Model behaviour


Taking a look at how to teach positive behaviour to young people with ASD and learning difficulties.

Our school is an independent residential special school for young people aged between eight and 19 who have autism and learning difficulties.

Most of our young people present with high levels of challenging behaviour. As a school, we have a clear view that our main purpose in relation to behaviour is to teach young people the positive behaviours they need in order to ensure that their needs are met in a healthy way. This article lays out the approach we follow to improve young people’s behaviour.

In order to achieve positive outcomes in behaviour, we use a holistic approach which draws on a range of theoretical perspectives. Obviously, the various different elements are interlinked but, for clarity, I have broken them down into a number of key categories below.

Meeting people’s needs

Generally, in both special and mainstream schools, there is a good level of awareness that behaviour is not just caused by problematic young people, and that schools and the staff who work with them can make a huge difference to how young people behave. Research by the DFEE (2000) has shown that school staff support young people to behave well through:

  • developing positive relationships with them
  • using effective teaching methods and effective management strategies
  • creating a welcoming and appropriately stimulating school environment.

By working closely with students, staff can help build relationships.Young people with autism and learning difficulties often present with high levels of challenging behaviour, and good practice is essential to support them. Young people engage in behaviour to meet their needs. Human beings have a range of physical and emotional needs, and people with autism and learning difficulties are born with the same needs as other people. However, they have restricted capacity to develop the behaviours and skills they can use to get their needs met.  As a result, they often engage in behaviours that challenge in an effort to fulfil these needs (LaVigna and Donnellan, 1986).

The job of the school staff is twofold: to provide an environment that, as far as possible, meets the needs of the young people concerned, and to support them to develop the skills and behaviours they require to get their needs met. When needs are met, there is less reason to engage in challenging behaviour.

Positive relationships

You will only be able to provide a nurturing environment and help children develop appropriate skills if staff have positive relationships with the young people and understand them well. We know from research into parenting techniques that when parents use approaches that develop positive parent-child relationships, children are less likely to develop behavioural problems (Webster-Stratton, 1992; Sanders,1999). If staff really know each young person well and are tuned in to what they need and want, they are able to help the young people to learn to identify their own needs and develop ways of getting these needs met more independently.

Structuring the environment

One way to ensure that young people’s needs are met is to plan the school and care environment, and visits to the community, carefully. You have to take into account the level of stimulation that suits each young person, the level of structure they need and how you can support them to understand their environment. It is important to look at what motivates each young person and provide activities and teaching approaches that maximise engagement.

By managing the environment effectively, you can reduce frustration and anxiety and the behaviours they can engender. However, it is crucial to ensure that you keep a balance. To enable them to have a good quality of life, the young people need to develop as much independence as they can and access community facilities as far as is possible. To achieve this goal, young people need to gradually learn to become more tolerant of a variety of environments and of less structured and less predictable situations. Young people need to develop strategies that they can use to help them cope with situations they find stressful or anxiety provoking.

Supporting appropriate behaviour

If a young person has learnt that the best way to get what they need is to behave in a challenging way, for example, hitting out at staff, they will continue with this behaviour unless they learn a better way to get what they need. If staff efforts are focused on removing the unwanted behaviour, the young person may be left with fewer ways of meeting his/her needs. The young person’s distress, agitation and anxiety may increase, other inappropriate behaviours may follow or the young person may develop a new behaviour that presents an equal level of challenge to the one they were originally being discouraged from.

As with behaviour difficulties in any young person, the place to start is to focus not on what we don’t want the young person to do, but on what we want them to do instead of this. We need to teach the young person a new behaviour or a new skill that s/he can use to meet his/her need. When this is achieved, the challenging behaviour will no longer be essential and staff are more likely to be effective in discouraging inappropriate behaviour.

One of the complications we came across when we started to develop and clarify our positive approach to behaviour management was that the issues seemed huge, as they encompass almost everything that we do and don’t separate out easily. This, of course, is the simple reality: behaviour doesn’t happen in a vacuum and almost everything we do in school will influence how the young people in our care behave.

Working to improve behaviour

In order to make a positive behaviour approach work for young people with autism and learning difficulties, it is important to develop behaviour support plans which are tailored specifically to each young person in the school. The whole school staff then needs to be supported to put these plans into practice.

Staff relationships with the young people need to be respectful and based on mutual trust. To develop such relationships, staff need to be self-aware and monitor their own and the young person’s behaviour.

Here are some useful tips for how staff can encourage positive behaviour:

  • discuss support plans with all staff members involved and promote discussion of the functions of behaviour, the different purposes of proactive and reactive strategies in changing and managing behaviour and the importance of teaching skills in order to change behaviour. This will help staff members to work together and support each other towards common goals
  • ensure that the environment is suitable. Think holistically about potential issues which could arise and ways of minimising their likelihood, and ensure predictability and structure for the young person
  • respond to the young person with empathy. Listen carefully to what s/he is saying and understand when it is appropriate and necessary to challenge him/her
  • set clear boundaries for the student and apply them consistently
  • be precise when communicating so that the young person understands what is required
  • use agreed communication strategies and encourage the student to communicate appropriately and effectively. The use of symbols and key words to communicate can be effective
  • model appropriate communication techniques
  • encourage and prompt him/her towards positive behaviour. Show affection and be playful with him/her to encourage positive interaction
  • when appropriate, let one staff member take the lead communicating with the student and ensure that no more than one person speaks at any one time
  • use positive, fun activities to engage the young person and to maintain his/her attention
  • give the student the freedom to make choices
  • provide opportunities for him/her to behave in a positive manner, which can then be verbally praised
  • be sympathetic to any sensory issues the young person may have. For example, for a student who is easily distracted, you could turn the radio in the classroom up when people outside are making noise
  • allow the young person the opportunity to leave the room when s/he is becoming agitated.

Further information

Sally Kane is Senior Specialist Educational Psychologist and Charlotte Hague
Assistant Psychologist at Higford School in Shropshire, which is part of the Options Group:


DFEE (2000) Research into Teacher Effectiveness: A Model of Teacher Effectiveness, Research Report 216, Hay McBer.

LaVigna, G. W., and Donnellan, A. M. (1986) Alternatives to punishment: Solving behavior problems with non-aversive strategies. New York, NY: Irvington Publishers.

Sanders, M. (1999) Triple P – Positive Parenting Programme: Towards an empirically validated multilevel parenting and family support strategy for the prevention of behaviour and emotional problems in children. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 2, 71 – 90.

Webster-Stratton, C (1992) The Incredible Years: A Trouble shooting Guide for Parents of Children Aged 2 – 8 years.  Seattle: Incredible Years.


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