Psychological perspectives on behaviour

An understanding of  how behaviour difficulties develop and are maintained is an essential prerequisite to providing appropriate support for pupils in our schools.

This section explores a range of psychological perspectives on behaviour and the implications for educational practice.


Children with behavioural, emotional and social difficulties (BESDs) present particular challenges in school. Many teachers struggle to deal with the problems such children bring to the classroom. 

The Special Educational Needs (SEN) Code of Practice emphasises the need to identify children’s difficulties quickly to ensure action is taken to meet their needs. 

The difficulties children with BESDs experience could be the result of a number of factors, including traumatic experiences in early life, difficult family relationships or ineffective behaviour management in school.

The SEN Code of Practice  defines children and young people who demonstrate behavioural, emotional and social difficulties (BESD) as:

Withdrawn or isolated, disruptive and disturbing, hyperactive and lack concentration; those with immature social skills; and those presenting challenging behaviours arising from other complex special needs.

The term BESD can also include children and young people who present less obvious behaviours such as anxiety, depression and school phobia.

All children misbehave when they are distressed, for whatever reason, and this misbehaviour can manifest itself as attention seeking, noisy or disruptive.  Some children may become withdrawn or passive.  Only when behaviour shows ‘a persistent pattern across a range of subjects and activities’ should it be considered as a BESD.

Theoretical perspectives on behaviour

Whether we choose to adopt a behaviourist, cognitive-behaviourist, systemic, humanistic or psychodynamic perspective on behaviour will have an impact on the specific intervention put in place to support a pupil identified as having BESDs.  Consequently, adopting one style of intervention to support pupils with BESDs, whether in the classroom or externally, may be insufficient.

A more desirable approach is to develop breadth in provision that involves varied approaches to address pupils’ specific needs. There is a range of different psychological perspectives on behaviour.

Here is a brief overview of the theory and implications for practice  for some of the dominant perspectives on behaviour used in schools today:

  • Behavioural

    : Focuses on the idea that behaviour is the result of learning from the environment rather than cognitive processes. That which is reinforced will gain in strength while that which is not reinforced will disappear.

    : Rewards and sanctions imposed consistently and dispassionately by adult.
  • Cognitive – Behavioural

    Focuses on beliefs, attitudes, expectations and attributions when accounting for behaviour. Problem behaviour is seen as a product of maladaptive thinking related to processes of self-attribution and perceived self-efficacy.

    : Involve pupils in setting and monitoring their own behaviour targets.
  • Humanistic

    Focuses on nurturing emotional needs, communicating rather than punishing and establishing good relationships. An explanation for behaviour is offered emphasising the uniqueness of the individual and the importance of the self-concept. Empathy, unconditional positive regard and congruence are the key  qualities required of someone adopting a humanistic approach.

    Listening to the views of pupils; taking opportunities to establish person to person relationships between staff and pupils; supporting peer-to-peer relationships; referral to a humanistic school counsellor.
  • Psychodynamic

    Problem behaviour occurs as a result of unconscious conflicts in early childhood. Attachment patterns developed in infancy continue to have an impact throughout the child’s later life and can impact on learning in school.

     Metaphor in artwork, drama, play or stories is used to help process unconscious conflicts and these interventions are usually implemented by a specially trained therapist. An adult may  be identified as a substitute attachment figure for a pupil with attachment anxiety in school.
  • Biological

     Behaviour is a result of biological and biochemical processes.

    : Consultation with health professionals and medication may be prescribed.
  • Ecological

     Focuses on the physical-spatial and social environments and their influence on behaviour.

    : Creation of attractive buildings and learning environments. Consideration of the impact of the layout of furniture and  seating in the classroom.
  • Systemic

    The child is seen as being an intrinsic part of a wider social system both in and outside of school, and the nature of these overarching systems are seen as influencing the behaviour of the  individual.

    : Consider how the whole school ethos impacts on the behaviour of individual children. Encourage the involvement of parents and carers in  interventions to support behaviour. Be aware of the wider community and cultural impact on the individual child.
  • Social learning

     Behaviour is influenced by observing the actions of others.

