Types of behaviour

Behaviour Management

Types of behaviour

a guide for classroom teachers and teacher aides

Teacher aide supervising 2 students.

Novice teachers may struggle to think of behaviour management in terms of addressing the underlying or root cause, particularly when first placed under the intense workload of managing a class. An easier, simpler and more user-friendly approach (initially) is to categorise behavioural issues into 1 of 2 categories: disruptive behaviours or behaviours of concern.

Almost all behaviours that teachers deal with on a daily basis are simple but annoying disruptive behaviours. Some teachers will rarely see behaviours of concern – others will deal with it daily. Categorising behaviour in this way helps inexperienced teachers in particular because it provides a simple way to conceptualise and frame the very complex task of behaviour management. Matching a behaviour to a category allows the teacher to determine a best-fit response more easily.

Matching a behaviour to a category allows the teacher to determine a best-fit response more easily.

Disruptive behaviour

Disruptive behaviour requires the constant attention of the teacher and is usually resolved quickly and easily with minimal effort. The average high school teacher faces an instance of disruptive behaviour every 30-60 seconds, depending on the class. Teachers regularly report that low-level disruptive behaviours are the most common type of undesirable behaviour that they deal with on a daily basis (Sullivan et al., 2014). As the name suggests, disruptive behaviour ‘disrupts’ others – not just the offender. It also disrupts the teacher because the time taken to manage behaviour reduces the time available to deliver content. Examples of common disruptive behaviours include:

  • calling out in class (known as ‘talking out of turn’)
  • swearing or name calling
  • eating in class
  • wearing a hat in class
  • using mobile phones or other technologies in class
  • talking or whispering to peers
  • wandering around the room (out of seat)
  • not paying attention (daydreaming)
  • not following instructions
  • being slow to begin work or refusing to work
  • throwing things (but not to cause injury – e.g. a ball of paper).

Behaviours of concern

This type of behaviour is much more serious and will usually require the additional support of a manager or colleague at some point. Behaviours of concern can be stressful to deal with and take a longer time to ‘fix’. They require the teacher to expect and plan for repeat occurrences in many cases and systems are put into place to reduce potential triggers. Behavioural plans and curriculum differentiation are common strategies for repeat offenders. Some behaviours of concern (such as brawls) are one-off events and there is no reason to expect or plan for repeated incidents. Other than one-off events, behaviours of concern usually increase over time in both intensity and frequency. They have been the undoing of many good teachers. Examples of behaviours of concern include:

  • running away
  • violence (e.g. fighting, kicking, head-banging, biting etc.)
  • meltdowns and tantrums (including throwing things)
  • inappropriate touching or comments (either sexual or non-sexual)
  • disruptive behaviours that are highly repetitive
  • disruptive behaviours that are excessive or dangerous (e.g. running in class)
  • stealing, threats, intimidation
  • illegal behaviour such as taking or selling drugs
  • a disclosure re abuse or neglect
  • emerging patterns of behaviour with concerning trend rates
  • power games, manipulation, sabotage and revenge.

Behaviours of concern in one class might be no more than a normal day at the office for another class. In a school for students with special needs, these types of behaviours are common (e.g. spitting, running away, etc.). While still concerning and requiring attention, there is a big difference between a neuro-typical student spitting at a teacher compared to a child with a severe intellectual impairment and global developmental delay doing it. In this example, the intent and thought processes of each child would almost certainly have been very different – in other words, 2 identical incidents but 2 very different root causes.

Because of this, the behaviour will be treated differently. It is not uncommon for children with special needs to spit at staff due to frustration and an inability to recognise, process and articulate their anxiety or other negative feelings. In this case, staff will have a plan in place to reduce the frequency of this learned behaviour (such as by removing triggers, using cards to communicate feelings, and implementing a reward system). The same behaviour from a child who does not have a disability or disorder on the other hand is very concerning indeed.

You have learnt so far that behaviour is a form of communication. In fact, there is a term for this – it is called ‘the communicative function of behaviour’. In other words, the purpose of some problematic behaviours is to send a message – to tell you something that the student is incapable of articulating or simply doesn’t have the emotional skills (emotional intelligence) to recognise, process and put into words using their limited vocabulary. For example, a student who is frustrated or who feels that they have no chance of success may ‘act out’ – the resulting behaviour tells their teacher that ‘this is too hard for me’.

It is important to remember how difficult it can be to learn something new and how easily it can cause frustration (even for adults). How do you feel when you can’t put a new piece of furniture together and ‘the instructions are wrong’? Students feel these same emotions when learning something new except we expect them to be ‘engaged’ and to enjoy the learning process! We also expect them to do it calmly and to do it all day long, every day. The point is to not overlook how frustrating it is when we can’t figure something out. Adults procrastinate all the time; when children procrastinate however, we call it ‘undesirable behaviour’.

Adults procrastinate all the time; when children procrastinate however, we call it ‘undesirable behaviour’.

There are 2 additional types of behaviours worth our attention – we have touched on them above, but stopped short of classifying them as a ‘types’ per se. They are ‘unexpected behavioural changes’ and ‘disability/disorder-related behaviours’. The latter has been addressed. Unexpected behavioural changes is a unique category because the underlying cause, intention and resulting behaviour is vastly different to any other type.

Consider a student who has never been in trouble before that suddenly starts screaming at a friend and then runs out of class. This behaviour would normally be classified as a behaviour of concern. However, it is more than likely going to be a one-off, forgivable event. It certainly needs addressing in some way (so other students don’t think the behaviour is acceptable and to ensure the student is okay), but it’s not overly concerning for the teacher given that there was no malicious intent or direct defiance. What happened that made this student act in such an unexpected manner?

The teacher runs through the list of potential root causes – mental health, bullying or something happening at home seem likely. Teenagers that act out may be the subject of bullying and harassment, they might have started taking drugs or even be depressed or suicidal – a teenager contemplating suicide cares nothing for your maths lesson and a different approach is needed if this is the suspected root cause.

The purpose of some problematic behaviours is to send a message – to tell you something that the student is incapable of articulating or simply doesn’t have the emotional skills (emotional intelligence) to recognise, process and put into words using their limited vocabulary.

Table showing categories of behaviour.

Figure: The 4 categories of behaviour and arrows showing how a behaviour may evolve over time.


Sullivan, A. M., Johnson, B., Owens, L., & Conway, R. (2014). Punish them or engage them? Teachers' views of unproductive student behaviours in the classroom. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 39(6), 43-56. https://www.doi.org/10.14221/ajte.2014v39n6.6

About the author

Image of the managing director of ITAC.


Adam Green is an advisor to government, a registered teacher, an instructional designer and a #1 best selling author. He is completing a Doctor of Education and was previously head of department for one of the country’s largest SAER (students at educational risk) schools. Adam is managing director of ITAC, an accredited training provider for thousands of teacher aides every year.

Source: Behaviour Management Skills and Strategies for the Modern Classroom: 100+ research-based strategies for both novice and experienced practitioners.

Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to check his article for accuracy, information may be outdated, inaccurate or not relevant to you and your location/employer/contract. It is not intended as legal or professional advice. Users should seek expert advice such as by contacting the relevant education department, should make their own enquiries, and should not rely on any of the information provided.


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