2.1 Disruptive student behaviour


True story

The frantic phone call to the office came requesting immediate assistance in the Year one classroom. Molly was holding the class to ransom (yet again) and the teacher was in the process of evacuation. Molly had taken the box of chalk from the shelf beneath the blackboard, had turned the ceiling fans up to the highest speed, climbed onto the desk and had begun to systematically throw handfuls of chalk into the spinning blades. Chalk ricocheted around the classroom like bullets from a machine gun and chaos reigned supreme.

This year, Molly’s disruptive behaviour had escalated to being serious and unsafe. I (Kay) was Deputy Principal of the junior school (Prep to Year three) at the time of this incident and it was to be one of many, many incidents involving myself and Molly that would span years, schools and behaviour centre contexts. I could never have imagined the profound impact that our long-term relationship was to have, on both of us.

Armstrong (2016) points out that the distinction often made between ‘disruptive’ and ‘challenging behaviour’ is in reference to the severity. Disruptive behaviour can be characterised by minor behaviours such as talking out of turn, calling out, and ignoring adult instruction while challenging behaviour reflects more major types of behaviours that include physical and verbal aggression, unsafe and dangerous behaviours. In this book, we use the term ‘serious, disruptive behaviour’ interchangeably with challenging behaviour to suggest behaviour that goes beyond what is considered ongoing, low-level disruptive behaviours.

How do you view disruptive behaviour?

Two pairs of eyes with glasses
Eyes with glasses by  Sanja licensed under CC0.

Where do you lay the blame for a student’s disruptive behaviour? Do you see the cause as being attributed to factors that are internal, external, both or neither? Do you attribute  disruptive behaviour to the individual student and their lack of self-control and inability to make the “right choice?” (internal causes) or do you think it is because of poor parenting and other factors outside of the school space? (external causes).What part do you, the teacher, play in sustaining the disruptive behaviour? Stop and think about what it is you believe because what you believe about why disruptive behaviour occurs, determines how you manage it. Do you react in a proactive, supportive manner or in a punitive fashion? If you believe the causes of the misbehaviour are attributed to factors beyond your control (outside of school) for example, you will probably react in a more punitive manner because you believe that there is nothing you can do to change the situation so why bother?

Johansen, Little and Akin-Little (2011) studied New Zealand teachers’ perceptions of the cause of disruptive behaviour at school and concluded that teachers believed the cause was attributed to external impacts such as parenting and home life. In addition, teachers believed that the disruptive student was in control of their behaviour and was making a conscious ‘choice’ to behave badly. Worryingly, many teachers did not believe that they had a significant role to play in influencing student behaviour and most seemed to be unaware that they were highly likely to be a contributing factor to the disruptive behaviour. In contrast, when Tillery, Varjas, Meyers and Collins (2010) conducted a small-scale study of a group of kindergarten and first grade teachers in a US mainstream school to understand their perspectives and approaches to behaviour management they found that “the teachers perceived themselves as strong influences on student behavior development and described the use of positive strategies” (Tillery et al., 2010, p. 86). These strategies included having high expectations, rewarding desirable behaviour and modelling. Keep this and your own beliefs in mind as you read on as we now explore various commonly held beliefs with regards to why some students are disruptive.

Why are some students disruptive?

Westling (2010) studied both mainstream and special education teachers’ views about challenging student behaviour and included the examination of beliefs about the causes of challenging behaviour. Seventy teachers participated in the study. Thirty-eight were from special education and 32 were mainstream classroom teachers working in public schools in the United States. In response to the impact of challenging student behaviour on teaching and learning, the special education teachers and the mainstream teachers listed time taken, teacher stress, reduced learning time for other students and the students demonstrating the challenging behaviour. Sadly, nearly half of the mainstream teachers also expressed that having to cope with student challenging behaviour had caused them to consider leaving the teaching profession. When responding to causes of challenging behaviour, in general the teachers believed that the challenging behaviour was due to both internal factors (personality, the disability) and to external factors (the home). All teachers felt that student behaviour could be improved. Do you agree that behaviour is learned and can be improved?

