When is Behaviour not Special Educational Needs?

One of the things I used to discuss regularly with an old friend of mind, back when our boys were babies (she also has a son with Down’s syndrome) was where the Down’s ended and the boy began.  It’s a bit of an inelegant way of putting it, and today, I can see that the person that Sam is is entirely interwoven with his genetics, but back then, when she and I knew nothing about babies, other than what we had read in the handbook, we spent long afternoons wondering about the little things they did (or did not do).

And, I got to thinking the other day, when I found myself embroiled in a Twitter-teacher debate over behaviour and SEND, that a little post on the subject would be useful (you can read more about it in my book, available now and you can buy it if you click this link).*

So.  I thought it would be handy to think about the different reasons why children misbehave in class, and attempt to untangle them for you.  With and without SEND.

  1. Boredom.  Some of the most difficult customers I have come across in the classroom are those children who are not only fiercely academic, but also bored.  Failing to challenge these children can have dire consequences for you as a teacher – they get bored, they mess about, and, if they don’t think that you know what you are talking about, they lose respect for you too.   Equally, for others, the work you are setting might be too hard.  Children, just like adults, will shy away from things that take them too far beyond their comfort zone.  Before you know where you are they have quietly sharpened all of their pencils down to stubs and neatly avoided doing any work.

Boredom can also be broken down into:

  •  Now I hate to say it, but we’ve all been in classrooms/lectures where the teacher opens their mouth and you instantly have to fight the desire to close your eyes or gaze out of the window.  Sorry, but there it is.  You don’t have to be all singing and dancing, but we all recognise someone who is enthusiastic for their subject/class – being calm doesn’t mean droning on in a monotone and just expecting children to fall in.


  •  Subject matter.  Children do not all find the same subjects equally interesting (neither do adults – who would have thought).  If this happens to you, then you are just going to have to work a little at it to capture their interest.  I often find telling children that something is interesting is enough to persuade them that it actually is, you might have discovered a different little trick.  They believe me because they trust me.

2.  And then we must remember adult behaviour towards children.  Some adults, including family members, can feel so sorry for particular children that they send them mixed messages.  They don’t expect the same standards of behaviour from them.  Sometimes, the way a child is treated in school, it can appear that the rules that apply to everyone else don’t apply to that particular child.  We are quite capable of creating our own behaviour problems with the way that we behave.

Of course, the trouble with these reasons is that it is that you can’t claim that they fall under the umbrella of Social, Emotional and Mental Health (SEMH), although you can apply the same sort of removing barriers to learning thinking to them.

Moving swiftly on, let’s have a look at some of the other reasons why children might act out in class that relate more directly to SEND.

  1. There is a learning need.  This could be something like dyslexia.  A child might have a really good understanding of what you are asking them to do, but simply find the effort of recording their thoughts too difficult.  They might feel ashamed of their struggles to read texts their friends left behind years ago.  Children use their behaviour all the time to cover up what they don’t know, to hide their problems (somehow, they think that we won’t notice).  It might not be dyslexia, it might be dyspraxia, something to do with language, a problem with maths, PE…the list goes on.
  2. There is some sort of sensory impairment. Have you ever had a child in your class who really can’t seem to sit still?  Do they call out or make odd noises?  Eat rubbers, paper clips and chew everything in sight?  They might have low sensory perceptions.  You might have taught a child who makes a massive fuss about their uniform, people touching them, personal space, looking at particular things, struggles when there are loud crowds (like assembly) or lots of noise (sport’s day, anyone?).  They might have high sensory perceptions.
  3. There are communication difficulties. It is so frustrating when you just can’t get the words out.  When you know what you want to say, but you just can’t seem to – or you can only marshall your thoughts when the moment has passed.  The effort of processing all that language is exhausting, and it leaves little energy for controlling reactions when classroom life gets tough.
  4. Difficulties in flexible thinking. All children are creatures of routine (I had a lovely conversation the other day, during a science lesson on the digestive system, with a little girl who told me that both she and her mummy have a glass of milk before bed to help them to sleep), but some struggle with change more than others.  Schools are fast moving places, and we expect a lot from some of our young people when we spring changes on them, or we don’t give them quite enough warning that a lesson they are really enjoying (like PE or Art) is going to stop.
  5. Physical impairments. Some physical impairments also come with learning difficulties -which can include behaviour.  With some children, the brakes are firmly off, and you can expect reactions to be very quick indeed.  Some diagnoses, like ADHD, relate strongly to behaviour, and the ability a child has to regulate it.  If a child is taking medication of any kind, this can also have an effect.
  6. Trauma.  Many children live in less than happy circumstances at home, and this can have huge impacts on their behaviour in school.  They might have learned that the only way to get attention is to push themselves forwards, and any attention will do.  They might be angry about home situations and, because they are children, they don’t know what to do about that.  They might not have stable adults in their lives who can model for them how to negotiate their social world successfully.

I could go on, but I will stop there – I’m sure you get the picture.  There are a million and one reasons why a child might misbehave in class, many of which are related to SEND, some of which aren’t, and, to a massive degree, they are all intertwined.  What you need to do, as the class teacher, is attempt to figure out what it is that is getting in the way of them behaving well for you, behaving so that they can learn, which is, after all, what you are there for.  Whatever you do, don’t fall into the trap of assuming that SEMH is somehow a separate category of special need that never crosses over with anything else.  It’s WAY more complicated than that.


* Oh yes!  My book!  You can find more information on SEMH in it 😉  You can buy it here.  Apologies for the shameless plugging.


5 thoughts on “When is Behaviour not Special Educational Needs?

  1. Yes, you’ve hit on a major issue in all classrooms. And it’s something I often wonder about our son – where does his ADHD leave off and his personality come in? How much latitude should I give him because there’s only so much he’s able to control? It’s difficult.

    1. Totally. I like the removing barriers way of thinking about it – it makes me think harder about what I am doing. And when I change, so do they! Ha!

  2. In mainstream secondary, I have also noticed that more socially sophisticated peers will sometimes, subtly and meanly, provoke a student with SEN into extreme behaviours (seems to be a Y8/Y9 problem in particular). The class teacher is not always fully aware, and of course it is the student with SEN who is sanctioned and judged for the resulting behaviour. We have to make our classrooms fully inclusive, educate our pupils properly, and be fully aware so that this does not happen.

    1. I absolutely agree, Jude. I have seen this behaviour so many times in the primary classroom – and when I am the teacher, they soon learn that it will not be tolerated. One of the most powerful things the class teacher can do, in my view, is to build that sense of community and a supportive ethos towards each other. Children learn so much from each other, after all.

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