    : Pupils with behavioural difficulties have the opportunity to be in contact with other pupils who have good social skills – this is particularly helpful when pupils are working in small groups. Ensure that the behaviour of staff sets a good example to pupils.


This is a complex area and much has been written on how to support pupils with BESDs but here are a few key actions related to the specific theoretical perspectives covered above.


  • Set up an individual positive behaviour programme with targets clearly understood by the pupil
  • Be consistent: it is the certainty of a response and the follow-up that matters, not the severity
  • Involve parents in rewarding good behaviour – particularly effective with younger children.


  • Involve pupils in reflecting on their own behaviour and in setting and monitoring targets
  • Provide strategies for  the pupil to self-regulate/self-soothe when feeling anxious eg visualisation, NLP anchoring
  • Explore how pupils attribute meaning to events and consider ways in which to reframe situations and experiences.


  • Focus on the quality of relationships with the pupil
  • Use active listening to show the  pupil that they have been really heard
  • Build self-esteem eg blame the behaviour but not the child; address the pupil by name; accept the child though not the behaviour; remember to ‘catch them getting it right’.


  • Be aware that pupils who have not received good enough care in the early years may have attachment anxiety and consider what unconscious pattern of behaviour the child may be bringing in to the classroom
  • Use interventions that help the child to process unresolved unconscious emotions in a safe way eg play therapy, drama therapy, therapeutic storywriting
  • Refer the pupil to a psychodynamic counsellor, possibly through Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS)


  • Research basic information about the pupil’s specific condition
  • Make sure medication is kept safe and administered at the correct times
  • Be aware of times when medication such as Ritalin may be wearing off.


  • Consider the implications of classroom layout and decor
  • Think about how seating arrangements may affect certain pupils’ behaviour
  • Consider how playgrounds might affect pupils' behaviour eg are there any quiet places? Play equipment?


  • Consider the impact of the whole school ethos on behaviour
  • Liaise with parents about any issues at home
  • Form links eg through project work with the local community.

Social learning

  • Ensure that small groups include some pupils who can model good social skills
  • Praise pupils who are doing ordinary things well
  • Model coping skills eg verbalise your own internal process when managing an anxiety-provoking situation. 

Find out more

Challenging Behaviour: teachers discuss children’s behaviour and discipline in schools in a short film, originally shown on Teachers’ TV channel (now closed).

British Journal of Special Education

British Journal of Learning Support

Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties, the official journal of Social, Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties Association

Caspari Foundation, charity supporting children with emotional, learning and behavioural difficulties. Caspari's services for schools include educational psychotherapy

Behaviour 4 Learning: archive of valuable information, particularly for newly qualified teachers, on behaviour management


Ayers, H., Clarke, D., & Murray, A., (2000)  Perspectives on Behaviour David Fulton

Cooper, P., (1999) Understanding and Supporting Pupils with Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties Jessica Kingsley

Davou, B. & Xenakis, F. (eds) (1998) Feeling, Communicating and Thinking, Papazissis

Faupel, A., Herrick, E., & Sharp, P., (1998) Anger Management David Fulton

Geddes, H. (2005) Attachment in the Classroom Worth Publishing

Glasser, W., (1998) Choice Theory in the Classroom Harper Collins

Hanko, G. (1995) Special Needs in Ordinary Classrooms David Fulton

Ledoux, J.,(1999) The Emotional Brain Phoenix

Porter, L., (2000) Behaviour in Schools Open University Press

Powell, S, Tod, J, Cornwall, J and Soan, S (2004) A systematic review of how theories explain learning behaviour in school contexts, Institute of Education, University of London 

Sharp, P (2003) Nurturing Emotional Literacy David Fulton 

Steer, A. (2009) Learning Behaviour: Lessons Learned Nottingham: DCSF

Waters, T. (2004) Therapeutic Storywriting: A Practical Guide to Developing Emotional Literacy in Primary Schools David Fulton