What we believe about why challenging student behaviour occurs governs the nature of the interventions we apply. From a functional perspective, Chandler and Dahlquist (2015, p. 12) refer to commonly held beliefs about why challenging behaviour occurs such as the bad child, the disability, the bad parent, bad home situation and previous trauma or bad experiences, as ‘faulty explanations’. Chandler and Dahlquist (2015) note that they are not insinuating that knowledge of original causes such as trauma are not important, but it is the current behaviour that is happening in the current situation that needs to be addressed. While the authors rightly suggest that harbouring these ‘faulty explanations’ does little to help resolve the situation happening in the classroom where disruptive behaviour is hindering the learning and teaching, it is important that we think functionally about difficult behaviour using a trauma lens. Acknowledging that factors such as home life or disability are those that the teacher has little if any capacity to change, they do influence the child’s behaviour in the learning environment. Furthermore, the response of the teacher and the culture of the learning environment, significantly influence student expression of difficult behaviours when “trauma comes to school” (Jennings, 2019, p. 29).

From a behaviourist point of view, it is the environmental conditions (at the time the behaviour is occurring) that are maintaining the behaviour and therefore determining the relationship between the behaviour and what is happening in the environment in which the behaviour is occurring, is the focus. The primary goal is to change the behaviour. While the behaviourist is first and foremost trying to ascertain the functional relationship between behaviour and environment, they also acknowledge the role that physiological difficulties, heredity and development may play in impacting behaviour. Chandler and Dahlquist (2015) argue that the following types of explanations are unhelpful in assisting teachers to identify strategies to help manage and change the behaviour. The authors refer to these explanations as ‘faulty beliefs’.

It’s the child: Holding the belief that the child is innately bad and that the behaviour they demonstrate is a personal vendetta to make the teacher’s life miserable is of no benefit to anyone. It probably perpetuates teacher anger and increases the likelihood of punishment being used (Chandler & Dahlquist, 2015). What strategy will be implemented to change the behaviour? Remove the student from the classroom? This strategy will always eliminate the behaviour from the classroom, if only for a short time (or maybe altogether if the student moves to another school). Is it helpful to the child? Has the child been taught an alternative way to behave?

It’s the disability: From the outset, it needs to be clear that it is extremely important for a teacher to know if a child has a disability and for the teacher to learn as much as they can about the disability so that the student can be supported in the best way possible. Knowing about the disability will help us to understand the characteristics of that disability and in some cases the possible triggers for the behaviour but knowing does not tell us how to deal with the actual disruptive behaviour unfolding in front of us in the classroom. Furthermore, all children with a disability are individuals and it is dangerous to assume that all children with the same disability will behave in the same way. Disabilities do not change or go away. The disability cannot be changed so therefore if the belief is that it is the disability that is causing the disruptive behaviour then it follows that nothing can be done because the disability is what it is (Tillery et al., 2010). The behaviour is the problem! Knowing that a child has a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) does little to help the teacher resolve the problem. Casey and Carter (2016) suggest that this type of thinking is similar to what came first the chicken or the egg? They give the example of the child with ADHD noting “a diagnosis such as ADHD does not cause a child to behave in any manner; rather, when a child behaves in a certain manner someone may categorise the behavior by placing a diagnosis on the child” (Casey & Carter, 2016, p. 14).

It’s the parenting: Passing judgement is easy to do. Be careful here! The vast majority of parents do the best they can with the knowledge and resources they have. Teachers will often say that having met the child’s parents explains all and sheds light on why the child is the way they are. And yes, it is possible there is a hint of truth in this. As Alberto and Troutman (2013, p. 3) note “it is possible that certain genetic characteristics may increase the probability of certain behavioral characteristics”. Disrupted parenting in terms of the parent’s ability to respond with caring, nurturing behaviour that supports their child, making them feel safe and secure, negatively impacts on the child’s behaviour. For example, lack of acceptance of the child demonstrated through ongoing conflicts, drug use and criminal behaviour. That said and as critical as it is for teachers to understanding this, can a teacher influence change to this situation? The disruptive behaviour is happening at school, in the classroom or playground (or both) and needs to be dealt with in the context in which it is happening. If the same behaviour is occurring at home, then teachers need to work collaboratively with (willing) family members to help them as best they can.

