Challenging labels


Young people with behavioural issues must be treated as individuals, not made to fit convenient labels 

“So, what do we call maladjusted kids now, then?” I was at a conference a few years ago when a very experienced practitioner I knew asked this question of a civil servant who was trying to explain government thinking on the details, intricacies and emphases of the behavioural, emotional and social difficulties (BESD) designation. His question got a big laugh, perhaps in recognition that the issues over naming this sector somehow reflect the greater and deeper difficulties we have in conceptualising it at all. Is it predominantly a medical issue? Is it “proper” special needs at all or is it a reflection of societal ills, bad parenting and problems with media new and old? Is it simply an excuse for excusing bad behaviour? Maybe Jo Frost, Supernanny, could sort all this nonsense out and do so far more quickly and simply than a lot of so-called professional practice?


Between the Education Acts of 1944 and 1981, the official word of choice for children, overwhelmingly boys, who were deemed to be anti-social, oppositional or non-compliant in some way was “maladjusted”. Perhaps that was a simpler time in terms of labelling and categorisation, and maybe that’s why my conference colleague was asking how we were supposed to do that now in a different climate, after years of political correctness.

One thing is certain: this group of young people cannot be easily pigeon-holed, classified or described with generalities. They are the very definition of miscellaneous. They are “other”.

The term “EBD” (emotional and behavioural difficulties) came in thirty years ago and the “S” was added later by many people who felt that the social elements had some relevance in the mix. Politics is involved in which letter comes first: are we focusing initially on the behaviour, or the social stuff or the emotional state of the young person? Take your pick.

A paper of 2008 attempted a definition: “The term behavioural, emotional and social difficulties covers a wide range of SEN. It can include children and young people with conduct disorders, hyperkinetic disorders and less obvious disorders such as anxiety, school phobia or depression. There need not be a medical diagnosis for a child or young person to be identified as having BESD, though a diagnosis may provide pointers for the appropriate strategies to manage and minimise the impact of the condition. (SEBDA BESD Guidance, 2008).

The words “behavioural”, “emotional” and “social”, when put together with “difficulties”, really do cover a lot of ground. Indeed, the whole BESD thing isn’t really a diagnosis; it is more the name for a collection of presenting behaviours, symptoms and conditions.

There really is a lot going on in these young people. There are many, varied conditions and issues that are relevant and present in the very same young people that are sometimes just classified as BESD. These include everything from ADHD, problems with attachment and autistic spectrum conditions to specific learning difficulties, learning disabilities, communication issues, mental health problems (including stress and depression), medication, abuse and offending behaviour. I would bet that most of those things are present, diagnosed or not, and treated or not, in most schools that are designated as BESD.

Those with behavioural issues cannot easily be pigeon-holed.Schooling

What all this means, though, if a young person with these traits comes into your life, is trickier. It is a waste of time being academic and pedantic about things like assessment and classification when what is really required is planned intervention.

For young people who have been placed on the margins of society, serious intervention is required if they are to avoid a life of exclusion. Schools in this sector have to get the ethos right. They have to decide on the curriculum and how to assess and organise learning. All staff must share the same vision and work in a multi-disciplinary and specialist way, treating the young people individually. Students should be educated in small groups, using proper differentiation, and staff must be flexible at all times.

Inevitably, things will go wrong and it is crucial how school staff respond at these times. They should always attempt to de-escalate a situation and use positive handling techniques. Behaviour programs should be carefully planned, utilising appropriate forms of motivation and the right therapeutic and specialist input. The young people should understand the consequences, both good and bad, of their behaviour and staff should seek to include all relevant parties in devising programs for individuals.

These schools are doing no less than trying to help make good citizens and happy, involved adults who can live well in their communities. As sportspeople say nowadays, that’s a big ask.


There were an estimated 5,740 permanent exclusions from primary, secondary and all special schools in 2009/10. The permanent exclusion rate for boys was approximately four times higher than that for girls. The fixed period exclusion rate for boys was almost three times higher than that for girls. Pupils with statements of SEN are around eight times more likely to be permanently excluded than those pupils with no identified SEN (DfE: Permanent and Fixed Period Exclusions from Schools in England, 2009/10.)
It is a sign of how complex and interesting this area is that any one of the points above would provide enough substance for a number of articles, seminars and research papers. The morality of exclusion and questions of gender, special needs and equality could keep researchers in work for years, and this is one of the reasons why some of us love the work.

For me, what this shows is that answers about this area of society really aren’t that simple, just as they aren’t for the questions raised by the riots around the UK last summer. Quick answers miss the point and are too simplistic or superficial, or are motivated by the self-serving agendas of the people making them.

So, in answer to the question of what we call these young people, I think that we need to stay away from labels as much as possible. People are complex; the conditions that have brought them to the point in their life when they meet us are strewn with variables. Who are we to treat individuals in a reductive way? Generalising is a mug’s game; individual programs are all. For me, if special educational needs means anything, it is about treating young people as individuals and working on their current and future relationship with society.

A mother and father once shouted at me in a review, asking me what I would describe their son as. “Jamie”, I replied. I realise that I could probably have handled that more wisely but at least I didn’t call him maladjusted, or recommend Supernanny.

Further information

John Steward is Principal of Chelfham Senior School in Devon, and South-West Regional Manager for Priory Education Services:

John Steward
Author: John Steward

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