Behaviour in Scottish schools: research report 2023

This report is the fifth (2023) wave of the Behaviour in Scottish Schools Research, first undertaken in 2006.

Chapter 1 – Executive Summary

Background and aims

The Scottish Government commissioned the Scottish Centre for Social Research to conduct a fifth wave of the Behaviour in Scottish Schools Research (BISSR) which was first undertaken in 2006. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic the 2020 wave of BISSR was postponed, with the result that there was a seven year gap between the fourth wave of BISSR, conducted in 2016, and this iteration of the study. The research in 2023 explored the headteachers’, teachers’ and support staff members’ views of relationships and behaviour in publicly-funded mainstream schools, as well as the views of key local authority representatives across Scotland.

The overall aim of this study was to provide a robust and clear picture of relationships and behaviour in publicly-funded mainstream schools and of current policy and approaches for supporting relationships and behaviour.


The research involved a quantitative survey (of headteachers, teachers and support staff) and in-depth qualitative research (with headteachers, teachers, support staff and local authority representatives).

Quantitative survey

A stratified random sample of 508 primary schools and all 330 eligible secondary schools were invited to participate. At each school, the headteacher and a randomly selected sample of teachers and support staff were invited to participate.

As was the case in 2016, the survey was conducted online, though support staff members were also given the option of completing paper questionnaires. Survey fieldwork was carried out between 27 February 2023 and 12 April 2023. The overall school staff response rate was 43%. The achieved sample was 3754.

Qualitative research

A programme of qualitative research was conducted between February and July 2023 to add context and detail to the survey findings and explore new and emerging issues in depth. The qualitative research comprised interviews with headteachers and teachers, and focus groups with classroom-based support staff, involving a total of 109 staff at 14 schools (6 primary schools, 8 secondary schools), and interviews with 30 local authority education representatives.

Main findings

Overall perceptions of behaviour

Staff were asked about their experience of a wide range of positive behaviours and disruptive behaviours across 3 categories (low level disruptive, disengagement, serious disruptive). For low level and disengagement behaviours, the proportion of staff that have experienced each of these at least once a day in the last teaching week is reported. Among the serious disruptive behaviours staff were first asked how frequently they had experienced each of these behaviours between pupils in the last teaching week. They were then asked how frequently they had experienced these serious disruptive behaviours being directed at themselves or other staff[1].

Both primary and secondary school staff reported generally good behaviour among most or all pupils in the classroom (65%) and around the school (85%). The most commonly reported positive behaviours within the classroom were pupils following instructions and pupils seeking support from staff or peers when needed. However, low level disruptive behaviour, disengagement and particular serious disruptive behaviours were also frequently experienced by staff. One of the most common low level disruptive behaviour was pupils talking out of turn, with 86% of staff having encountered this at least once a day in the last week. One of the most common disengagement behaviours was pupils withdrawing from interaction with staff/others, with 43% having encountered this on a daily basis.

School staff reported that the most common forms of serious disruptive behaviours between pupils were physical and verbal abuse, particularly physical aggression, general verbal abuse and physical violence[2]. Two-thirds (67%) had encountered general verbal abuse, 59% physical aggression and 43% physical violence between pupils in the classroom in the last week. The proportion of staff witnessing abuse between pupils related to protected characteristics was lower, but some types of this abuse were reported by around 1 in 5 staff in the last week. For example, 24% of staff experienced abuse towards pupils who had additional support needs in the last week.

There were differences in the types of behaviour experienced by staff in different roles. Headteachers were more likely to report higher levels of positive behaviour and lower levels of disruptive behaviour than teachers or support staff. Support staff were more likely than headteachers or teachers to encounter almost all types of serious disruptive behaviours between pupils. In addition, a higher proportion of support staff reported having experienced the greatest number (21 or more) instances of physical aggression and violence towards them in the last 12 months compared with other staff. There was a general trend of positive behaviours decreasing and negative behaviours increasing as pupils’ ages increase, with most of the low level and negative behaviours more commonly reported in secondary schools than primary schools. The exception was physical aggression and violence, both directed at other pupils and towards staff, which were more often experienced in primary schools compared with secondary schools. Primary 1 -3 teachers were also more likely to encounter these behaviours towards themselves or other staff in the classroom compared with P4-7 teachers and in P4-7 compared with in secondary school.

