“…what the pupil is communicating can be tricky. This might be frustration, anxiety, sadness, confusion, or insecurity to boundary testing.”

I recently watched BBC2’s series ‘Don’t exclude me’. It provided insights into how pupils’ social, emotional and mental health needs (SEMH) display as behaviour that challenges. The programme examined impacts on teachers, classes, families and individual pupils. One criticism of the programme is a lack of focus on understanding any special educational needs or disabilities (SEND)1.

Despite DfE guidance identifying: “Where there are concerns about behaviour, the school should instigate an assessment… to determine whether there are any underlying factors such as… difficulties with speech and language”2, many pupils with SEND do end up being excluded. In these instances, the SEND is often not fully identified or left unsupported: The Institute for Public Policy Research’s report highlighted excluded children as “twice as likely to be in the care of the state, four times more likely to have grown up in poverty, seven times more likely to have a special educational need and 10 times more likely to suffer recognised mental health problems”3.

Behaviour that challenges has strong impacts on teachers. This can disrupt developing positive pupil relationships. The New Teacher Project study found 40% of teachers identified “having students who are behind academically or behaviourally challenging” as among the top three barriers to feeling like an effective teacher4.

Deep down, we probably all recognise that behaviour is communication. Understanding this, at a conscious level, is important. Identifying roots of behaviour, what the pupil is communicating, can be tricky. This might be frustration, anxiety, sadness, confusion, or insecurity leading to boundary testing.

The behaviour may also arise from difficulties processing and responding to communication demands: A Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists (RCSLT) publication5 identifies 81% of children with emotional and behavioural disorders have significant unidentified speech, language and communication needs (SLCN)6. The useful publication continues, “In a study of pupils at risk of exclusion from school, two thirds were found to have SLCN”.7

Australian-based Complex Needs Capable describes approaches to understanding behaviour:8

  • The internal approach –behaviours are seen as originating from the individual, including mood, mental health, character. (This might include SEND).
  • The external approach – behaviours are linked to the environment (such as noise levels, lengths of instruction, pressure to speak etc.).
  • The interactional approach –considers the interaction of both internal and external factors.

The organisation recommends the interactional approach, helping us to understand both internal and external factors influencing a person’s behaviour.

So, it is vital to understand the pupil’s underlying difficulties, as well as how the environment can support or exaggerate these. The RCSLT factsheet9 and its evidence for a review on exclusions10 identifies how a pupil’s SLCN can present in a classroom. They also highlight strategies to minimise difficulties for the pupil, and ultimately the teacher and the rest of the class. For example:

  • A lack of ability understanding instructions can impact on indirect requests, such as “I’m waiting for the class to be quiet”.
  • Some pupils with poor attention and listening skills / working memory may be prone to distractions and may need instructions presented in chunks of information.
  • Pupils who struggle naming emotions can find it difficult to calm themselves through ‘self-talk’, leading to emotional regulation difficulties.
  • SLCN also impacts on literacy leading to difficulty accessing the curriculum.

As well as focusing on increasing pupils’ speech, language and communication skills, it is important to identify any sensory needs, which may present as wriggling in chairs and apparent increased energy. Guidance provided by an occupational therapist could include a weighted lap-pad, wobble cushion or elastic resistance band wrapped around the table legs the pupil could kick against.

Useful tools to explore managing emotions include social stories11 and zones of regulation12. We also know that the use of visuals to reduce language load can be very effective.

Finally, numerous therapies which support mental health are delivered verbally. These ‘talking therapies’ may be much harder for children with underlying SLCN to access – another reason to boost pupils’ speech and language skills!


  1. https://www.specialneedsjungle.com/dont-exclude-me-send-first-thought/
  2. Department for Education (2016) – Mental health and behaviour in schools.
  3. Institute for Public Policy Research (October 2017)
  4. https://tntp.org/assets/documents/TNTP_Perspectives_2013.pdf
  5. https://www.rcslt.org/wp-content/uploads/media/Project/RCSLT/rcslt-behaviour-a4-factsheet.pdf
  6. Hollo, A, Wehby, J.H. and Oliver, R.M. (2014). Unidentified Language Deficits in Children with Emotional and Behavioral Disorders: A MetaAnalysis. Exceptional Children; 80(2), 169-186.
  7. Clegg, J. (2004). Language and behaviour: an exploratory study of pupils in an exclusion unit. British Psychological Society Conference, University of Leeds, UK, September 2004
  8. https://www.complexneedscapable.org.au/understanding-behaviour. html#:~:text=%20Behaviour%20is%20a%20means%20of%20 communication%2C%20and,a%20person%20being%20perceived%20as%20 having%20challenging%20behaviour
  9. Ibid rdclt.org
  10. https://www.rcslt.org/wp-content/uploads/media/Project/RCSLT/exclusions-review-rcslt-written-evidence.pdf
  11. https://www.autism.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/topics/communication/communication-tools/social-stories-and-comic-strip-conversations
  12. https://zonesofregulation.com/index.html
Share this article

Please login to view this content