“Don't ask why I did it. I don't know. Look. If it's there, I take it. If I want to, I do it. That's the way it is.”

- Alvin K., aged 16

What is a Behaviour Disorder?

To most people, disordered behaviour is behaviour that varies markedly and chronically from accepted norms. In a general way then, the notion is quite widely accepted and understood, much in the same way that a general notion of normal behaviour is widely accepted and understood. It is from this point that differences develop. Therefore, in order to create a common ground of understanding, professionals concerned with behaviour disorders, particularly mental health professionals, have attempted to organize behaviour disorders by classification. Unfortunately, the consensus in these classifications varies from limited to non-existent. Interestingly, professionals in education seem to have less difficulty with this issue, probably because they have a more unified perspective.

A Mental Health View of Behaviour Disorders

Mental health professionals tend to view behaviour disorders from a particular perspective or theory or enveloping concept. It's a tendency that affects research, treatment, and to a lesser extent, education. These are some of the more widely held perspectives.

Misconceptions about Behaviour Disorders

1. Only mental health professionals are equipped to deal with behaviour disorders. People with little or no professional training can be very helpful, especially to students.

2. A permissive atmosphere that allows a child to develop understanding and acceptance of the self, is the most effective way to change inappropriate behaviour. Evidence suggests that a highly structured, ordered, and predictable environment brings about the greatest change in subjects with a behaviour disorder.

3. Behaviour disorders are neither age nor gender related. Most studies show identified cases of males outnumber females by ratios of 3.5-5 to 1. Incidence rates are highest in the upper grades of elementary school and first grades of secondary school, and lowest in the primary grades. In the last decade of the twentieth century, how ever, new data began to show significant rate increases for girls over boys, in identified behaviour and in crime.

4. There is no relationship between single parent families and behaviour problems. Statistics Canada reports (in 1998) that children in single-parent families have behavioural, emotional, academic or social problems at a rate 1.5-2 times greater than children in two-parent families.

5. Behaviour disorders generally are patterns of aggression and frustration. There is no doubt that outward-directed behaviour is noticeable and may well be disordered However, symptoms of behaviour disorder can also be expressed by reticence and withdraw.

6. Very often a behaviour disorder indicates a child who is bright but frustrated. Available data suggest a correlation between behaviour disorders and average to low IQ test scores, with the more severe cases even lower.

7. Difficult behaviour is usually an external manifestation of something deep- rooted. There is no sound evidence that all the causes of behaviour are rooted deep in a subject's psyche, or even necessarily connected to emotional disturbance. Especially in school, inappropriate behaviour is often spontaneous and temporary.

Causes of Behaviour Disorders


The majority of subjects who have behaviour disorders appear to be physically healthy. Nevertheless, theory and research in the latter years of the twentieth century suggest possible links between biological makeup and behaviour. Sometimes the connection is clearly, if also distressingly, apparent. Children born with fetal alcohol syndrome or fetal alcohol effects are a case in point. The causes of pervasive development disorder (autism) have become an area of extensive research — and speculation — inasmuch as biology is concerned. Research in genetics is provoking a continuing reassessment of disorders like schizophrenia. In short, biology is now being considered in cases of behaviour disorder, almost as a matter of course.


Allergies, too, are being re-evaluated as long- ignored causes of disordered behaviour. While the physical effects of allergies on some children are readily acknowledged, a more recent conception of allergies incorporates the thesis that allergenic reactions can generate learning and behaviour problems in a far deeper and more subtle way than the very obvious physical reactions. A widely accepted notion now, is 'total load': the idea that an individual has a capacity to tolerate only so much substance in the environment. In some individuals, say, a student in a classroom, a combination of stale air, chalk dust, moulds and fungi in the carpet, and perfume or shaving lotion on the teacher, may exceed that student's tolerance (total load) and cause an allergic reaction expressed both in a physical way (e.g., a rash or watery eyes or sneezing) and in her behaviour. These reactions are often far more profound than may be immediately apparent.

Speech and Language

There is a higher prevalence of behaviour disorders among children with speech and language impairments than is found in the general population. For example, in a study of young psychiatric outpatients, a significantly higher number of language impairments was found in the outpatients than had been suspected at intake. While there is some debate in the field over whether language impairment is a cause or an effect of behaviour disorder, it seems logical to conclude that a child who has difficulty expressing his needs — or his frustrations — may choose to act them out.

In the Home

Explanations for behaviour that are found in psychology will vary by perspective (e.g., a psychoanalyst will see things differently from a behaviourist) and by setting (e.g., the home, the community, the school, etc.). Two very powerful influences on a child's behaviour are the home and the school itself. A child's relationship with parents is crucial to development, particularly in the early years. In homes, for example, where discipline is inconsistent and sometimes harsh, and where there is little reinforcement for affection, children often learn to be aggressive. Empirical evidence, supported by research, has consistently shown that the style of child rearing used by parents will have an impact on the behaviour of their children.

In the School

There are still a few mental health professionals who maintain that schools are the major cause of behaviour disorders, but there is no clear evidence to support this. Still, since schools are where students spend a major portion of their wakeful day, it is logical to conclude that what goes on in the classroom, under the direction of the adults there, can have a major influence on behaviour. The relationship therefore, between a student and a teacher, between the student and peers, and between the student and the school at large, can have a significant impact. A key issue for teachers is to give this impact an appropriate and sensible weight, for just as children must share some responsibility for their behaviour in the home, so must they in school. Many an attempt by school personnel to resolve a behaviour situation has undermined itself by too obsessive a concern with the dynamism of intra-school relationships.


Staswick, Stacey. Students and Behaviour. Marshall Press, 1994.
Weber, Ken. Special Education in Ontario Schools. Highland Press, 1999.

? - A presentation of mine for Teachers' College.

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