It’s the home life: Can a teacher change the home situation of a student? Is it helpful to blame the student’s home life as awful as the living situation may be or seem to us? Living in a chaotic home with dysfunctional adults does affect behaviour (Chandler & Dahlquist, 2015). A student’s behaviour is impacted by happenings that occur within the spaces and the relationships in those spaces. If a student’s family life is characterised by chaos and dysfunction, then the student will most likely respond with higher levels of anxiety and negative behaviours demonstrated within the school context. While we cannot change this home situation, we can use the knowledge of it, to inform our support of the student at school. Positive interactions are the key to a student’s ability to adjust their behaviour.

Purple magic wand
Magic Wand by Clker Free Vector Images used under CC0.

Teachers cannot change or erase the child’s trauma history and we need to remember that not all children with trauma demonstrate ‘acting out’ externalised disruptive behaviours, but some do, and teachers need to know how to cope with disruptive behaviour that is occurring in the here and now of the classroom. Finding out why the child is behaving the way they are within the environment, needs to be the firm focus of observation and intervention if the disruptive behaviour is to be reduced. Teachers have little, if any control over the context beyond the classroom and school grounds, so the energy needs to be directed to factors that are within the teacher’s control – the classroom and school environment and what can be changed there that will decrease the disruptive behaviour. Knowing about possible impacting factors beyond the school and classroom environment is vital and helps teachers to build a deeper understanding of the student demonstrating the disruptive behaviour. Do you need to rethink your view of causes of disruptive behaviour?

It is important to state that there is no magic wand for disruptive student behaviour. No intervention, strategy or program will work for every disruptive student, every time and indeed none are guaranteed to do so. Using quality research to build understanding and knowledge to inform careful planning and skills to implement evidenced-based strategies, is the best place to start.

Chat with Esther, Behaviour Team Leader [52 min]

Listen to this podcast and learn about multi-tiered trauma support as applied in one context in the United States. This is a long coaching session, so just listen for the first 30 minutes.


Alberto, P. A., & Troutman, A. C. (2013). Applied behaviour analysis for teachers (9th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.

Armstrong, D. (2016). Introduction: embracing positive rules as a teacher. In D. Armstrong, J. Elliott, F. Hallett & G. Hallett (Eds.), Understanding child and adolescent behaviour in the classroom. Research and practice for teachers (pp. 1-24). Port Melbourne, VIC: Cambridge University Press.

Casey, L. B., & Carter, S. L. (2016). Applied behavior analysis in early childhood education. An introduction to evidence-based interventions and teaching strategies. New York, NY: Taylor & Francis.

Chandler, L. K., & Dahlquist, C. M. (2015). Functional assessment. Frenchs Forest, NSW: Pearson Australia.

Jennings, P. (2019). The trauma-sensitive classroom. Building resilience with compassionate teaching. W.W. Norton and Company.

Johansen, A., Little, S. G., Akin-Little, A. (2011). An examination of New Zealand teachers’ attributions and perceptions of behaviour, classroom management and the level of formal teacher training received in behaviour management. Kairaranga, 12(2), 3-10.

Tillery, A. D., Varjas, K., Meyers, J., & Collins, A. S. (2010). General education teachers’ perceptions of behavior management and intervention strategies. Journal of Positive Behavior Intervention, 12(2), 109-121. doi: 10.1177/1098300708330879.

Westling, D. L. (2010). Teachers and challenging behaviour. Knowledge, views and practices. Remedial and Special Education, 31(1), 48-63. doi: 10.1177/0741932508327466.


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Trauma Informed Behaviour Support: A Practical Guide to Developing Resilient Learners Copyright © 2020 by University of Southern Queensland is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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