Understanding BESD


Examining some of the main causes of behavioural, emotional and social difficulties at school.

The 2001 SEN Code of Practice recognised that there is a connection between the social difficulties encountered by children and young people who have “emotional and behavioural difficulties”. During years of working with young people in schools and colleges, I’ve noticed that there is a definite traceable pattern which would be consistent with reduced levels of attainment and/or dropping out of the education system.

The Equality Act 2010 states that BESD stands for “behavioural, emotional and social difficulties”. However, there are many other acronyms used, for example: SEBD (social, emotional and behavioural difficulties); ESBD (emotional, social and behavioural difficulties); EBD (emotional and behavioural difficulties) and SEMH (social, emotional and mental health).

A child with behaviour issues may have a condition such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), autism, or deficient emotional and social regulation (DESR), which causes their behaviour to be unpredictable, or oppositional. It can be argued that the behaviour stems from the fact that people with these conditions process information and communication in a different way, due to variances in the brain. DESR, a less well known condition, could explain why some people, for example, fly off the handle easily, have road rage, or engage in arguments over their place in the queue; they over-respond to scenarios and situations, cannot filter out their anger and react without thinking.

Emotional difficulties can be a mixture of things such as anxiety-driven behaviours, depression, mental ill-health and addiction. They interlink with some conditions classed as behavioural, as some of them are driven by extreme anxiety.

Social issues might relate to poverty, neglect, being a carer of parents/siblings or living in a difficult and unsafe home or neighbourhood, which influence how a person will think and feel – not just about themselves but about the world in general. Again, there are a lot of cross-overs between this and anxiety.

Causes of behaviour issues

An iceberg analogy provides an easy way to consider how the underlying causes of behaviour drive the individual. The iceberg has its greatest mass below the waterline – it’s invisible. The causes, or drivers, of the behaviour described as BESD are invisible, but they are strong and powerful, just like the biggest part of the iceberg.

It’s wrong to suggest that everyone who has any of these conditions or operates in this environment will display poor behaviour, but the risks are heightened when these factors are at play. Many schools and colleges create tick lists which outline some of the potential danger signs in a young person’s life which may help to pre-empt the barriers to learning which a young person would face if they scored highly.

In an educational context, the outward signs of BESD are easily detected, especially when other factors are taken into consideration. They may include: absences; anger; frustration; social isolation; unpredictable outbursts; poor relationships with teachers/students; having few friends or unlikely partnerings; being unusually quiet and withdrawn and not being a good mixer; spitefulness and aggression; dirty clothes; and being malnourished.

On the face of it, you might argue that these factors alone do not signpost particular problems, but when the behaviour stops the child or young person from learning, they are faced with even more barriers to success.


People who suffer with mental ill-health or long term illness, would naturally need more time away from the learning environment. Unfortunately this means they will miss a lot of learning and many may feel unable, or may not want, to catch up.

One easy way to support a student who is absent regularly is to save worksheets and handouts, send emails or letters explaining what has been covered, and encourage them to return the work for checking. I’d even go so far as to suggest that they telephone the school or college for a tutorial; it shows that you are concerned about them and that you are a partner in their education.

Anger and frustration

In teenagers, anger and frustration are a common part of the growth into adulthood, but if these behaviours are frequent in class, this disrupts not only their own learning, but also that of those around them. In the absence of an understanding of the underlying causes of their behaviour by school staff, many young people are regularly removed from class or school.

Anger and frustration are often born out of feelings of impotence around personal circumstances or a sense of injustice. Some young people, though, use their anger and frustration as a means to avoid work. Adults often reinforce this behaviour by providing exactly the response the learner is looking for, for example, being removed from class. There’s no easy balance in this scenario and in many cases the removal from class can benefit the others who are trying to learn. However, a pattern is being set in the young person’s mind: I create a behaviour episode and you remove me from class.

The resultant isolation from the learning environment often means that the young people with the greatest need (for learning) are working with people who are less well qualified – support staff. I have a great deal of admiration for teaching assistants (TAs) but their skills around managing difficult behaviour can be challenged by such pupils.

If students are removed from the main class, care ought to be taken to ensure that the work set is meaningful and that the member of staff responsible for them is skilled in providing behavioural support. It is relatively easy to learn mentoring, anger management and calming strategies. This personal development work, alongside curriculum study, can have the most positive effect on the child. The main aim will be to reintegrate the student back into class.

Social isolation and friendship

Signs of issues with social isolation, consistent with autism, may be that the child or young person is frequently upset if working in groups, prefers their own company, and is most content with set routines and structure.

In mainstream learning settings, it’s a frequent issue that a student’s classrooms and teachers change regularly and there may not be enough TAs available to help with unstructured time.

One of my students with an education, health and care plan took us by surprise when he resisted all attempts to give him a named person for individual support in class and around college, in the mistaken belief that he would be able to better “reinvent himself” if he had only a minimum of support. It was soon apparent that the support was not needed for learning but that it was essential for “adapting”. With the vagaries of college life adding to the distress of an already anxious young learner, it was necessary for mentors and buddies to be found, along with a safe place for the student to return to in times of stress.

Other forms of social isolation may be driven by the low self-worth of the individual, or by them living in an unsafe environment. While schools and colleges will have safeguarding measures in place, the outward signs of neglect, abuse, radicalisation and bullying can be mistaken for something else, such as being quiet or shy. This may also show as an extreme lack of focus on tasks, and poor work output in spite of good attendance and seemingly good engagement.

It’s easy to make assumptions, but in order to provide the best support for all learners we need to ensure they are not disadvantaged by their behaviour, whether it’s large and lively or silent and still.

Further information

Hilary Nunns is an SEN consultant and the founder of Can Do Behaviour:

Hilary Nunns
Author: Hilary Nunns

SEBD Can Do Behaviour

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