Understanding Behaviour


Keys to Effective Inclusive Education

A child is writing a math test. Suddenly, they stand up, call the teacher a name, throw a chair across the room, and storm out. What is the primary behaviour? What is the secondary behaviour? As a consultant for special education teacher training, recruitment, and retention, I often present this scenario to teacher candidates, and I am almost always met with the same response—that the primary behaviour is throwing the chair. Other times, they tell me that the primary behaviour is name-calling—that’s the first behaviour. Every so often, though, I encounter a brilliant teacher in training who thoughtfully considers the whole scenario before correctly identifying the true primary behaviour: writing the test.


The difference between primary and secondary behaviour (and primary and secondary emotions, for that matter) is integral to classroom management yet it is misunderstood by many. When people hear the word behaviour, they typically assume that behaviour is bad. We assume that the problematic behaviour in the above scenario is the one that’s most disruptive or the one that’s most dangerous. But what is truly problematic is that we don’t immediately see the behaviour as communication; specifically, the child is communicating that, for some reason, they cannot write the test.
This is where our work must begin.

Now, I’m not telling you to ignore the secondary behaviours—the child needs to learn that name-calling, throwing chairs, and storming out of the room will have consequences. I’m simply saying that we need to first focus on the test. We need to understand why the child won’t write the test, what it will take to support the child with the test, and what strategies we can put in place for tests in the future. Once that’s taken care of, we can address the secondary behaviour.


When I first started teaching at the Chiltern Way Academy, an award-winning specialist school for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and various social, emotional, and mental health needs, as well as a range of learning disabilities, I knew everything about classroom management but I knew nothing about behaviour. I moved to beautiful Buckinghamshire, England, and confidently started setting up the classroom of my dreams.

“Bean bag chairs!” I demanded of administration—who would misbehave in a class with bean bag chairs? Oh, how those bean bag chairs would be my downfall. It wasn’t a week before I was begging my co-workers to take them off my hands, ultimately hiding them in a storage closet on the other side of the school. From that moment on, I tried to forget everything I knew about classroom management and committed to understanding behaviour.


Related to primary behaviours are what the Chiltern Way Academy calls low level behaviours. These are the behaviours that we, as teachers, might not even register, like tapping a pen to the point of disrupting other students. I often tell teachers to choose their battles—sometimes, telling students not to do something is more disruptive than what they’re doing. But the problem with ignoring low level behaviours is that they’re a warning signal; they are the first communication that something’s wrong. If ignored, low level behaviours can escalate into much larger conflicts—ones that could have been avoided altogether if the initial behaviour, insignificant to the untrained eye, was addressed.

Most teachers know that positive relationships with students are essential, so challenging every low level behaviour might not seem so appealing. The Chiltern Way Academy has a clever trick for this, termed obvious reality. Rather than asking the student not to do something, they point out what the student is doing. Instead of saying, “Don’t tap your pen,” which is likely to inspire an oppositional response even in adults, we say, “You’re tapping your pen.” Pointing out what the student is doing without telling them not to or, worse, telling them what will happen if they don’t listen, gives the student ownership over their own behaviour. It implies to the student that they are pushing a boundary without threatening the student/teacher dynamic with the implication of “or else.” Once a low level behaviour begins, obvious reality can be used to address it before it leads to something more serious.


In most teacher training programs, candidates are introduced to what we sometimes call buzzwords. These are terms that are well-represented in the research and are likely to be discussed in job interviews. When I finished my Bachelor of Education, I was well-versed in the language of learning and could readily recite them in any conversation. Universal Design for Learning, you say? Got it. Assessment as, of, and for learning? Of course. But looking back, I firmly believe that we don’t know the value of these terms until we see them in practice. This is because they benefit both learning and student behaviour.

The first time I ever truly understood differentiated instruction was with a group of middle school students, all of whom had a diagnosis of ASD but also had a wide range of literacy abilities. I only taught these students once a week for social studies, and often struggled to keep them all in the classroom. In one class, I decided to tailor their work to their literacy abilities rather than their skills in the subject. I watched in shock as the students quietly completed their work without once leaving the room.

The students’ response to differentiation is directly linked to the scenario that opened this article. When work is accessible to students, behaviour is more manageable. And when behaviour is understood, learning is possible.


Behaviour is a highly complex topic that cannot be covered in a short text—or arguably any text. The recommendations presented here, however, are meant to encourage teachers to shift their thinking from classroom management to understanding behaviour. When behaviour is seen as communication, the conversation about inclusive education can begin.


Alexandra Minuk
Alexandra Minuk is a doctoral student at Queen’s University in the Faculty of Education. Alexandra’s experience as a special education teacher and educational consultant has shaped her research, which focuses on the factors associated with inclusive classroom placements for students with special needs.

This article is featured in Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Spring 2022 issue.

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