on their plate already, and so engaging in some of these processes can take time. And they also don’t necessarily feel like they’ve been particularly well-prepared to undertake this.

DR: Absolutely. And so thinking about this spectrum of behaviours, then. What has your research said about the most common underlying causes of these behaviours? And, how can teachers approaching identifying these causes and why is it useful for them to identify them?

EL: Yeah, so in terms of common causes, if we break it down into really simple, sort of most basic level. We might be engaging in behaviours to escape or avoid – so, to get out of doing things that are difficult, that are anxiety provoking that we don’t want to do. Or, we might be engaging in behaviours to access something – so, to be able to access the attention of our peers, or access preferred materials like computer time at school. And often it’s a combination of both.

We can kind of loosely look at those two big picture functions. But, that’s not good enough, because every child is unique, and every child has their own unique learning history. So part of the process that we need to engage in is one which will allow us to identify the unique and personally relevant function for each student. And that’s where we use a process called functional behaviour assessment which is a tool – you could think of it as a decision making process – that has years and years and years of research support behind it.

We know that positive behaviour support plans or strategies that are informed by a functional behaviour assessment are much more likely: to be individualised to the student, to effectively meet the student’s needs, and to teach the students new skills. And as a result of that, they’re most effective for reducing behaviours of concern in schools that are interfering with the student’s learning and participation.

And so a functional behaviour assessment – again it’s not a ‘thing’, it’s not a manual, it’s a decision making process – it’s a way of collecting information, and it involves a number of different steps. So the first step may be meeting with people and gathering information from people who know the student well and even the student themselves.

So we would often ask open-ended questions to generate responses from important people that are really rich. So we want to know: What does the behaviour look like? When is the behaviour most likely to occur? And what do you usually do to help them calm down? And the answers provided to these types of questions provide really rich information about the unique factors that may be contributing to challenging behaviour. They help the team identify what the behaviour looks like, how often it happens, what usually happens right before the behaviour, and what usually happens right after.

And we can also use this as an opportunity to gather information about things like the child’s medical history. Because sometimes underlying medical conditions impact behaviour. We need to know about medications – sometimes medications impact behaviour or side effects impact behaviour. We want to know how the child communicates, what they like, what they dislike, what’s problematic for them? How do they tell us when they need help? How do they tell us when something is too difficult? So these are all the types of questions we would try to ask.

Then, what we want to do as a next step is to look at the environment. We want to look at how the classroom is set up to promote the student’s success. We can look at things like the seating arrangement, the lighting, temperature, noise level, the location of classroom materials, to see if any of those things are causing discomfort or could be contributing to the student’s behaviour.

We also want to make sure that the student is in an environment where they have lots of opportunities to practise new skills, where all sorts of pro-social behaviour is recognised and richly reinforced, and where the student can communicate effectively and the people around them understand their communication.

We then want to look at the curriculum. So, we want to see if the student actually has the foundational skills to successfully participate in instructional activities, or if the curriculum needs to be differentiated and modified for the student. So sometimes children display challenging behaviour at school because learning activities are too difficult, they don’t have prerequisite skills. Again, kids do well when they can. So we need to make sure that they have the skills to actively participate. And we also have to look at the types of skills that maybe go beyond academic skills – things like being able to pay attention, follow group instructions, independently retrieve materials and ask for help.

Then we want to directly observe the student. So I often, as a consultant, would conduct direct observations during times when challenging behaviour’s most likely to occur, because this is going to allow me to really zoom in and look at: Well, what are the conditions when the behaviour happens? What typically happens right before the behaviour? We might call that a trigger. What does the behaviour look like? What’s the intensity of the behaviour? And how do other people in the environment respond when that behaviour occurs? We call that a consequence.

So you can think of this as the ABC model – we call that Antecedents, Behaviours, Consequences. So along with our ABCs we also want to record the time of each instance of challenging behaviour, the activity in progress, and who else was present. And this allows us to supplement some of our working hypothesis data from meeting with other people and gathering information with some direct observational data.

This information is useful because when we can see how often the behaviour is actually occurring in context, we can use those data as a baseline to then evaluate the effects of our behaviour support strategies. So we can compare, once we’ve implemented behaviour support strategies, does the challenging behaviour decrease, relative to what we saw during our baseline observations?

And the purpose of all of these different steps is ultimately to develop a hypothesis. We want to generate a working hypothesis about the ‘why’, about the cause or the reason for the student’s challenging behaviour. And we often see that challenging behaviour serves a communication purpose. It is a way for the student to communicate their wants and needs in the moment and then it’s our job to help the student learn another way to communicate that’s going to be more understandable to other people in the environment and more safe.

