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How to Deal with Challenging Behaviour in the Classroom

Last updated on 31st March 2023

Dealing with challenging behaviour in the classroom is one of the most difficult aspects of teaching and sadly the one that causes the most anxiety in teachers. This is for good reason. If you fail to keep control of a class and enable the challenging behaviour from disruptive pupils to dictate, none of the other class members will be able to learn and you will be unable to teach in the way you were trained for.

According to a recent report, three quarters of teachers report that they have to deal with disruptive behaviour on a regular basis and have considered quitting teaching as a result. More than half say that disruptive behaviour is negatively impacting education and that their training has not prepared them for managing pupil behaviour.

Shockingly, around 2 in 5 new teachers quit within the first five years and although this may not be fully attributed to challenging behaviour, it is one of the most cited reasons for leaving teaching.

So, with thousands of people leaving the profession every year, learning how to deal with challenging behaviour is of paramount importance.

Challenging behaviour in the classroom can take many forms and although the physical threat increases when you are teaching older children and teenagers, even primary school age children can be hard to manage.

What is behaviour that challenges?

Challenging behaviour can take many forms but essentially comes down to whether it causes low level disruption or high-level disruption.

Low level disruption can be characterised as unauthorised talking, moving around the classroom without permission or being obviously inattentive such as checking phones, putting on make-up, pulling faces, shouting out, or similar.

High level disruption is behaviour that is designed to undermine you as the teacher. Answering back, becoming confrontational, or physically threatening you or a pupil, or fighting in class are all examples. High level disruptive behaviour cannot be ignored and must be dealt with immediately.

Both low level and high-level disruption can quickly escalate if left unchecked.

Speaking to student about behaviour

What are some examples of challenging behaviour?

Challenging behaviour can take many forms and it is not always obviously aggressive. For example, many new teachers fall prey to engaging with personal questions such as, “do you have a boyfriend?” “are you gay?” or “do you have a girlfriend?”

These questions are not asked out of nosiness but as a way of bullying you in front of the classroom audience. If you fail to engage and you reprimand your questioner, he or she can act in an aggrieved way, claiming to be only asking a question – switching the blame onto you.

If you do respond and answer the questions, expect to have this information thrown back at you constantly, shouted across the playground and posted on social media. Mind games like these are never easy to deal with especially when this is all one way.

Challenging behaviour in primary schools is also a major issue. Children may be aggressive, engaging in fighting or biting the other pupils. They may throw tantrums and screaming fits, as well as destructive behaviour such as breaking equipment or spoiling other pupils’ work.

Sometimes, but not always, this can be classified as attention seeking, but whatever the underlying cause it will need to be managed in the classroom environment.

What are the possible causes of challenging behaviour?

How long have you got?! There can be numerous causes for challenging behaviour in the classroom, and with the policy of inclusivity in schools of special needs, and the chaotic issues that many children face on a daily basis at home, this is only increased.

However, here are some of the major reasons why a child may engage in challenging behaviour at school.

  • Home environment – Children learn behaviour at home and if their home environment is chaotic with lots of shouting and arguments, the child may see this type of behaviour as normal so will carry it on at school.
  • Lack of routine and basic care – Again, this comes down to the home environment but if there is no routine such as regular mealtimes or bedtimes, the child may be struggling with tiredness and even hunger throughout the school day.
  • Learned behaviour – In a busy chaotic household a child may have learned that confrontation and aggression is normal behaviour. If everyone acts like this at home, this learned behaviour may be hard to break.
  • Changes at home – A child going through disruption and changes at home may show this by their behaviour at school. Common causes include bereavement, divorce or relationship break-up of parents or caregivers, moving home or school, or coming to a new country.
  • Behavioural issues – Schools are inclusive so pupils with special needs or issues such as ADHD or autism may be part of your class. These pupils may not be able to express themselves without using challenging behaviour. You may find that they are excluded by the other pupils too which only adds to their problems. And to yours!
  • Boredom – Some pupils misbehave and challenge teaching staff out of boredom. They may be intelligent and are just not engaged by the lessons. Alternatively, they may be struggling to understand so just give up as the easier option, switching their efforts to disrupting the class for entertainment.
  • Health – Is there an underlying health issue? Can the child hear or is he or she suffering from pain or discomfort that is going undetected?

