Why every school needs to learn how to handle ‘conduct disorder’

Schools have ineffective behaviour management strategies because they want a “quick fix” to a common disorder but don’t understand the neurology behind it.

Some teachers don’t know how to manage “conduct disorder” – a mental condition which causes disruptive and sometimes violent behaviour in pupils – because they don’t know how to identify and respond to it, according to consultant psychotherapist Brenda McHugh.

Conduct disorder is the most common reason pupils are referred to mental health services, McHugh told a conference held by the alternative provision academy trust TBAP. But these services are often under underresourced and can end up referring pupils back to schools.

“Those children are coming back to teachers, but they’re not getting the funds that should come with them,” she warned.

The lack of understanding about neurology also means schools tend to keep mental health separate from learning, punishing pupils affected by conduct disorder and creating a “spiral of exclusion”.

READ MORE How to create a good behaviour culture in your school


Between three and five per cent of pupils are known to have conduct disorder – although the actual figure is likely to be higher because many are undiagnosed. Most will have been in the care system.

Mental health shouldn’t always be in the counselling department

Three months ago, the government told schools to appoint a “designated teacher” to oversee the education of pupils in or formerly in care and train other staff in trauma issues.

But many schools still just want behaviour “sorted out”, Gemma Dixon, the headteacher of the TBAP 16-to-19 Academic Academy in west London, told delegates.

McHugh believes schools will benefit if they train staff to deal with these basic neurological disorders. Her own Family School London teaches pupils the language of neurology and awards points not just for learning, but for emotion control, empathy and impulse control. Parents are also taught how the brain works and have family visit days.

“Mental health shouldn’t always be in the counselling department. It should be part of the school’s whole work. Otherwise it’s scary for kids. They don’t know what’s wrong with them,” she said.

Fact box: What is conduct disorder?

Conduct disorder exhibits in two different ways.

Some pupils with the disorder will be “impulsive” and lack self-regulation. These will respond to good behaviour management methods.

But others, described as “callous-unemotional” because they show little concern for others’ distress, a lack of remorse or shame unless prompted, and rarely express emotions, need more help.

These pupils also display a lack of concern about their performance in school work because they “do not buy into the idea of progression” and feel relative indifference about the possibility of punishment, according to McHugh.

As a result of traumatic experiences in their past, pupils with conduct disorder take in stress chemicals more quickly. These chemicals can take up to three days to return to normal levels.

Because of their quick fear response, pupils will “lose minutes and days” in school scanning for threat, explained McHugh. Beyond that, they can seem “almost unreachable” because they are so closed off.

Punishment does not work on these pupils. Studies show that only consistent warmth can change the behaviour of callous-unemotional children.

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One comment

  1. Deborah M. Hunter

    Stop expecting your average student to put up with extremely disturbed kids that intentionally hurt other people, tear things up, and take up to 20 minutes of learning time each hour with their outbursts. Stop expecting teachers to learn to master every imaginable human condition and let them TEACH. Yes, these students should be removed from regular classes and put in a classroom tailored to their needs and led by someone specially trained to address the student’s mental health issue.