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Incidents of challenging behaviour as learning opportunities for pupils with autism

Written by: Hannah Clements
5 min read

Children and young people can present with behaviours of concern, particularly if the pupil has additional needs associated with a social or communication difference, such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD). All pupils at The Rise School have a primary diagnosis of autism. Behaviours of concern may also be referred to as ‘challenging behaviour’, ‘behaviours of distress’ or ‘behaviours that are challenging’. In essence, they are all referring to incidents of behaviour that are challenging to the school environment and which the school wishes to see stop or decrease in frequency or severity.

When considering our school’s approach or response to such behaviour, rather than solely considering which punishment/sanction we need to put in place, we also consider what the teaching or learning opportunity is. Alongside this, we consider what adjustments need to be made to the teaching environment, so that the pupil can learn successfully. We view behaviour incidents as an opportunity to teach the young person the skill they are lacking, in a positive and effective way (Epstein et al., 2008). Given that the behaviour serves a purpose for the pupil, it should not simply be a case of trying to stop the behaviour. It should also be a case of replacing the behaviour with a skill that is more appropriate – a skill that we would like to see more of!

‘School-wide Positive Behavioural Interventions and Supports (PBIS) is a framework for delivering both the whole-school social culture and additional tiers of behaviour support intensity needed to improve educational and social outcomes for all students’ (Horner & Sugai, 2015, p. 80). At The Rise School, we use School-Wide Positive Behaviour Support (SWPBS) as our framework. Our school culture has been defined by our core values: Be Proud, Be Resilient and Be Kind. Skills that demonstrate these core values are specifically taught and reinforced in everything our pupils and staff do. Given that this is a whole-school culture, our interventions and support run through all interactions with our whole school community – pupils, staff and families.

All pupils at The Rise School are supported within our three-tiered framework of support, to learn new skills that will enhance their quality of life. SWPBS was introduced using the following format: The core values were voted for by all stakeholders. Pupils complete activities outlining how they demonstrate these values within school, home and the wider community. The support strategies within each tier were agreed and are embedded throughout the school. New skills are taught to every pupil, with the aim of increasing the quality of life of all stakeholders.

Figure 1 shows what SWPBS looks like at The Rise School.

Figure 1 is titled "What SWPBS looks like at The Rise School". It shows a diagram with three different coloured triangles, increasing in size, sharing the same base. Each triangle represents one tier, with arrows labelled tier 1 to 3 leading within the triangles to the top of each triangle. Tier 1 is  titled "For every pupil" and contains the following bullet points: Reinforcement strategies, Coping strategies taught (e.g. taking a break, asking for help), Mindfulness 3 times per day, Core values of kindness, pride and resilience taught and reinforced, Social skills teaching embedded throughout curriculum, ASD-specific and visual strategies used consistently, Behaviour ladder provides consistent consequences, Evidence-based teaching strategies used, Restorative practice, General MHFA support, 11-year all-through curriculum, Social curriculum delivered over 4 lessons per week, covering: Weaving Wellbeing curriculum (positive mental health programme to enhance wellbeing); yoga; PSHE/citizenship curriculum. Tier 2 is titled "For some pupils" and contains the following bullet points: Target social skill groups, SaLT/OT input, 1:1 or small group intervention, TLA support, Girls' group, Any individualised, targeted, short-term intervention needed, 1:1 mentoring, 1:1 MHFA support, CAMHS, Social care. Tier 3 is titled "For some pupils" and contains the following bullet points: Individualised rewards, 1:1 support for teaching and learning behaviour.

Figure 1 is by no means an exhaustive list of the learning and behaviour support on offer at The Rise School. All pupils benefit from our Tier 1 support, which includes:

  • Autism-specific strategies and good practice – e.g. using visual support consistently across the school.
  • Teaching all pupils coping strategies, such as being able to ask for help when needed, or asking to take a five-minute break from a task, instead of engaging in disruptive behaviours to avoid a lesson.
  • Teaching mindfulness and yoga weekly, and integrating mindfulness into classrooms a minimum of three times per day during registration, following morning break and lunchtime. Teaching a dedicated well-being curriculum (Weaving Wellbeing), which focuses on increasing skills of resilience, perspective-taking, positive relationships and identifying strengths.
  • Using restorative practice as an approach to both prevent incidents between peers and resolve peer conflict and repair harm to relationships when conflict occurs. Teaching pupils about each other’s perspectives to build empathy and understanding, recognising mistakes as learning opportunities for growth.
  • Using both mental health first aid and mentoring support to increase self-esteem and maintain pupil well-being and mental health.

Our Tier 2 levels of support are accessed by approximately 20 per cent of our pupils, providing individualised interventions to support the development of behaviour or academic skills, e.g. accessing speech and language or occupational therapy support, or accessing a bespoke 1:1 mentoring programme to increase self-esteem or self-regulate emotions. Our Tier 3 levels of support are accessed by approximately 10 per cent of our pupils, providing short- or long-term, 1:1 learning or behaviour support, e.g. accessing 1:1 teaching and learning support in lessons.

We continue to aspire to do more and develop more interventions to support our pupils. Continuing to develop and support our pupils’ well-being and mental health can only have a positive impact on their learning and behaviour too. Our focus this academic year is on embedding the work we are doing to provide more tailored and individual mentoring and mental health support for all pupils.

In summary, by implementing a SWPBS framework within our school, we are improving the quality of life for our pupils and their families. Some of the key benefits include: decrease in frequency, intensity and severity of behaviours of concern; increased levels of resilience (e.g. pupils challenging themselves in lessons to try more difficult tasks); increased attention in lessons; ability to resolve conflict independently; and greater ability to self-regulate behaviour. By understanding the reasons behind behaviours of concern, we ensure that we are teaching new skills in a positive way, via individualised support strategies. Our aim for all of our pupils is for them to lead their lives as independently as possible, with as few restrictions as possible. SWPBS provides us with a positive alternative to behaviour systems that focus solely on punishment and sanctions, and enables us instead to look for the teaching opportunity in every moment.


Horner RH and Sugai G (2015) School-wide PBIS: An example of applied behavior analysis implemented at a scale of social importance. Behavior Analysis in Practice 8(1): 80–85.

Epstein M, Atkins M, Cullinan D et al. (2008) Reducing Behavior Problems in the Elementary School Classroom: A Practice Guide. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Available at: http://ies. (accessed 5 February 2019).

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