Challenging Ideas about Disaffection

2. Understanding difficult pupils

<< 1. Identifying the Challenges

Attempts to make sense of persistent difficult behaviour in the classroom often settle on particular broad causes located in the child (such as a disinterest in learning, an unsupportive damaging home life, or undiagnosed psychological disorder). However, these kinds of interpretations tend to be based on snapshot impressions that can overlook more complex, multi-layered and socially situated causalities.

Reflecting on the behaviour

It is crucial to be able to step back, depersonalise the problematic behaviour in question and resist getting drawn into pointless power battles or vendettas. Remember that for the pupil you may be regarded as figurehead for broader felt injustices at the level of the school or even the adult world.

It is important to consciously separate the difficult behaviour from the pupils themselves. But it is equally important to avoid detaching challenging conduct from its context and assuming it is a reflection of a deeper problem or personal pathology. Instead focus on deducing what might be being communicated through the behaviour.  Amongst other things this might be:

I think the most important thing is being non-judgemental.  It’s not good or bad, it’s just behaviour.  It’s got no personal significance whatsoever, you know, so being upset about somebody’s behaviour or whatever is just meaningless. It doesn’t move the situation forward.  So I think the ability to kind of be able to stand back and see that behaviour just as behaviour. Then the issue becomes, “Well, how do I respond to that?”  Rather than, “Oh, this is terrible”, or “This is great” it’s just behaviour.  And then “Well, okay.  There’s something going on underneath here which is making this kid, or this individual, behave in that way”, so trying to understand what is, what’s it all about?  What does it mean?  (Ben Goldberg, teacher specialising in behaviour management).

Getting to know pupils

Building better relationships between teachers and pupils is key to improving behaviour in the classroom.

School staff may not always be aware of major events, challenges and pressures shaping pupils’ lives and behaviour and pupils may not always be willing to disclose them. There were many cases of this uncovered in the original research. For example, one boy had kept his mother’s critical illness secret.

Broadening the focus

The widespread introduction of Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning programmes have tended to focus attention on to the personal capacities and needs of individual pupils. One consequence is that everyday social factors contributing to or exacerbating difficult behaviour can be overlooked.

An example from the original research highlights how significant relational dynamics can be in making sense of behaviour.  Jake, a 13 year old white working class pupil had been prone to aggressive outbursts since primary school.  He had been excluded from primary school and temporarily excluded many times from secondary school. In the research sessions he was generally calm and thoughtful, but his behaviour was volatile in a classroom setting. Jake was slightly overweight and his clothes were tattered, worn and sometimes a bit dirty. His mother struggled to afford school uniform and he often wore tracks suit bottoms and tee-shirts instead. In observations it was noted that he was commonly provoked by groups of pupils. In the research interview he explained how he had been bullied from a young age by two boys in particular. He also described the powerful effect of losing his temper and fighting back.


There was this train thing, and he climbed to the top, and I kicked him off.  And after that he stopped bullying me. And another one say, “Just because you beat up one of my friends, don’t mean I’ll stop bullying you”, and then he, he laughed at me, he laughed at my dungarees and said, “Where did your mum get that?  Oxfam?”  And then I punched his teeth out. …..But after that day, no one bullied me.

Jake was considered to have a problem regulating his emotions and was sent repeatedly to anger management classes. However he continued to lose his temper in the classroom, often in response to goading from other pupils. In one orchestrated incident a group of pupils had been throwing pens at him until he exploded and punched his computer screen. Another similar incident saw him excluded when he retrieved the pens and furiously threw them back, narrowly missing a teacher as she stepped back into the classroom. Shifting attention away from perceived shortcomings in Jake’s personal skills and emotional management would allow for a more constructive focus on the instrumental reasons behind his outbursts. This could lead to more effective alternative solutions that directly address classroom dynamics.

<< 1. Identifying the Challenges