Problem Children: Keep them in or send them out?

 Hi everyone,

Last week I took a look at why children misbehave. I have to say, I was a little shocked at first when the research suggested that the fault lay with the teacher… but it does make sense. 

If you’ve not read last week’s post, I’ll give you a brief run down: basically, misbehaviour was defined as a deliberate action that interrupts the learning for others. According to the research, misbehaviour isn’t what causes problems though; it is the teacher’s reaction to that misbehaviour. React calmly and the teaching and learning can get back on track pretty quickly. React poorly and you introduce emotion, humiliation and conflict and that is when things get messy.

So the conclusion to last week’s theory was to keep yourself calm if you want to avoid an unpleasant scene in the classroom.

But what if you can’t? Some children have a problem with authority in general; some children can’t dissociate one negative experience from another[1], despite having different teachers; and, to paraphrase The Dark Knight, some children just seem to want to watch the world burn.

What do you do with them? We’ve all experienced them. I’ve had to work around many (up to three in one class, one year) and I’ll be the first to put my hand up and say that yes, I have sent them out of class. Not just for a five-minute cool-down either. So I’m on your side here; I’m not at all saying that I am a paragon of doing the right thing…

But I have done the research and, for the second week in a row, somewhat frustratingly, it makes sense. Let’s explore this week’s hypothesis:

Should you send a problem child out of the room?

Before we answer this question, just like last week, we need to do a bit of background research. For starters, Why do teachers send problem children out of the room in the first place?

According to a 1996 paper by Gardill, Dupaul and Kyle, Teachers often feel overwhelmed by misbehaviour in the classroom[2]. Now, despite my brain’s insistence that the 90s are a pretty recent thing, this is a paper from 30 years ago. We need to check if there is anything more recent to reinforce the findings or suggest that they are still relevant. 

And there is. Boy howdy, there is! In 2021, called challenging behaviour the “real reason for teacher stress”[3]. In February this year, a Danish paper in the journal BMC Health called challenging behaviour towards teachers a “serious problem [...] linked to burnout”[4]. And again in 2022, in Australia, this time, a paper from the journal, Social Psychology of Education linked poor behaviour to teacher stress[5]... and that was just a very quick, informal Google search - I didn’t even go through Google Scholar! So yes, the paper from 1996 is still relevant for our purposes (although, if I were submitting this blog post for approval, I would probably use one of the 2022 papers as my main source and back it up with the 1996 - not a big deal but some of you might be writing academic papers and I don’t want  to be misleading).

So, misbehaviour is definitely linked with teacher stress and a feeling of being overwhelmed; however, according to Merrett and Whedall, there is a gap in teacher training when it comes to handling this misbehaviour and teachers are feeling under equipped as a result[6]. Inexperience, stress, burnout… these can all lead teachers to decide that the fastest, or most effective solution to the problem is to simply remove the offending child. 

But this is a bad idea!

Let’s imagine the best possible scenario for this, remembering last week’s post. We won’t lose our temper and we’ll keep the atmosphere calm and pleasant. We’ve reminded the child of the rules; we’ve asked them which one they are breaking; we’ve said that the rest of the class needs to learn but still, for whatever reason, the child is reacting negatively (I’ve had this happen - some children will explode over the slightest thing - sometimes your reaction can be the right one and they will still overreact). 

You, as I said, have remained calm and haven’t, as Ira Hyman and Donna Perone put it in their 1998 paper, engaged in “psychological maltreatment, including making sarcastic comments, ridicule, and name-calling”[7]. However, the situation is not improving, and you’re aware that time is running out for the other children, so, in a final bid to restore order, you send the child out of the room to another teacher or maybe a senior leader.

On the surface, you have solved the most immediate problem; the disruptive child is out of the room and you can get on with teaching the rest of the class. Unfortunately, according to Simon Currigan, writing for (and, I have to say, backed up by my own anecdotal evidence, but we can’t use anecdotal evidence in proper academic arguments), you have just created three new, bigger problems for yourself[8].

Mr Currigan suggests this as a declaration to the child that you cannot deal with them; that their behaviour level is too problematic for you as a professional. He goes a little further and says that this projection of weakness will only serve to disestablish boundaries and increase incidences of poor behaviour.

And to a certain degree, he’s right. That is certainly a possible outcome… but I think it is only a symptom of the real issue. 

Remember, children don’t want to misbehave. Remember too, it is often children who are more psychologically vulnerable who do misbehave[9]. When we send these children out of class, excluding them from their social group, humiliating them in front of their peers, we are sending a message that we, as one of their primary attachment figures (to your class, you are never just ‘a’ teacher or ‘the’ teacher, you are ‘my’ teacher), don’t care enough about them to keep them in the room. Get out, we are saying, I don’t want you.

