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Supporting parents to use schema theory to understand and manage challenging behaviour in the home

Full reference

Proctor, S. & Solvason, C. (2019). Supporting parents to use schema theory to understand and manage challenging behaviour in the home. NZ International Research in Early Childhood Education Journal, 22(1), pp. 72 – 85.  Retrieved from

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Page 72

Original Research Paper
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NZ Int Reseach ECE journal pic

Supporting parents to use schema theory to understand and manage challenging behaviour in the home

Samuel Proctor and Carla Solvason
University of Worcester, UK


Teachers of young children often find themselves discussing with parents ways to manage their children’s challenging behaviours in the home. The motivation for this research was to find an effective way to share schema theory, an approach that had proved helpful for managing the challenging behaviour of Special Educational Needs and Disabilities children, with parents. The aim was to provide support for parents, determine their views on the effectiveness of schema theory as the basis for a strategy for managing challenging behaviour at home, and ascertain whether using the approach could have a positive impact upon the quality of family life. A practitioner action research approach was taken, whereby an area of practice was identified, developed and reviewed. The findings suggest that the sessions put on for parents: reduced children’s anxiety; helped parents manage their behaviours; improved the children’s relationships with siblings and improved parents’ well-being.  Although this particular research is based within a special needs setting catering for a range of ages, a better understanding of these approaches is useful to all parents and practitioners; and to those in the early years in particular.

Key words: Schema theory; challenging behaviour; special educational needs; disabilities; double loop learning; reflective learning; coaching; mentoring.



This research explores a small-scale practitioner action research project, based in a UK specialist school, where six families were supported in using schema theory as an effective strategy for managing their children’s challenging behaviour in the home environment.

Specialist schools in the UK offer alternative provision for children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND).  Class sizes are smaller and individual educational plans are carefully tailored to the child’s needs by those with specialist knowledge of supporting specific needs. In this case, the school provides education to children with severe learning difficulties which the Department for Education (DfE) (2015) recognises as impacting on a child’s cognition and learning, requiring support in all areas of the curriculum and encompassing associated difficulties with mobility and communication.  Many of the children in the setting have additional diagnosed conditions including Autism, which was the case with several children of the families who participated in this research.

Page 73

Although this particular project worked with SEND children in a specialist facility, there are important lessons to learn for all practitioners and parents working with young children who display difficult behaviours. The intervention was prompted by one particular situation, when the lead researcher (a practitioner at the school) discussed schema theory with a parent volunteer. During this discussion it was identified that their child’s difficult behaviours exhibited a need to explore horizontal and vertical movement, explained by Louis (2013) as a trajectory schema (this will be discussed more fully later).  The practitioner offered a range of activities and resources suitable to this specific schema.  The following week the parent that was using some of these approaches aided the son for ‘the first time … to play by himself, without needing a grown up do things for him or being pushed around by him’ (personal communication, 2017). This article explains the process of sharing schema theory with a group of parents and the impact that this had upon the families.

This research carefully followed the British Educational Research Association (2014) Ethical Guidelines and gained full ethical approval from the awarding university. Although all parents gave informed consent to be involved in the research and were happy to share their views for the purposes of the development, due to the ethical sensitivity of the area it was decided that this article would focus predominantly upon researcher reflections on the data collected, rather than including lengthy and possibly identifiable citations. In this way the researchers were able to reflect upon the process, alluding to scenarios and citing brief phrases, whilst fully protecting the anonymity of those parents who played a part.


Working with challenging behaviour

A key value that underpinned this project was the importance of effective partnerships with parents to support a child’s development. The expectation of a reciprocal relationship between parents and practitioners is established within both UK policy (DfE 2015; DfE, 2017) and theoretical literature (Hunt, Virgo, Klett-Davies, Page, & Apps 2011; Mallett, 2012; Fettig, Schultz, & Ostrosky, 2013; Ward, 2013 are just a few examples). For this reason and due to the brevity of this article we take the concept of working in partnership with parents as a given and instead focus upon literature that explains challenging behaviour and how schema theory can be used as a strategy for managing behaviour.  We consider the learning process in adults and the need to develop a deeper understanding of coaching and mentoring to share knowledge of schema theory with parents.


Perspectives of challenging behaviour

Challenging behaviour is any behaviour that challenges the expectations of professionals, teachers, parents and carers. Emerson and Einfeld (2011) view challenging behaviour as a social construct dependent on the social rules of the specific context in which it occurs. For example, we may consider throwing a ball as an unacceptable behaviour indoors, but it is acceptable in the garden. So, a challenging behaviour is when a ball is thrown indoors.  As challenging behaviours can cause harm, adults impose rules to prevent them occurring.  Problematically, this can also limit children’s experiences and expression. Therefore, a strategy that empowers practitioners and parents to manage challenging behaviour without impeding children’s opportunities is required. 

The children of the parents involved in this research were assessed as having SEND, but as practitioners we come across many young children who struggle to understand the requirements of context specific social rules, as exemplified above. The National Autistic Society (NAS, 2017) identifies challenging behaviours, including sudden outbursts or self-injurious behaviour, as a symptom of anxiety, anger or frustration. They attribute it to an inability to communicate specific difficulties, such as over-sensitivity or a difficulty processing information. As practitioners it can be a struggle to manage such behaviours, but, Moreso, Durand and Hieneman (2018) found that these types of behaviours can be particularly overwhelming to parents and can impact significantly on the quality of family life. 

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