Strategies for dealing with challenging behaviour in the classroom

You can’t fix all the problems that may be experienced by your pupils at home. But you can establish a safe learning environment that will help difficult children flourish and the non-challenging members of your class learn in peace and safety.

According to Unison there are 10 key tips to managing behaviour –

  • First up, remember you are not alone. Your school should have a clear behavioural policy and be able to offer you support if you need it. It can be hard to ask for help especially if you are new to the profession, but understanding the structure for managing behaviour and working together with colleagues will give you the confidence you need.
  • Speak to the pupils calmly and explain what you require them to do. Keep it polite, non-aggressive and in a neutral tone – sometimes this will be enough to manage their behaviour.
  • If they fail to respond, repeat the instruction, keeping the tone calm and neutral.
  • If your instructions are ignored again, remind the students that failing to follow your instructions puts them at risk of sanctions. Your school should have a behavioural policy in place, so remind them that failing to comply with your instructions could have long-term consequences for them.
  • If the student still will not comply, you may need to call in some help from your line manager. If you can issue sanctions such as a detention and calling the child’s home, this may be effective. If you can’t issue sanctions, report the incident to your line manager who can. You cannot afford to ignore an escalating incident or it sends the message that you can be bullied and pushed around with impunity.
  • Speak to the offender privately. Most students will respond on a one-to-one basis once they are deprived of their audience. They will be able to climb down without losing face. Sometimes this is all that is needed.
  • Don’t lose your temper and start screaming and shouting. Do this and you have lost control of the class and have provided some free entertainment as well.
  • Remember the names of the people in your class. This can be hard if you teach in a large secondary school, but taking time to remember names is basic good manners and it helps you maintain order far more effectively. Calling someone out by name is far more personal and effective especially if you have to report an incident.
  • If there has been an incident in your classroom, follow it up to ensure that any promised sanctions have been issued. If a pupil challenges your authority and gets away with it, it sends a message that the students can do what they like.
  • Remember, you are not the only teacher in the school, so any bad behaviour in your classroom does tend to reflect the level of behaviour that is tolerated. Acting promptly to report issues and to deliver sanctions for challenging behaviour is important for everyone’s wellbeing. You should be supported by your line manager and other staff members.

Communication skills for dealing with challenging behaviour in the classroom

We all know people who speak in a way that commands respect and others who sound apologetic or wheedling. Try recording yourself to see how you come across to the children in your charge. This can be horrific of course, but it is certainly worth doing because it will help you become the teacher you need to be.

You should aim at keeping your communication calm, authoritative and neutral. If you speak calmly without resorting to sarcasm, shouting or demonstrating a loss of control, your pupils are more likely to listen and to do what you ask. If you always keep your word regarding any type of sanctions for bad behaviour, your pupils will know where they stand. Everyone likes consistency, and empty threats or broken promises just don’t cut it.

Sarcasm can be entertaining for everyone, and who doesn’t remember their own school days – but remember that teenagers are the masters of the art! If word gets round that you are willing to engage in trading sarcastic retorts, it sets out a challenge that you are unlikely to win in the long run and it just wastes time as well.

Diversity and cultural differences can cause behavioural differences that can be misunderstood by the teaching staff. To ensure you are up to speed on diversity training, it is crucial that you understand the background and cultures of your students. If you fail to understand your students, an already difficult situation is likely to escalate and cause offence.

Teacher happy to help student to teacher helping student with behavioural issues in the classroom

General strategies for improving behaviour in the classroom

You can improve behaviour in the classroom so that challenging incidents are less likely to arise and any misbehaviour or naughtiness is easy to manage.