Again, I am not blind to the reality of some situations. I have had children who have had to leave the room because, at some point, the needs of the many have to outweigh the needs of the fee or the one, but I am not ignorant to the damage that this causes. 

There is another consequence to removing these children, who are often of a lower ability than the others, one of many factors that contribute to their decisions to misbehave. They miss out on the very learning that they need most of all. So, in sending them away, we are robbing them of the very thing that might just help them feel valued; might just give them that little bit of self-respect; might even give them the courage to accept that they need a little more support to succeed. Remember, these children already know they are on the fringes of their little society. They know that and they are reacting to it. When they choose to misbehave in such a way that could result in their removal, they are attempting to convince themselves that, if others don’t care about them, then they don’t care about others. It’s really sad and it runs the risk of creating a perpetual cycle of falling behind[10]

The second problem suggested in the Currigan article is that by sending the child to a different member of staff, you, as a teacher, have just given away your authority (he even adds the adverb ‘cheaply’!). He goes on to explain that what he really means is that the colleague you have sent the child to gains the experience of dealing with that behaviour as well as the respect of the child who was sent, while you have missed out on both.

Now, again, I can see how this makes sense. There is a lot to be learned from dealing with problematic children and in sending them away, you do miss out on that. The article does go on to say that sending children out should be kept for very serious situations (I would argue that a ‘serious’ situation is one that threatens the safety of one or more of the rest of the class - that includes the adults) but what it doesn’t do it explain or even offer a strategy of how to deal with the child yourself.

And I guess I am a little guilty of that as well. Especially with last week’s post and podcast, which, as my wife pointed out, merely explained what not to do instead of offering an alternative. I will be rectifying that this week - keep reading!

In the meantime, we’ll move onto the final caution from the Currigan piece: the child will associate any consequences of their behaviour with the ‘wrong’ person. This is a problem, it is argued, because the child in question will now behave for the adult who disciplines them and not for you.

Yes… yes, this can happen. But again, I think this is confusing a symptom with a cause. It’s all very well to say that you shouldn’t send children out of class because someone else will gain all the respect and credibility and authority but I think that misses the point of why the child was sent out in the first place. 

I had mixed feelings about this article when I read it, and this is nothing against Simon Currigan. At first, I honestly considered scraping this week’s blog post because someone had already done it. But then I re-read the piece and, I don’t know, perhaps I’ve softened a little over the years because I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was very focussed on how to make the teacher look good and seemed to completely ignore the child.

The article is summarised with three main points:

Don’t send a child out of the room because -

  • You look like you’re incapable

  • You give you’re authority away

  • You give away you’re association with the consequences

Nowhere is it mentioned that it might be damaging to the child.

I mentioned earlier, and last week, that the children who are more likely to make disruptive misbehaviour choices are also more likely to have a problematic home life; struggle with learning; be less popular among their peers; and drop out of school at an early age (either by not pursuing further education, or by simply not attending). There are also links to anger issues, violent tendencies and social maladjustment in later life[11]. Improving the classroom experience for these children, it has been argued, will have a positive impact on all other areas[12]. We can’t do that if they’re not in the room.

If you’re reading this (and thank-you, if you are), and you’re thinking that some of these problematic children are little sociopaths and that you would love to cure them with kindness but you just don’t have the time or the patience and also, why would you? You trained to be a teacher, not a psychotherapist…

I agree.

More importantly, Gregory Pettit, John Bates and Kenneth Dodge agreed with you way back in the before-times of 2019. These three psychologists conducted longitudinal research (research that takes a long time) and discovered that - brace yourself for a shock - teachers are not psychologists and do not have the right training to deal with students who show severe behaviour problems[13].

I know. Earth-shattering, isn’t it?

We’re not trained to deal with extreme misbehaviour. The Department for Education in England has advice on behaviour but it mainly centres around sanctions and punishments[14]. There is also a behaviour checklist, written by an ‘expert advisor’ but, unfortunately, one of the items on the checklist suggests labelling children as ‘likely to misbehave.'[15] So not only are we undertrained, we’re also advised to be on the look-out for children who might misbehave.


This is a problem but, sadly, it is nothing new. This sort of pre-labelling has existed for many decades and has led to some interesting gender issues in the classroom with children as young as four. Way, way back in 1973, Lisa Serbin along with a team of other psychology researchers, noticed that boys were being given disproportionately more commands than girls, who in turn received more positive praise[16]. As a result of this, boys tended to be watched more than girls so that their misbehaviour, which at so young an age was observed to be more physical and obvious (pushing, hitting, snatching), could be caught more quickly. Even preemptively.[17].

There are a lot of repeating cycles in this area, it seems.

And lessons, clearly, have not been learned. Do you pay more attention to the children who misbehave frequently even if they are doing the right thing? Are those children more likely to be male? Are you paying too little attention to the children who do behave? If the answer to any of these questions is ‘yes’, don’t feel too bad, you are only following government guidelines and decades of advice.

