School operations

Behaviour — Students

3  Challenging behaviour influences and triggers

​​Defining challenging behaviour

Schools have the ability to define their own set of behavioural expectations in their student engagement policy​ so there is no common set of behaviours that can be universally regarded as challenging.

However, grounds for suspension and expulsion are set and common to government schools.

In most schools and for most teachers, challenging behaviour can generally be understood as something that either interferes with the safety or learning of the student or other students, or interferes with the safety of school staff.

Examples of challenging behaviour include:

  • Withdrawn behaviours such as shyness, rocking, staring, anxiety, school phobia, truancy, social isolation or hand flapping.
  • Disruptive behaviours such as being out-of-seat, calling out in class, tantrums, swearing, screaming or refusing to follow instructions.
  • Violent and/or unsafe behaviours such as head banging, kicking, biting, punching, fighting, running away, smashing equipment or furniture/fixtures.
  • Inappropriate social behaviours such as inappropriate conversations, stealing, being over-affectionate, inappropriate touching or masturbation.

Influences on student behaviour

There are many potential influences on student behaviour, and many factors that can lead to behaviour that is challenging for schools to deal with. These include:

  • biophysical factors such as medical conditions or disabilities
  • psychological factors including emotional trauma or lack of social skills
  • behavioural/social factors including where a student’s problem behaviour has been learned through reinforcement, consequences or adaptation to social practices (a student with a learning difficulty repeatedly misbehaves knowing that he/she will be removed from the class and this will avoid his/her learning difficulty being exposed)
  • historical community factors including for Koorie students whose family member/s had difficult, sometimes traumatic, experiences of school and government agencies
  • cultural factors such as Koorie community ‘Sorry Business’
  • student group dynamics such as bullying and teasing, cliques or student apathy or hostility
  • environmental factors such as the level of classroom noise or classroom seating arrangements
  • classroom organisation issues such as inconsistent routines, inadequate materials or obliviousness to cultural differences
  • teacher behaviour for example boring or disorganised lessons, over-reaction to misbehaviour or over-reliance on punishment.

In many cases, there is no single “cause” of challenging behaviour, but it is the result of several factors operating in combination.

Behavioural triggers

When seeking to understand challenging behaviour, it is important to understand the role of behavioural triggers.

Triggers are actions or events that play a role in prompting particular behaviours. Triggers can be used deliberately by teachers to prompt correct student behaviour. For example, if a teacher wants students to listen, he or she will generally call for their attention (sometimes using a signal) and wait for them to be quiet, thereby triggering the desired attentive behaviour.

Sometimes actions or events in the classroom may be a trigger for some students to exhibit challenging behaviour. For instance, a teacher’s instruction to students such as: 'put your books away and take out a piece of paper so we can start writing' might act as a trigger for a student with learning difficulties, who may exhibit challenging behaviour in order to avoid completing the work, which could potentially reveal that they are struggling.

Whether or not a particular action or event is a trigger for challenging behaviour will depend on the individual student and the environment or setting in which it takes place. The instruction above might produce very different behaviour if it is shouted in a large, noisy classroom rather than made in calm voice to a small, attentive and quiet group of students.

A crucial element of any response to a student's challenging behaviours is identifying the triggers for that particular student. When triggers are identified, teachers and other school staff are then able to more easily avoid these and also can start to develop and use other triggers to elicit positive behaviour. 

Learn how to manage challenging behaviour​​​​.

Guidance chapter about challenging behaviour influences and triggers

Reviewed 03 June 2020

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