3.10.2 Root causes and remedies for un-cooperative behaviour

Learning objectives for this chapter

By the end of this chapter we would like you to be able:

  • To define un-cooperative behaviour and the ways it may manifest in the classroom
  • To appreciate some of the root causes of un-cooperative behaviours
  • To consider the role of the teacher in managing classroom behaviour
  • To consider strategies to prevent negative behaviours
  • To appreciate the range responsibilities teachers and schools have in disciplinary matters when appropriate

What is "un-cooperative behaviour"?

Un-cooperative behaviour can take several guises. At one extreme, it may be physical, deliberately disruptive, and perhaps dangerous to others; at the other end of the behavioural spectrum it might manifest as unwillingness to engage with classroom activities in a range of ways. A spectrum of behaviours is possible, and this section indicates a hierarchy of severity. Schools will have in place not only policies and training, but dedicated points of contact for special educational needs, for difficult behaviours, and for teacher training and development, and it is always useful to be fully aware of the setting's protocols for dealing with disruptive behaviour at all levels. 

Passive-aggressive behaviour

Passive-aggressive behaviour may be apparent through resistance to engaging in normal classroom activities, complaints about being misunderstood or above the work being done, complaints of victimisation, argumentativeness, being critical of authority, including that of teachers, alternating between defiance and being apologetic, and periods of resentfulness towards others' engagement or success.

Defiant behaviour

Less co-operative learners might be outwardly and deliberately defiant, seeking to engage and obstruct authority, to undermine the teacher in front of classroom peers, or else to find ways to subvert the running of the session. Behavioural patterns in such learners can be negativistic, hostile, and argumentative, though will be more straightforward in their approach than in passive-aggressive learners. A tendency to communicate through conflict may be determined, as might the need to exert power in situations where they do not hold natural authority as learners.  

Conduct Disorders

Conduct disorders, and related antisocial behaviours, are characteristically linked to ongoing, repetitive, and persistent patterning of defiant and at times aggressive behaviour. Opposition to authority - represented by individual teachers, or perhaps towards the school in general terms - is a common thread. Conduct disorders typically are indicated by behaviour of such significance that they violate social expectations of age-appropriate behaviour; there is often a link to a diagnosable condition.

Challenging behaviour

The term challenging behaviour is used in education and health-related contexts to refer specifically to such behaviours which may put the individual or others around them at risk; such behaviours might include being aggressive, self-harming, being destructive or abusive in class, or engaging in culturally abnormal behaviour. Typically, such behaviours and their definition relate to those with severe learning difficulties, and relate to those whose behaviour limits the reasonableness of them being included in mainstream education or in community facilities (Challenging Behaviour Foundation, 2008). 

What are some of the causes of un-cooperative behaviour?

Pupils tend not to look to maliciously cause problems, but they may not always be in control of their emotional state, and so may be unable to moderate their uncooperative behaviour if it is triggered. Working to prevent issues arising ahead of time is sensible, and often more straightforward than having to cope with the aftermath of an outburst or similar incident.

Though it is perhaps inevitable that may pupils will exhibit moments of lack of co-operation at times, for the clear majority of learners these will be temporary frustrations and will not represent a longer-term issue. Un-cooperative behaviours may be fuelled with frustration, by feelings of lack of self-worth, or with the child making unrealistic expectations of themselves, often by trying to - and failing - to match the performance of others. Anxiety and mental health-related conditions such as depression may play a role. A range of causes is given below (HM Government, 2016):

  • Emotional disorders: phobias, anxiety states, depression
  • Conduct disorders: theft, defiance, aggression, being anti-social, damaging property, setting fires
  • Hyperkinetic disorders: disorders related to activity and to attention
  • Developmental disorders: autism-spectrum conditions, other developmental delays
  • Attachment disorders: being distressed or socially impaired as a result of an atypical pattern of attachment to a parent or other care giver
  • Other mental health problems: eating disorders, habit disorders, post-traumatic disorders as examples

For many pupils, though, their issues will be temporary states, and the behavioural symptoms will be mild. Where, though, there is severity and persistence over time, or where multiple un-cooperative and oppositional difficulties present themselves simultaneously, that may represent a diagnosable condition.