But I think it is time to break the cycle.

The problem, I think, boils down to one simple education-wide problem:

Inadequate training.

I’ve already said that there is plenty of advice out there on why you shouldn’t send children out of the classroom but there is very little advice or training on what to do with them instead.

The government guidelines tell you to refer to your school’s behaviour policy. But those same guidelines tell headteachers to come up with their own behaviour policy and ‘make sure they are fair’[18]. That’s not helpful! What if your Headteacher or M.A.T. CEO has decided that the best course of action is to remove problem children and stick them in an isolation booth for the rest of the day? What do you, as a classroom teacher, do with that? If you try to retain your classroom capital (the respect and kudos that Simon Currgian warns you will lose) by keeping the child in the room, you run the risk of breaking the school rules yourself.

Better training is needed. I would argue, psychological training is needed (I’m not a psychologist). Dare I say, sensitive training is needed - some children have genuine special educational needs that do necessitate alternative discipline routes.

So why don’t schools provide this training?

The answer will cause both shock and an eye-roll. 

But it will have to wait until next week because we all have lives to lead and… oh, go on then. Just this once.

It has been suggested by the research that less desirable approaches to misbehaviour is the result of a teacher’s beliefs about how well they personally can deal with the misbehaviour. Simply put, if you don’t believe you can handle the child, you are going to either over-react or send them to another member of staff (in fact, you might over-react in order to create a situation that requires you to send the child out of class. I’ve known it to happen). This, according to the research is another one of those self-perpetuating spirals. The less you think you can handle the misbehaviour, the more you defer to other members of staff, so the less you think you can handle the misbehaviour[29].

What I found interesting was that, in all of the papers and articles I read, overwhelmingly, schools were more likely to use in-house support rather than bring in non-school professionals[20]. The suggested reason was to do with airing one’s dirty laundry in public; if you’re seen to be paying for behavioural specialists to come and conduct a staff training day, then you must have a problem with behaviour.

But that’s ridiculous. If your school does  have a problem with behaviour, then a specialist is the very person you need! It should be praised and respected as a mark of incredible self-reflection; not a dark mark. If you’ve got a gas leak, you don’t try to fix it yourself for fear the neighbours will think you can’t handle your heating! 

It should be the same with behaviour problems in school. Especially since we know that the children who misbehave the most need that psychological support and the teachers need that psychological understanding and training. Imagine if every school had professional training at the start of every year, how many fewer incidences of avoidable behaviour issues there would be, particularly concerning children with ADHD or those who are neurally divergent?

I don’t see how it could be a bad thing.

Or rather, I didn’t until I looked at the Ofsted Inspection Handbook (the guidelines for inspecting schools in England). It talks a lot about ‘positive behaviour’ and ‘clear and effective behaviour policies’, but we know that those behaviour policies are pretty subjective. Here’s a direct quote, see if you can guess my problem with it:

[Schools should create] an environment in which pupils feel safe, and in which bullying, discrimination, sexual harassment, sexual abuse and sexual violence – online or offline – are not accepted and are dealt with quickly, consistently and effectively whenever they occur[21].

It’s all about dealing with the symptom of the behaviour and totally ignores (or, at least, doesn’t seem to consider) the cause. Don’t waste time trying to understand why the children are misbehaving, just deal with it!

So of course schools are going to spend more time ensuring that behaviour policies are punitive instead of explorative. Of course the option to send problem children out of class is going to be recommended; it speeds up the process no end. And it does. It’s a really good solution for everyone except the child who is being sent out.

I’m not ignorant to the reality of teaching - I’m a teacher and I have had some horribly behaved kids. It can be a real struggle to manage students’ behaviour sometimes, and, as much as the children are the only people required by law to be in the school, teachers have to be mindful of their own mental health. And, there are other children; their learning outcomes matter as well[22]. I’m not saying there is an easy solution. I’m not even saying that there is a solution. I’m just saying that at the heart of every behaviour issue is a child with a brain and a heart and a psyche.

I’ve said it several times in this post but around half the children with behavioural issues will continue to have problems during adolescence and often into adulthood[23]. Since these issues can be identified in Early Years’ education, teachers need to be  provided with the support they need; equipped with strategies to effectively, adaptively and sensitively manage behaviour; and provided with information that ultimately promotes both of these[24]

And that's it for this week. I was going to space this topic over three weeks but there is just too much going on in the world of education. I want to talk to you about what I've learned from being an official marker for Primary exams; there is talk of a Chartered Institute of Teaching on the horizon; pathways for foreign professionals into teaching are being reviewed; and learner profiles might be replacing terminal exams!

If you're curious about any of that, remember to subscribe to the blog so that you get notified every time I publish. It's usually on a Friday and I try to keep it to 7am but recently that's just not been possible. So, if you're really keen, subscribing is the best way to know exactly when a new post or podcast episode is available.