RF: And while the processes, the steps that Erin outlined there, are great and have a huge body of evidence supporting their effectiveness, my research showed me that the teachers that we surveyed clearly indicate that they feel really quite poorly prepared to engage in these processes and assessments. And I think that might be one reason why managing student behaviour is front of mind for so many teachers.

There are some really positive signs that we’ve seen across education systems, you know, both the public system and across independent school systems, and the Catholic education system, that these practices and assessments are being adopted and advocated for as a way to understand student behaviour and to generate behaviour support plans that are tailored to individual student needs and their contexts.

But again, if we have teachers that are not particularly well prepared to engage in processes like functional behaviour assessment and we have an increased expectation that they’ll use these processes when they’re in schools – or at least have the baseline knowledge to participate in these assessments – it has the potential to create a bit of a shortfall, or exacerbate feelings of stress or pressure around student behaviour.

And so my research also found that there were some more positive signs of the impact of in-service training – so schools are working hard to equip their teachers in practice, which is great – but there’s still room for improvement in that front too.

DR: And so in terms of going from working to identifying underlying causes for these behaviours to then effectively and respectfully addressing them, is there anything else that teachers should be keeping in mind when they’re looking to do that throughout the year?

EL: Yes, great question. Too often something that I see is when assessments, such as functional behaviour assessments, are conducted, they’re filed away and they don’t lead to effective action. So we need to keep in mind that conducting an assessment is only the first step and what’s actually more important is how we use the information gathered as part of the functional behaviour assessment to inform the design of those personalised, positive and proactive behaviour support strategies.

So if we look at an example. We may have a case where we’re observing a student in the classroom and we see problematic behaviours typically preceded by the delivery of academic instructions in the classroom. When these specific academic instructions are presented to the student, the student pushes over their chair and screams, so they engage in some form of disruptive behaviour. And the typical consequence that we see is that the student is exited from the classroom, they’re maybe sent to another classroom, or they’re sent to the principal’s office.

So we form a hypothesis that perhaps these behaviours are allowing the student a way to communicate that the work is too difficult and to avoid participating in these difficult or non-preferred classroom activities, but unfortunately by exiting the student from the classroom, we’re never really addressing the root cause of the behaviour.

So what do we do instead? Well, the first thing that we need to do is we need to look at the student’s communication skills. We need to provide lots of opportunities for them to practise what we call a ‘replacement behaviour’, or a new behaviour that allows the student to communicate their wants and needs in a more understandable way.

So in this case a replacement behaviour might involve teaching the student to request a break from a difficult demand, or help with a difficult task. And it’s important that if the student is using a new communication behaviour, that those responses are responded to and reinforced on a really rich schedule, really predictable ways.

But that’s not enough. We also have to make a curricular revision. So, here’s where it’s really important for the teacher to be able to analyse the academic task to identify what parts of the task are difficult or non-preferred. Then we need to break it down; we need to break down the task into smaller, teachable components and we need to give the students opportunities to practise at a level where they can be successful, and we need to re-establish participation in learning and participation in classroom activities as fun, easy, and rewarding. And then we can start to gradually increase the difficulty level of the task.

RF: And of course that’s balanced by the requirements of teaching a class of lots of kids. And so I think, some of my research findings are not that surprising, and I think if you go into any staffroom in Australia, they’d be like ‘oh, great, so you’re telling us that teachers lack time? That’s cool, I could have told you that over a coffee’. But that’s one of the findings of my research; that teachers indicated that they really did lack the time to effectively do some of these things.

And I know how that feels, you know, managing the competing demands of a classroom. It can be really tough, you’ve got diverse learning needs of all students, you’ve got a range of different behaviours that you might be managing at any one time – from really low level stuff to really complex stuff like Erin described before, and some of that is sort of co-occurring, it’s all going on at once.

And I think they’ve also got the administrative side of things as well. Teachers are involved in multiple teams with multiple meetings, they’ve got to build and maintain relationships with support staff if they’ve got them in their rooms, with their colleagues, with their families; they’re working alongside and for school leadership.

And sometimes it can be really tough to balance all this stuff out. And so a lot of teachers will say ‘this all sounds wonderful, but when am I going to do this, and how am I going to do this?’ And it can be really tough to find that time.

And also whenever we’re dealing with problem behaviour, or behaviours that interfere with learning for the student or for peers, there’s often a lot of follow-up. And what we can find is we just get caught in a bit of a reactive spiral, where we’re chasing our tails and we’re spending our time doing follow up.

And so the concerns around processes like functional behavioural assessment and participating in observations and the interviews and things like that being so time consuming, one way that we might be able to think about that time consuming is we’re actually spending our time proactively. We’re looking to understand a problem behaviour, and rather than spend our time reacting and cleaning up the mess that comes along with problem behaviour, we’re actually trying to plan for and address it on the front end, so that we don’t have to do the clean up on the back end.

