NQT Special: When poor student behaviour is a cry for help

There are many reasons behind poor pupil behaviour in the classroom. Often SEN can have a role to play or students can simply be struggling to access the learning. Daniel Sobel offers some pointers


Low-level disruption is the bane of all new teachers – how soul-destroying it can be to have taught a lesson that all seemed to go wrong because of these distractions. It leads many teachers to question just how they can get certain students to engage more enthusiastically.

There are many wide-ranging causes of poor behaviour. This article focuses on poor learning behaviours that come as a result of SEN or because pupils are struggling with their learning.

It is certainly the case that some behaviours articulate an unhappiness, possibly with school life and/or with life in general. The student/s may be saying – “please notice me and help me”.

Other behaviours are a student’s way of coping with a lesson that they do not understand. And unidentified SEN might also be playing a role in causing challenging behaviour.

Whatever it might be, all of these behaviours are communicating something – that the student is finding it difficult to sit and learn in your classroom and they would like you to respond, preferably kindly and with compassion.

I am convinced that new teachers tend to be more concerned with how well they taught rather than how well their students learnt. This is not a criticism but often a natural barrier built on the wreckage of the endless judgements new teachers are given about their teaching.

I often try to encourage new teachers to bridge the gap between some of the disruptive behaviour they may experience and the need to consider why their students may be displaying this behaviour.

I know it is easier said than done. When I started teaching one student made my class so difficult I dreaded it. I felt angry towards this individual who was making my already stressful new teacher life a nightmare.

I complained about him of course and tried to send him out and this was frowned upon. So I tried something that was contrary to what all of my feelings wanted me to do: I approached him in the playground for a chat. I said to him that I thought he had some unique views and that I and the other students would value his contribution in the classroom – and that I thought he was really bright. From then on this student participated perfectly; he said hello to me when he entered the class and even got others to settle down.

What I had stumbled upon was the trick of seeing beyond the behaviour to what the student was really asking for – someone to notice him and say something nice. My guess is that I was one of the only adults in his life who told him he was all right and a good person.

Ask the right questions

When faced with a student who is exhibiting poor behaviour, or who is distracting others or being distracted easily, ask yourself: why is this?

Often their behaviours will simply be a way of hiding their inability to fully understand and access what you are giving them.

Therefore, seek to understand their learning process. For example, do they have difficulty remembering spoken information? If so, you could give them written instructions. Perhaps they may find difficulty in following long and complex instructions, in which case your guidance could be chunked into smaller bite-sized instructions.

It is very common that young people with a broad range of needs have difficulty remembering subject-specific vocabulary, so providing pre-learning will help most students.

Other common learning behaviours that indicate a possible inability to access your lesson include students:

  • Rarely completing given tasks.
  • Quick to leave their seats.
  • Distracting themselves (fiddling, fidgeting, playing with bags or planners).
  • Finding reasons to avoid tasks.
  • Trying to sit at the back of the class.
  • Avoiding interacting in class activities.

When you speak with them, do you notice their conversation moving from topic to topic for no obvious reason? They may also fail to respond to a question unless asked specifically by name in a class scenario.

Do they demonstrate a difficulty in understanding inference or abstract concepts? Do their answers completely miss the point of the question? Do they demonstrate difficulty in sequencing (doing a task in an ordered way)?

These type of issues may also indicate a more complex type of SEN, which might be neurologically based, such as autistic spectrum disorder or attention deficit disorder. In these cases you should pass this information on to your line manager and usually the SENCO. Obviously, double check the information you have been given about your students to ensure that you have done your due diligence.

Ultimately, however, these students are still in your class and you are their teacher – and regardless of their presenting issues and behaviours they are there to learn. So, what can you do? First, make sure you have sought advice and, when necessary, ask a more experienced teacher to model best practice. Going to see the student being taught in a different classroom setting can also help tremendously.

It is also worth remembering that in many schools, it is the teaching assistants who know the students best, so don’t miss the obvious trick of asking them to help guide you with their knowledge of individuals.

For effective inclusion, there are some golden rules of thumb that you can employ as well. I have included a brief list below. See the Inclusion Expert website for a free download of the full 60 points of advice:

  • Link new learning to areas already covered.
  • Chunk instructions so they provide small sequential.
  • Provide instructions as a typed sheet.
  • Model answers so that it is clear what success will look like.
  • Provide opportunities to demonstrate knowledge without necessarily having to write it down.
  • When marking work look for opportunities to celebrate success so that the student develops confidence in his abilities as an independent learner.
  • Ensure that any worksheets are not “over busy” and that font is no smaller than size 12.
  • Make sure that the student has his/her own textbook and does not have to share.
  • Check that the student has understood instructions, use his/her name when addressing them so they know that it is specifically them that is being spoken to.
  • Provide them with a list of instructions and tasks where possible so that they do not have to strain their eyes reading from the board.

I appreciate that the above touches on many classroom issues and the problem is that these are not the only challenges – time, resources and adequate support all influence your ability to deal with behavioural issues. I also appreciate that outstanding personalised learning is easy to write about and hard to deliver in every lesson during the busiest of weeks.

However, it is precisely this time-management that gets easier with time and experience and this is what you should be seeking support from your line manager for. The basics of differentiation are essential and need to be honed as a core teaching skill.