The abusive use of mobile phones and digital technologies was one of the most frequently experienced serious disruptive behaviours among secondary staff, as were general verbal abuse between pupils and towards staff, physical aggression/violence between pupils and pupils being under the influence of drugs/alcohol. Primary 4-7 teachers reported higher frequencies of all low-level disruptive behaviours in the classroom than P1-3 teachers. In terms of disengagement, pupils deliberately socially excluding others was more commonly experienced by primary staff but pupils leaving the classroom without permission or truanting were significantly more likely to be reported in secondary school.

Whilst over a third of staff had experienced general verbal abuse[3] and 16% had experienced physical aggression and 11% physical violence towards themselves or other staff in the classroom in the last week, it was relatively unusual for staff to report that they routinely experienced abuse directed towards themselves or other staff related to race, sex and sexuality, religion, or disability. A small proportion (6% or less[4]) of all staff had personally experienced abuse due to each of the protected characteristics in the last 12 months. However, as staff demographics relating to protected characteristics other than gender were not captured by the survey, it is not possible to ascertain whether the study accurately reflects the experiences of these demographic groups.

Changes over time

Whilst the majority of staff in 2023 still perceived that all or most pupils are generally well-behaved around the school and in the classroom, perceptions of this among teachers and support staff have declined since 2016 and since the time series began in 2006. By contrast, headteachers’ perceptions of good behaviour have remained high across the time series. Staff continue to find that pupils engage in the majority of the positive behaviours in the classroom in all or most lessons.

However, there has been a perceived decline in pupil behaviour since 2016, with primary and secondary staff reporting decreases in most positive behaviours and increases in most of the low level disruptive, serious disruptive and other negative behaviours around the school. While headteachers’ experiences generally remained more positive, particularly in primary schools, teachers and support staff experiences of pupil behaviour in primary and secondary schools were more negative across a wide range of behaviours.

Staff reported increases in most of the classroom disengagement behaviours and low level disruptive behaviours in the classroom and around the school since 2016, particularly pupils persistently infringing rules, making cheeky or impertinent remarks, engaging in general rowdiness, mucking about and deliberately excluding others. Staff experiences of the most commonly experienced low level disruptive behaviours have also increased since 2006. Reports of pupils being under the influence of drugs or alcohol and using digital technology/mobile phones abusively have also risen since 2016.

Likewise, reported incidence of serious disruptive behaviours has increased since 2016, including sexist abuse towards staff, general verbal abuse, physical aggression and violence towards staff and pupils in the classroom and around the school[5]. The proportion of staff that have experienced at least one incident of general verbal abuse towards them personally in the last 12 months increased among all staff types in primary and secondary schools since 2009, with the greatest rise occurring since 2016. The only serious disruptive behaviours that have remained low and largely unchanged since 2016 in primary and secondary schools are reported instances of abuse towards staff including racist, homophobic/biphobic/ transphobic and religious abuse and abuse related to disability. However, it is not possible to ascertain whether the study accurately reflects the experiences of these demographic groups due to the survey not gathering this demographic information.

Across primary and secondary schools, abuse between pupils and physical destructiveness have also all increased. Whilst the overall proportion of staff who report having experienced use of a weapon towards other pupils and staff in the last teaching week was much lower (2-6%)[6] than the proportion reporting general verbal, physical and a number of other types of abuse this has increased since 2016. There has been a rise from 3% in 2016 to 11% in 2023 of primary support staff and from <1% to 6% of primary and secondary teachers having encountered use of a weapon towards other pupils in the classroom in the last teaching week. Since the time series began in 2006, reported encounters of pupil violence and aggression in the classroom towards other pupils has risen. For example, 10% of primary teachers had dealt with physical aggression towards other pupils at least once a day in 2006, rising to 20% in 2023. The increases have been more marked among primary teachers and primary and secondary support staff.