And it just means that we’re better placed also – if we’re meeting students’ needs and building these skill – we’re just better placed to maintain really positive relationships rather than needing lots of reprimands and lots of demands.

So my suggestion is that we’re paying up front, we’re not taking a loan. It may not cost us more time, but we might spend a bit more time up front. But it is work, though; it is recognising that it is hard work. And it’s not necessarily work that a teacher needs to do in isolation. This is where teachers can be kind to themselves and call in colleagues for support, put their hands up for expertise, whether it’s through – we have triple S (or the Student Supports Services offices), psychologists, speech therapists within our Department of Education and Training – the structures that Erin was describing before, to put their hand up and to call for either external help or those within the system, within the school, that have knowledge to support them. And then to engage in a team-based approach. If we can share the load across a team, that’ll make a big difference.

EL: I think just to add to that, one thing that I feel is that the functional behaviour assessment process that I just described, I don’t think teachers should do that on their own. I think that teachers should know what it is so that they can be a partner in that process when it is conducted as part of a larger team. So, I think it’s really important that when there are really significant concerns about a student because of their behaviours at school, is that we look at how to build a team around that student right away so that it is a shared responsibility and shared distribution of time.

And some of the work that Russ and I are doing right now is really working with the department to create new roles, such as behaviour coaches, in regions so that there are actually people who have the skillset who can be called upon to come in and work with teachers and school leaders as part of that team when these problems are identified.

And, like I said before, I think in the past the emphasis has been too much on ‘let’s just do an assessment, here’s a page of recommendations, see you later’. Now we need to focus on specialists who are able to write a positive behaviour support plan and coach teachers and others in the implementation of those strategies and monitor the effectiveness of those strategies over time. And again, share that responsibility with the classroom teacher, so that this isn’t all additional work on the shoulders of the teacher.

DR: So we’re obviously at the start of the school year right now, but looking ahead to throughout this year, how can teachers really approach adapting their classroom management strategies in an effective way as new behaviour issues arise, and as you say, monitor these issues that will crop up as the year goes on. Is it really important to be adaptable in this way?

EL: Yeah, I think we need to flip the script when it comes to supporting kids with their challenging behaviour at school. Too often, the conversation centres around: ‘What should we do when the problem happens? How do I make the problem stop?’ That reactive approach, as Russ mentioned, sort of like cleaning up the aftermath. Instead we need to think about what can we do to proactively prevent these problems from happening in the first place?

And one thing that’s been shown to actually protect against the development of challenging behaviour at school is the delivery of high quality, engaging academic instruction. So, teaching is one of the best protective factors against the development of challenging behaviour. However, the teaching has to be really planned, systematic, and differentiated for students who need additional help or the level of instruction sort-of customised.

So, ideally this academic instruction should include clear learning goals – so teachers provide students with clear wording around what they should be able to say and do at the end of each lesson. Providing models or worked examples – so the students have the opportunity to see the teacher perform the skill or the steps towards the permanent end goal.

The students should have lots of opportunities for active student responding – we don’t want a bunch of passive students who are just listening to the teacher talk and getting bored and getting into mischief. So we want to create lessons where the students have lots of opportunities to practise, practise, practise and they have lots of opportunities to get formative feedback, or little check-ins and corrections as they’re practising.

And then, finally, we want to look at ways to incorporate a lot of mini-assessment into the work that we do in classrooms to see how our students are travelling. And that will tell us whether we’re ready to move on and teach the next concept, because the majority of students are demonstrating mastery, or if we need to take a step back and do some re-teaching because a lot of our students are struggling.

RF: Yeah, I just want to emphasise, just re-emphasise the importance of high quality effective instruction as a way to support student behaviour. There are times that behaviour’s getting in the way of students accessing the instruction that’s being delivered and, like you said Dominique, we need to monitor these plans over time. We actually need to be checking in to see how they’re progressing, because we should see progress in an effectively designed behaviour support plan.

If we’ve done our job really well and we’ve got an accurate hypothesis, we should see behaviour improve. And as we do, let’s just monitoring and looking for the next skill development. If teachers are taking into their classrooms the idea that behaviour is a result of interactions with environments that may highlight skill deficits for students, then they can approach their student’s behaviour and the progress through the year by assessing how they’re going, behaviourally and socially.

I mean I often have teachers ask me, ‘so what do we do now about this problem behaviour?’ And the answer is to teach, which is great, because we’re talking to teachers, and to assess how that’s going, which is great, because teachers, we assess. So, the responses to problem behaviour are to teach and to assess and to constantly check as part of our assessment, is this environment still working for this young person? Like back to the … it’s essentially to run through those steps that Erin described before, just gently.