2016 data suggests that almost 10% of children and young people have a clinically diagnosed mental disorder (HM Government, 2016). Of these, 6% of all children have a conduct disorder, almost 4% have emotional disorders, and 1.5% have hyperkinetic disorders and/or other disorders; a fifth of those diagnosed will have multiple disorders present. An additional 15% of school age children have problem which, though less severe, nevertheless put them at risk of developing mental health issues in the future (HM Government, 2016).

There may be other factors at play which are driving the child's behaviour, and it may be appropriate to consider referring the pupil to an appropriate member of staff with the requisite authority to deal with the matter. There is the potential, for example, for underlying causes such as the child being impacted on, or at risk from, abuse or radicalisation; a referral to the designated safeguarding officer might be appropriate in such situations, if there is reasonable cause to do so. 

How might these causes be addressed? What impact might this have on behaviours?

To some extent, the potential for un-cooperative, disruptive, or other oppositional behaviour can be mitigated by careful and considerate planning and preparation ahead of time, by thinking through of the potential distractions and sources of conflict and working to remove them so that they do not represent an issue in class, and by clarity and consistency in the teaching. This, when allied with a considerate approach to learners who might represent problematic behaviours, though not to the extent of shaping the session to them, is appropriate.

Farrell (2010) suggests taking the needs of potentially problematic learners into account when designing lesson plans and activities within lessons. Frequent short activity bursts are recommended; activities should have a clear end point, and be directly related to formal input, A diet of short and frequent activities can be used to develop attention-retention abilities, and to prevent learners getting bored, moving off-topic, or seeking to otherwise disrupt. Smith and Laslett (1992) suggest a four-tiered approach articulating different aspects of effective classroom management:

  • The classroom: be learner-focused and goal-oriented, and ensure that the learners are motivated and guided with efficiency through the session; let momentum carry the session through.
  • Mediation with individuals: use your knowledge of learners to counsel and guide, be appreciative of their contexts and problems, and work to avoid confrontational situations developing
  • Modification of behaviour: apply relevant learning theories to the classroom to support the shaping and development of behaviour, and the modelling of positive behaviours and learning environments throughout
  • Monitoring school discipline: dealing to assess the effectiveness of disciplinary protocols, and of the school response to un-cooperative learners and to teachers who are working with those learners

If un-cooperative or disruptive behaviour occurs, it should be treated fairly, quickly and with clarity. Where instructions are given before activities, then they can be used to relate the activity back to the learner during and after the activity has ended. Direct confrontation should be avoided, or the undermining of the learner in ways which might reinforce oppositional behaviour. Sanctions for non-cooperation need to be fair, proportionate, relevant to the task in hand, and known by all in advance.

What limitations are there for a teacher in terms of how far they can intervene?

Though there is governmental guidance available, this gives only a general statement of the law and of educators' responsibilities and obligations; a fuller, and more contextualised account will be found in each setting's behaviour and discipline policy, and with the internal training which will accompany such documentation. It is useful for teachers to be at least familiar with the main provisions of such policies, and the reporting protocols to be followed following a reportable incident or physical intervention.

Teachers, as well as other staff who have a pupil responsibility - such as teaching assistants - have a statutory authority to discipline pupils exhibiting unacceptable behaviour, or who fail to follow a reasonable instruction. This extends to periods, such as on outside school visits, where the teacher is acting in loco parentis. Teachers may confiscate pupils' property, and have the power to impose detention running outside school hours.

Clarity, even-handedness, fairness, and consistency are crucial to the writing and implementation of policies designed to prevent or to sanction disruptive or other problematic behaviour. It should be clear to all pupils, and to others, of the expectations that are in place, the potential punishments, and the consequences of escalating behaviours. Staff development and school line management which is likewise robust and consistent are equally important, as is a collegiate approach between teaching peers to behavioural issues with learners.