The qualitative research identified new and emerging patterns of disruptive behaviour including vaping and in-school truancy, a rise in misogynistic views expressed by male pupils, and problematic use of mobile phones and social media.

School staff and LA representatives identified underlying reasons for these changes in behaviour, including a perceived lack of consequences for pupils who engage in serious disruptive behaviour, a lack of support for pupils with additional support needs, particularly Autism Spectrum Disorders and ADHD, disengagement from school and learning and wider societal changes such as a general lack of respect in society, the ubiquity of social media and changing approaches to parenting.

The impact of COVID-19

Most school staff perceived that pupil behaviour was worse in 2023 than before the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions began in March 2020, both in the classroom (77%) and around the school (80%).

School staff involved in the qualitative research perceived COVID-19 to have had a negative impact on behaviour, particularly for those pupils whose transition - either between early years and primary or primary and secondary - was disrupted. School staff viewed these pupils as showing signs of immaturity, leading to low level disruption. The pandemic was seen to have resulted in delays to pupils’ social and communication skills, leading to distressed and disruptive behaviour related to sharing, playing together and communicating their feelings in primaries, and interpersonal relationships and group work in secondaries. Opinion differed among participants as to whether the COVID-19 pandemic was the cause of these changes in behaviour or had exacerbated and accelerated existing trends.

Additional perceived impacts of COVID-19 included disengagement with school and schoolwork, reduction in attendance for some pupils, anxiety and poorer mental wellbeing and greater reliance on mobile phones and social media. The most negative impacts of COVID-19 were considered to be felt by the most vulnerable pupils; those affected by poverty, deprivation and trauma.

Factors which predict experiences of negative behaviours

While a number of in-school factors which predict behaviour were identified in the quantitative analysis, participants in the interviews and focus groups focused on societal factors such as poverty and deprivation, and challenges associated with home and family life such as trauma and adverse childhood experiences and parenting, as the root causes of disruptive behaviour.

Interview participants also identified school-based factors as supporting positive behaviour in schools, such as a whole-school approach to recognising and celebrating positive behaviour and strong relationships between teachers, pupils and their families.

This highlights the challenge for schools in balancing in-school approaches to promoting positive behaviour alongside an external societal context outside their direct sphere of influence.

Multivariable regression analysis was used to identify the factors most strongly and independently associated with experiences of different types of negative or disruptive behaviour. Perceptions of behaviour getting worse since the pandemic was the strongest predictor of experiences of frequent negative behaviour, irrespective of the type of behaviour and the type of school or role of the staff member. This is not surprising, though it is not possible to infer from this that the impact of COVID was causing negative behaviour.

Other findings from the survey included that:

  • Perceived poorer school ethos and poorer promotion of policies on behaviour were associated with frequent negative behaviour including low level disruptive behaviour, aggression towards other pupils and social exclusion.
  • Disruptive or negative behaviour was more frequently reported in urban schools than rural schools, particularly at primary level.
  • Limited confidence in one’s own abilities ‘to respond to indiscipline in the classroom’ or to ‘promote positive behaviour’ was also associated with more frequent experiences of negative behaviour.

Impact of behaviour

Staff were asked to rate the level of impact[7] each of the three categories of pupil behaviour (serious disruptive behaviour; disengagement and low level disruptive behaviour) had on the overall ethos and atmosphere of the school. Low level disruptive behaviour was identified by school staff as having the greatest negative impact, with almost all (94%) staff in the survey reporting that this behaviour had an impact on school ethos and atmosphere[8]. Slightly lower proportions, though still the vast majority, said that disengagement behaviours and serious disruptive behaviour have a negative impact.

Teachers and support staff were also asked which three of the wider set of behaviours (that they reported having experienced within the last teaching week[9]) had the greatest negative impact on their teaching experience or their experience as a support staff member. The three behaviours that staff identified as having the greatest overall negative impact were all low-level disruptive behaviours: talking out of turn; hindering other pupils; and using/looking at mobile phones/tablets inappropriately.

