Managing challenging behaviour in schools

Article written for April 2015 Your Voice

By Dr Morris Charlton, Voice Regional Officer

By: Dr Morris Charlton, Voice Regional Officer for Yorkshire, former headteacher with 30 years’ experience in specialist behavioural schools, and advanced Team-Teach instructor Anne Bellerby, Deputy Headteacher of a residential special school for boys with behavioural difficulties Campbell McInnes, a former headteacher of an autistic unit and teacher in a residential special school for boys with behavioural difficulties

 Article written for April 2015 Your Voice.]  See below for additional section on Restrictive Physical Intervention 

Much of the seriously challenging behaviour encountered in schools is a consequence of young people’s ‘experiences’ – learned behaviour, frustration or mental health issues – and inconsistent and poor management.  We can work on changing this behaviour by ensuring that we have consistent approaches. Young people need to know where they stand – they test expectations because adults have given in to them in the past. 

School behaviour policies 

It starts with the school behaviour policies – are they meaningful and does everyone operate them consistently? Too many are unworkable tomes! Until there is consistency, little progress will be made.  Linked with consistency is persistency. Too many schools’ behaviour policies are tested by challenging behaviour and the response is to change the policy. Some schools have several policies in a year! This is inconsistent and confusing for young people and staff. When staff don’t know what they’re supposed to be doing, it’s not surprising young people challenge adults around them. Once the policy is agreed, the next step is to ensure the practice is sound and consistently applied.  Young people with challenging behaviour are likely to have a Positive Management Plan (PMP) or an Individual Behaviour Plan (IBP). Does everyone know about these – are they operated consistently across the whole school? Are they reviewed regularly with the young person and their parents? Are they discussed at whole school staff meetings and progress recognised?  Once there is consistency and confidence, adults and young people will know where they stand and what management, rewards and sanctions come into play.  The key to success in managing young people with challenging behaviour lies in confidence, consistency and staff competency. Having confidence in policies and practice as a consequence of careful planning and communication allows for effective management. 

Need to develop staff competencies 

Competencies are wide-ranging skills that are used to de-escalate, defuse or divert behaviour. They are based on the expertise of staff and their relationships with young people. This forms the basis of the PMP or IBP.  An important aspect of managing behaviour is working in staff teams. Staff should support one another even when the situation is apparently being well managed. This may be a simple ‘Here to help’. When offered help, take it, and tell the support how they can help. 

Physical intervention 

There will come a time when the behaviour is such that physical intervention is required to prevent a young person harming themselves, others or property.  Although staff can intervene in ways that are reasonable, necessary, proportionate, and in the child’s best interests, they should receive appropriate training and support.  Physical intervention training develops staff competencies and confidences. You’re better equipped to manage a crisis if you’re confident you can manage most eventualities.    Training should be delivered by those whose methods are accredited by the British Institute for Learning Disability (BILD) ( There are numerous providers offering varying levels of support and a holistic approach – it’s the 95% of intervention that’s not physical that’s crucial in avoiding the need for physical intervention.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           .

Restrictive Physical Intervention 

If, when there is an effective and consistent policy linked to good practice in the school, and there is still challenging and dangerous behaviour and all other alternatives have been explored, the decision may have to be taken to train staff in restrictive physical intervention.   For this step to be taken, thorough risk assessments should have been carried out on the types of challenging behaviour that are being presented and expert trainers engaged.  The emphasis at all stages should be that all other alternatives – pre-emptive management, de-escalation, diversion and diffusion –have been tried before physical intervention takes place.  Training in physical intervention skills is a major step for any school or care-based establishment. For staff, it is always focused on the best interests of the young person, self-control, self-management and minimal use.  The key is:  

  • Is it necessary?
  • Is it proportionate?
  • Is it reasonable?
  • Is it safe?
  • Is it in the best interests of the young person? 

The implications, pedagogy and underpinning philosophy of the above are a key part of any training. Fundamental to the use of restrictive physical intervention is a thorough understanding of behaviour and its causes – from a theoretical and the young person’s perspective. 

Intervention skills 

Intervention skills that are taught are graded responses to behaviour. Stepping down and away from crisis are common strategies. Intervention is never about the imposition of control but one of calm management.  A calm, controlled response based on the staff member’s professional self-confidence and a surety in their ability to manage a crisis situation is key.  Staff having that confidence is something that young people are swiftly aware of. The initial confident and calm approach and non-threatening body language may remove the necessity for a physical intervention.  However, if that is insufficient, then clear confident instructions accompanied by non-contact guiding directions may be sufficient.  If ineffective, then a contact or near-contact with an open, reversed hand in the upper back may suffice. (There is no such thing as a no-touch edict from government.)  This can be upgraded to a more direct guide, using the ‘Caring Cs’ placed above elbows to move a young person swiftly from the problem area.  In many training sessions that we have been involved in, the need for anything else but these simple interventions is common.  Friendly supports may then be utilised, if necessary, which are slightly more restrictive and ensure that the child and others are kept safe.  At all times when using restrictive physical intervention, the focus should be on minimising the contact.  As soon as it is safe, the supportive holds should be released. In any behavioural crisis, communication and care of the young person is to the fore.  Any physical intervention by staff with a young person should be part of a well-planned strategy that involves post-incident listening and review.  Each situation should be part of the behavioural learning for the young person that will allow him/her to develop self-control.  Surprisingly, when staff are trained, the need for physical restraint usually drops as staff are far more confident in their approaches to challenging young people.

Further information

Alphabet Behaviour

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