Where poor behaviour has been identified, and where the sanction will reasonably address that behaviour, then sanctions which are fair and proportionate may be applied by the teacher. Such sanctions might include:

  • Verbal reprimands
  • Repeating unsatisfactory work until the required standard is met, or the setting of additional work
  • Loss of privileges (such as not being allowed to take part in a school event)
  • Missing break time
  • Detention: lunchtime, after school, and weekend detentions might be used to indicate different levels of severity of sanction
  • Community service-related task: picking up school litter, graffiti removal, cleaning up the dining hall
  • Being placed "on report": having the pupil's behaviour and other aspects (such as conformity to standards of school uniform) checked and/or reported on after each class, for example
  • Suspension or exclusion from school on either a temporary or permanent basis

Higher level sanctions, such as suspension or exclusion would normally be subject to a stated procedure within the school rules, and will involve the head teacher or their authority as delegated. Though inconsequential matters might be dealt with a reprimand and an instruction to put the pupil's property away, there exists a general power for teachers to confiscate, and to retain or dispose of - if reasonable - a pupil's property. Again, there will be school guidance on the handing in, return, or destruction of pupil property. Teachers and other school staff also have the power to use reasonable force to prevent pupils from harming themselves or others, from committing an offence, from damaging property, and to "maintain good order and discipline in the classroom" (Department for Education, 2016, p. 12). Schools may have a policy allowing disruptive pupils to be placed away from other learners for a limited amount of time. The factors governing use of such seclusion or isolation rooms should be clearly stated in school policies, and the use of such rooms should be reasonable to the circumstances, with the dignity, health and safety of the pupil held as paramount.


The chapter - and its predecessor - have examined a range of behavioural issues and their possible causes and consequences in some detail. When starting out as educators, it is only right to be idealistic about the profession, and to be optimistic for all sessions and all learners. However, as these chapters have indicated, not all learners will engage with everything, and for some learners there might be significant barriers to that focus on the session.

A teacher needs to be proactive; planning in respect of approach and in session content will give an advantage, but there will be times when we are all stretched by a non-compliant or obstructive pupil. This chapter has centred on more difficult behavioural sets, and has had two main themes: the relationships between behaviour and that behaviour as potentially symptomatic of an underlying condition, and of the disciplinary aspects of teaching.


Challenging Behaviour Foundation (2008) What is challenging behaviour? Available at: http://www.challengingbehaviour.org.uk/about-us/about-challenging-behaviour/what-is-challenging-behaviour.html (Accessed: 22 November 2016).

Department for Education (2015) Use of reasonable force advice for headteachers, staff and governing bodies. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/444051/Use_of_reasonable_force_advice_Reviewed_July_2015.pdf (Accessed: 21 November 2016).

Department for Education (2016) Behaviour and discipline in schools: advice for headteachers and school staff. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/488034/Behaviour_and_Discipline_in_Schools_-_A_guide_for_headteachers_and_School_Staff.pdf (Accessed: 21 November 2016).

Fad, K.M. (2015) Dealing with students who are uncooperative, oppositional, and exhausting. Available at: http://www.crcpd.ab.ca/uploads/userfiles/not_going_to_do_it.pdf (Accessed: 21 November 2016).

Farrell, M. (2010) The effective teacher's guide to behavioural and emotional disorders. New York: Taylor & Francis.

Education and inspections act 2006, c. Available at: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2006/40/pdfs/ukpga_20060040_en.pdf (Accessed: 21 November 2016).

HM Government (2016) Mental health and behaviour in schools departmental advice for school staff. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/508847/Mental_Health_and_Behaviour_-_advice_for_Schools_160316.pdf (Accessed: 22 November 2016).

NICE (2013) Antisocial behaviour and conduct disorders in children and young people: Recognition and management. Available at: https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/cg158/chapter/introduction (Accessed: 22 November 2016).

Smith, C.J. and Laslett, R.A. (1992) Effective classroom management: a teacher's guide. 2nd edn. New York: Taylor & Francis.

UK Government (2016) School attendance and absence. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/school-attendance-absence/help-with-getting-your-child-to-go-to-school (Accessed: 21 November 2016).

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