In primary schools, the behaviour most frequently identified as having the greatest negative impact on experience, reported by 57% of primary school staff, was pupils talking out of turn. In secondary schools, the behaviour most commonly reported as having the greatest negative impact was pupils using/looking at mobile phones or tablets when they should not. More than half of secondary school staff (52%) said this was one of the three behaviours that had the greatest negative impact, a notable increase since 2016. Perceptions of the specific impact of low level disruptive behaviour varied across qualitative participants. There were participants that felt disengagement and class disruption were manageable, whilst others described how they exacerbated stress and burnout among staff.

In line with the reported increase in low-level and serious disruptive behaviour, the level of perceived impact of negative behaviour also increased since 2016 across all behaviour types (low level disruptive, disengagement and serious disruptive behaviour), and staff groups, particularly for secondary teachers.

There has also been a notable increase since 2016 in primary school support staff reporting being negatively impacted by verbal abuse, physical aggression, and physical violence towards themselves and other staff. Support staff were more likely than teachers to report that serious disruptive behaviours (i.e. verbally or physically aggressive or abusive behaviour) have the greatest negative impact on staff experience. For those experiencing violent and aggressive pupil behaviour, participants in the qualitative research reported a profound impact on their mental health. Particular concern was raised regarding the wellbeing of teaching and support staff, who frequently manage disruptive behaviour in classrooms.

Interviewees highlighted the negative impact of incidents of pupil violence and aggression on the mental health of other pupils. Teaching and support staff shared instances where other pupils displayed fear and avoidance in response to aggressive behaviour. Persistent low level disruption was also said to have led to greater acceptance, and imitation of, inappropriate behaviours among pupils. On the other hand, positive pupil behaviour, as well as staff and pupil buy-in regarding school values, was thought to create a welcoming and nurturing environment in schools.

Approaches used in schools to support relationships and behaviour

Within schools, there was evidence of a culture shift towards a focus on relationships, restorative practice and nurture approaches and away from punitive approaches. Nurturing approaches, the promotion of positive behaviour through whole-school ethos and values, and restorative approaches were commonly used across primaries and secondaries to both encourage positive relationships and behaviour and manage serious and low level disruption.

School staff interviewed highlighted the positive impact of particular programmes and broader approaches, particularly in terms of the adoption of whole-school values, and emotional programmes in primary schools. Staff also described changes which had been made to the physical environment and the structure of the school day to promote positive behaviour and relationships (e.g., the use of sensory rooms, break out areas, alternative learning zones, nurture bases, a tailored curriculum etc). These adaptations were viewed as particularly important for those pupils with mental health issues, or those who were anxious about returning to school following school building closures due to COVID-19.

However, the extent to which positive approaches had been embedded across case study schools varied, with some teachers and support staff remaining sceptical as to the effectiveness of positive approaches. Staff noted the challenges associated with nurture and restorative approaches in terms of the time and resources needed to implement these successfully. In the survey, staff reported spending longer on behaviour-related issues and tasks than in 2016.

The survey found the frequency of use of punitive approaches such as detention, punishment exercises and exclusions have decreased since 2016. Overall, the majority of school staff surveyed at both primary and secondary level were positive about their school’s ethos and culture. However, perceptions were much poorer in secondary schools and ratings of school ethos and culture have declined in all staff groups since 2016.

When asked to rate how their school promotes policies on positive relationships and behaviour, most (72%) of both primary school teachers and support staff rated their school as good or very good. Again, perceptions were lower in secondary schools, with 46% of teachers and 51% of support staff rating this as good or very good and ratings have decreased since 2016 (from 52% among teachers and 57% among support staff).

Teachers’ confidence in their ability to ‘promote positive behaviour’ and ‘respond to indiscipline’ in the classroom, both in primary and secondary schools remains high[10], although confidence in their ability to ‘respond to indiscipline’ has decreased since 2016.

Staff described improvements to the way that behaviour is described and understood, particularly the understanding of the impact of trauma and neurodiversity on pupil behaviour and the use of trauma-informed language and approaches. However, primary and secondary school staff interviewed criticised the perceived lack of consequences in current positive approaches to relationships and behaviour and called for this to be addressed in the future. School staff highlighted a perceived mismatch between the positive approaches espoused at both a national and LA level and the realities of dealing with violent and aggressive incidents in schools and highlighted the need for greater consistency in approaches to behaviour, both among teachers and schools. In addition, staff expressed concern at the perceived lack of alternative options and resources for pupils for whom mainstream education may not be appropriate.