And if we see things spike – well I mean, I have bad days; there are nights that my kids keep me up, there are days that I’m caught in traffic. So I have high stress periods, I have times when things are difficult when I have a lack of sleep, or coffee, whatever it might be. So there are situations that might bring about a change, but as part of our monitoring and assessing, we should see those.

And if we’re not sure, then it might actually be worth taking some measurable data on it. If it looks like it’s going backwards, take a count. How often are we seeing this? And this is where that team, if the team is meeting regularly, semi-regularly, they should be reflecting on the goals. How are we progressing towards it? With some kind of measurable assessment of success, or lack of progress towards those goals; and then it allows us to engage in the process again.

DR: And looking at a whole school level then, just finally. Is there anything useful to implement to really assist teachers in identifying the underlying causes of these behaviours and then using that to inform their classroom management strategy? Is it really about looking at it from a team perspective, like you’ve mentioned?

EL: Yes. The good news is that there’s an evidence-based framework which we both really advocate for, called School Wide Positive Behavioural Interventions and Supports. It’s kind of a mouthful, so we’re just going to call it SWPBIS. And this is a framework that can be adopted by entire schools to prevent challenging behaviour before it develops, and to guide the selection and use of different evidence-based behavioural supports for kids who need more targeted interventions.

Again SWPBIS isn’t an intervention, it’s a framework and sometimes we refer to it as a multi-tiered system of support. In other words, all students experience positive and preventative classroom management practices that aim to support their social, behavioural, and academic success at school. And then students who do not respond to these initial practices receive progressively more individualised and educative interventions to address their unique needs.

RF: So some people who are working in say the Catholic education system or independent schools or in states (not Victoria) may know this as Positive Behaviour for Learning or PB4L or by a number of other names. And a lot of teachers would be familiar with a triangle and the triangle has three tiers, like Erin described. The base of the triangle, the universal tier, is delivered to all students, with students who don’t respond to those interventions, and those interventions typically are making sure that we have the expectations, you know what positive behaviour within our school looks like, really clearly articulated, and not just on our wall, but something that we would refer to in our practice. And establishing really clear routines for moving around the classroom, from moving between classrooms, and not in a bossy way, you know ‘you will all move this way’ but rather ‘when we all move this way, it allows us to enter a space calmly and engage effectively in our learning’.

… And it culminates, if students don’t respond to the tier two interventions, it culminates in a functional behaviour assessment that we described earlier, to make sure that we really do meet their individual needs. Because it’s just recognising that what we’ve done so far hasn’t worked and we need to tailor that to meet your specific need because there are some obvious skill deficits or some environmental changes that we need to make.

EL: So I think it’s just a few take homes. I think we would want to reiterate that: kids do well when they can; the very best way to help kids with their challenging behaviour is by teaching new skills; and we can help kids effectively when we look into the environment to understand why the behaviour is happening in a specific context and assume that behaviour is a form of communication. [In fact] for some students, challenging behaviour may be a very adaptive response to a very maladaptive context.

So, we constantly need to be reflecting on how we interact with the students and how we design our classrooms to support their success.

RF: Yeah, and to follow that on with, the responses, like Erin said, are: teaching responses; and monitoring and assessing how that’s going, which is the wheelhouse of teachers.

So I guess we can take some comfort in, teachers, whilst they say in my research that they’re not particularly well prepared specifically for some of this stuff, the answers are things they’re familiar with. And the more we think about behaviour the way we think about other learning, academic learning, the more success we can have. And if we monitor and assess and then we look and think ‘what skills can I teach?’ that’s right in the wheelhouse of teachers. And so we can claim some of that ground.

That’s all for this episode, thanks for listening. A lot of resources were mentioned throughout this conversation, so if you’d like to take a look at any of them, they’re all listed in the transcript of this episode, which you can find under the podcast tab at our website,

If this topic is one of interest to you, you might want to catch up on Episode 5 in our Behaviour Management series where we speak to Dr Jeff Thomas from the University of Tasmania on planning for positive behaviour at the beginning of the school year. To keep up to date with all our podcast series, make sure to subscribe to our channel on Spotify, Apple music, and Soundcloud.

References and related reading

Greene, R.W. (2016). Lost and Found: Helping Behaviorally Challenging Students (and, While You're At It, All the Others). Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Leif, E. & Ahlgren-Berg, A. (2019). How to find the underlying reasons for challenging behaviour with functional behaviour assessment. Teachspace: Monash University.

Subban, P., Sharma, U., Leif, E., Patnaik, S. (2020). Five ways to use positive behaviour support strategies in your classroom. Teachspace: Monash University.

As a teacher, reflect on the behaviour management strategies you have used in previous school years. What worked well, and what didn’t? Were you able to identify the underlying issues students were facing?

As a school leader, how are you supporting staff to respond effectively and respectfully to behaviour issues presented by students? Do staff feel confident in their behaviour management strategies, or are they feeling unprepared?