Leave a comment, here or on the podcast, drop me an email or @ me on Twitter (links below). Until next time, thanks for reading and remember:

You can do this; you’re awesome!

Carl Headley-Morris

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References for this Post

  1. Wolverton, B., Pitcher, J., McCoy, L. (1999). Why do Students Misbehave in the Classroom?, Wake Forest University Department of Education
  2. Gardill MC, DuPaul GJ, Kyle KE. Classroom Strategies for Managing Students with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Intervention in School and Clinic. 1996;32(2):89-94. doi:10.1177/105345129603200204
  4. Winding, T.N., Aust, B. & Andersen, L.P.S. The association between pupils´ aggressive behaviour and burnout among Danish school teachers - the role of stress and social support at work. BMC Public Health 22, 316 (2022).
  5. Carroll, A., Forrest, K., Sanders-O’Connor, E. et al. (2022). Teacher stress and burnout in Australia: examining the role of intrapersonal and environmental factors. Soc Psychol Educ .
  6. Merrett, F., & Wheldall, K. (1992). Teacher training and classroom discipline. In K. Wheldall (Ed.), Discipline in schools: Psychological perspectives on the Elton Report (pp. 10–19). Taylor & Frances/Routledge.
  7. Hyman, I. A., & Perone, D. C. (1998). The other side of school violence: Educator policies and
  8. practices that may contribute to student misbehavior. Journal of School Psychology, 36, 7 –27.
  9. Is Sending Kids Out Of Class Undermining Your Authority? (n.d.). Retrieved June 16, 2022, from
  10. Schiff, M., & BarGil, B. (2004). Children with behaviour problems: improving elementary school teachers’ skills to keep these children in class. In Children and Youth Services Review (Vol. 26, Issue 2, pp. 207–234).
  11. Lewis, R. (rom), Romi, S. and Roache, J. (2012) ‘Excluding students from classroom: Teacher techniques that promote student responsibility’, Teaching and Teacher Education, pp. 870–878. doi:10.1016/j.tate.2012.03.009.
  12. Schiff, M., & BarGil, B. (2004). Children with behaviour problems: improving elementary school teachers’ skills to keep these children in class. In Children and Youth Services Review (Vol. 26, Issue 2, pp. 207–234).
  13. Pardeck, J. T. (1996). Social work practice: an ecological approach. Westport, Connecticut: Auburn
  14. House.
  15. Pettit, G.S., Bates, J.E., & Dodge, K.A. (1992), (published online 2019). Family interaction patterns and children’s conduct problems at home and school: A longitudinal perspective
  16. DfE (2016). Behaviour and discipline in schools Advice for headteachers and school staff. Crown.
  17. Taylor, C. (2011) Getting the simple things right: Charlie Taylor’s behaviour checklists, Crown.
  18. Serbin, L. A., O'Leary, K. D., Kent, R. N., & Tonick, I. J. (1973). A comparison of teacher response to the preacademic and problem behaviour of boys and girls. Child Development, 44(4), 796–804.
  19. Dobbs, Jennifer E., "Attention in the preschool classroom : the relationships among child gender, child misbehavior, and teacher attention." (2002). Masters Theses 1911 - February 2014. 2392. Retrieved from
  20. DfE (2016). Behaviour and discipline in schools Advice for headteachers and school staff. Crown.
  21. Martin, A.J., Linfoot, K. and Stephenson, J. (1999) ‘How teachers respond to concerns about misbehavior in their classroom’, Psychology in the Schools, pp. 347–358. doi:10.1002/(sici)1520-6807(199907)36:4<347::aid-pits7>;2-g.
  22. Martin, A.J., Linfoot, K. and Stephenson, J. (1999) ‘How teachers respond to concerns about misbehavior in their classroom’, Psychology in the Schools, pp. 347–358. doi:10.1002/(sici)1520-6807(199907)36:4<347::aid-pits7>;2-g.
  23. (OFSTED), Office For Standards in Education (2019) School inspection handbook, Ofsted London. Available at: (Accessed: 27 August 2020).
  24. Kevin Wheldall (1991) Managing Troublesome Classroom Behaviour in Regular Schools: A Positive Teaching Perspective, International Journal of Disability, Development and Education, 38:2, 99-116, DOI: 10.1080/0156655910380202
  25. Walker, H. M., Colvin, G., & Ramsey, E. (1995). Antisocial behavior in school: Strategies and best practices. Thomson Brooks/Cole Publishing Co.
  26. Martin, A.J., Linfoot, K. and Stephenson, J. (1999) ‘How teachers respond to concerns about misbehavior in their classroom’, Psychology in the Schools, pp. 347–358. doi:10.1002/(sici)1520-6807(199907)36:4<347::aid-pits7>;2-g.