Support for managing behaviour

School staff were positive about the level of support they receive from other staff within their school, particularly the formal and informal support they receive from their colleagues working in the same role. Almost all staff surveyed agreed that they could talk to other staff openly about any behaviour-related challenges they experience.

However, while primary staff perceptions of how well staff work together were high and have remained so since 2016, secondary staff perceptions were much less positive and have decreased since 2016; around half of teachers and less than half of secondary school support staff rated staff collegiality as ‘good’ or ‘very good’.

Primary teachers and support staff reported high levels of confidence that senior staff would help them if they experienced behaviour management difficulties, but confidence was much lower among secondary teachers and support staff and has fallen since 2016 in both groups and across school types. This was reflected in the qualitative findings, where secondary school staff tended to feel less supported by the senior leadership team than those in primary schools and school staff interviewees reported feeling less well supported by their managers than by their peers. Support staff also said that they did not always feel well supported by teachers.

While support staff in primary and secondary schools agreed that they played an important role in promoting positive relationships and behaviour in their schools, the qualitative research found that most support staff did not feel they have time within their contracted hours to enable discussions around classroom planning or discussions with colleagues/SMT/class teachers. Issues around contracted hours, schools lacking the funds to pay support staff to attend training or meetings outside of their working hours, and supply cover were also highlighted as barriers to support staff accessing appropriate support and training.

Among qualitative participants, there was a mismatch between the support LA representatives identified as being available to schools, and the support reported by schools. Headteachers, teachers and support staff, particularly those based in schools with more challenging levels of serious and disruptive behaviour, perceived that they were not always fully supported by their local authority.

The quantitative and qualitative findings suggest that serious disruptive incidents might be under-reported within schools and to the local authority. Primary and secondary staff in all roles were less likely to report an issue to anyone in 2023 than they were in 2016. The interviews found that staff did not report all incidents, both through in-school reporting systems and local authority reporting systems because of the lack of information provided to teachers and support staff following previous incidents to update them of the outcome and the perceived lack of support from local authorities. This reluctance was exacerbated by the view among some teachers that reporting appeared to be futile when there were ‘no consequences’ for disruptive pupils.

In addition, teachers complained of the amount of time they spent reporting behaviour incidents. The systems were considered difficult to navigate and overly time-consuming, particularly for staff working in schools with frequent and persistent disruptive behaviour.

Discussion and conclusions

In conclusion, in 2023 staff perceived that the majority of pupils were behaving well around the school and within the classroom, causing teaching staff few difficulties, and often accepting and mindful of their peers. However, the consensus of headteachers, class teachers and support staff was that there has been a general deterioration in the behaviour of pupils in primary and secondary schools in Scotland since 2016. Although the COVID-19 pandemic was thought to have been partly responsible for this observed deterioration, it was argued that the trend in more negative behaviour among pupils pre-dated the pandemic.

All school staff groups reported an increase in low level to more serious disruptive behaviours among pupils. Serious disruptive behaviours had a negative impact as a result of their very nature, but low level behaviours, such as pupils talking out of turn, were more prevalent, were difficult to deal with and caused frustration and fatigue among staff members. Notably, though, there was a reported increase in other serious disruptive behaviours, such as verbal abuse, physical aggression and violence, which were also occurring frequently, with verbal abuse being experienced by 67% of staff in the last week in the classroom. Since 2016, respondents also reported a greatly increased prevalence of pupils using phones/technology when they were not supposed to or in an abusive manner, as well as pupils being under the influence of alcohol and drugs in secondary schools.

School staff reported a positive view of the overall ethos of their schools, and teaching staff stated that they were mostly confident in their ability to ‘promote positive behaviour’ in their classrooms and to ‘respond to indiscipline’. Serious cases of disruptive behaviour, though perceived to have increased, were still infrequent. Headteachers and local authority representatives also tended to have a more positive view of pupil behaviour and experiences within school as a whole.