Become a role model

It is important to lead by example and by being a positive role model that your class can emulate. For example, showing good time management and arriving on time for class will make your class see that they should do likewise. Always endeavour to remain calm and polite with your students. If you don’t show that you are treating your students with consideration, you cannot hope to reinforce the message that they should consider other people’s feelings themselves.

Accentuate the positive 

There are positive ways and there are negative ways of keeping control. For example, telling someone to stop talking is more likely to be remembered if the instruction is delivered in a positive way. “Freddie, please stop talking” is far better than shouting “Freddie shut up!”. Poor Freddie probably gets this first response at home so is highly unlikely to listen to you.

If a child is struggling with behaving in class, talking to them and proposing a strategy together may help. Many children engage in negative behaviour to gain attention, so being taken seriously may help you get to the reason why they do it. Perhaps giving the attention-seeking child an outlet for showing off and gaining attention can be achieved by establishing a turn taking system where everyone gets a chance to speak.

Establish a code of conduct in the classroom

Creating a framework of boundaries is extremely helpful for children because it helps everyone remember what is acceptable behaviour and what is not. Calling on your class to help devise this themselves with your help will help create a good atmosphere. Simple rules such as be considerate of other people’s feelings, treating others with respect and basic kindness can be pinned on the wall.

That way if any student crosses the line, it not only goes against your rules, it goes against the ethos of the whole class – and is less likely to be favourably received by classmates.

Always recognise good achievements 

Most people thrive on praise and many of your children may not be accustomed to being praised for anything! Always praise for hard work, effort or a good piece of work. Tell the child you are proud of them and give them some positive attention. If you do this, the other pupils are likely to copy good behaviour so that they can get your positive attention too.

Don’t cause unnecessary disruptions yourself 

If you need to call someone out for bad behaviour, try not to make it worse. Once you have got to know your class, a warning look or a gesture may be enough to make a troublemaker stop. If they don’t stop, take them to one side and explain that if they continue there will be consequences later.

Keep your instructions clear 

If the pupils fully understand your instructions, they are more likely to follow them. So, for example, if you want homework to be handed in at the start of the next lesson, don’t leave any uncertainty. If you just say, “hand your work in on Monday”, some children will endeavour to spin this out and get their homework to you by the end of the day (having frantically tried to complete it at break time).

Establish a quiet area in the classroom

Sometimes children can’t help themselves. They become angry or frustrated or upset, so to avoid disrupting the whole classroom it is a good idea to establish a quiet area. This should be a comforting space where the child can take some time out to recover and reflect. It is not a punishment but an acknowledgement that sometimes life can be difficult and we all need a moment to ourselves. Getting the class involved with creating the quiet area with peaceful drawings or no longer used soft toys will help create a restful ambience.

Get the parents on your side

Many teachers ignore parents, only calling on them to complain about bad behaviour. This is a mistake. With some tactful handling and a non-judgemental attitude that demonstrates concern, you often find that parents can become allies rather than adding to the problem. Getting to understand the home situation will help you understand the difficult pupil so that you can find ways to manage their behaviour.


Teaching is a very rewarding and vital job. It can help children transform their future lives and realise their talents. It can be enjoyable and very satisfying to work with young people and no day is ever truly the same, so it is never boring. Many of us remember certain teachers with affection and gratitude because these wonderful people have such a positive effect upon their lives.

However, it is not all a bed of roses, and challenging behaviour in the classroom can be extremely difficult to deal with when you are new to the profession. There are no easy answers but if you manage to keep control over your sometimes difficult students with firmness, consistency, kindness and calm, you will be able to provide the education they need.

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About the author

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Jane Higgins

Jane works with the CPD Online College to produce great articles and has been with us since 2019. Specialising in numerous areas of content, Jane has a vast writing experience and mainly works on our health & safety and mental health posts. Outside work Jane enjoys playing music, learning foreign languages and swimming in the sea even when it is far too cold for comfort!

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