In addition, school staff were generally supportive of more nurturing and restorative approaches to managing discipline, with the caveat that time and support were needed to integrate these fully within the school, and that there had to be meaningful consequences within this approach for more serious disruptive behaviour.

The majority of school-based respondents reported a positive school ethos and culture which, allied with the fact that most pupils were still perceived to be behaving well within the classroom and the school, suggests that there is a solid bedrock which can be built on if the more frequent low level disruption and the rarer but more serious cases of dysregulated behaviour can be addressed in the future.

Suggested changes called for by respondents to approaches and support

The qualitative research participants made a number of suggestions as to how relationships and behaviour in schools might be improved in the future, including:


  • A greater consistency in relation to approaches to relationships and behaviour: more clarity at a national level, in the form of national guidance or policy, as to which behaviours are and are not acceptable and how they might be managed consistently across schools in different areas.
  • The perceived lack of consequences for pupils engaging in more disruptive behaviours: the management of the behaviour of a small core group of young people with whom all other approaches and strategies had been exhausted was thought to necessitate more robust measures. However, apart from suggestions such as removing pupils from the class temporarily, providing additional options for alternative provision or in more extreme cases the school, teachers were not always able to articulate what might be helpful.

Additional resources

  • The respondents emphasised the importance of providing adequate resources to fund nurture and support for pupils with additional support needs in mainstream schools under the presumption of mainstream policy. The reported increase in pupils with additional support needs (e.g., ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder) and young people with undiagnosed conditions suggest that much higher levels of funding and support are required if these pupils’ needs are to continue to be met in mainstream schools.

Enhanced support provision

  • A lack of provision for social, emotional and behavioural needs (SEBN) within enhanced support provision: more places to be made available in enhanced provision to help support highly dysregulated pupils, more opportunities to be provided for support through third sector organisations and breadth of curriculum and learning options to be explored. Again, funding would be required to pay for these additional resources.

More support from national and local government bodies

  • More support to be provided at national and local governmental level: this often related to resources, both in terms of staffing and funding, to allow schools to have the capacity to deal with disciplinary and behavioural issues, and to support pupils with additional support needs. It was proposed that the Scottish Government might issue a statement of support making clear that violence is unacceptable for school staff experiencing violence in their workplace.
  • More communication from local authority staff about how specific school incidents had been addressed.
  • A more visible presence from LA staff, such as visiting schools and experiencing the school environment.

Greater resources needed at LA level

  • The benefits of additional funding for schools in deprived areas through the Pupil Equity Fund (PEF) and the Scottish Attainment Challenge (SAC), for example, in establishing Inclusion Hubs, were outlined. However, school staff also highlighted instances where their funding from PEF and SAC had been reduced or come to an end, with implications for the funding of inclusion hubs and support staff levels.
  • School staff perceived that cuts to statutory services (e.g., social work, Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services), alternative learning provision from third sector organisations, enhanced support provision, and numbers of support staff impacted on the resources available to schools to help some of their most dysregulated children and young people.

Need for additional staffing at school level

  • At a school level, school staff called for funding to increase staff capacity to support pupils with distressed behaviour. Staff pointed to reductions in numbers of support staff, and the ways this has impacted on schools’ ability to provide one-to-one support and facilitate nurture and well-being groups. Staff also called for smaller class sizes, particularly in the primary sector, to help staff build relationships with their pupils.

Need for more training/collaboration

  • Class teachers called for more classroom observation from their peers to help them reflect and discuss strategies used, and access additional peer support from their colleagues, to help them promote positive relationships and behaviour. They also wanted more time after attending professional learning to be able to reflect on the sessions and consider how they could apply the strategies to improve behaviour.
  • Support staff should be paid to undertake learning and development, including formal training, outside of school or their contracted hours. Support staff themselves requested appropriate induction training to support them in their roles with pupils.

Parental and pupil engagement

  • Greater engagement with parents: as not all parents were perceived as being supportive of schools’ efforts to address behaviour, and it was stressed that schools and teachers were being held accountable for wider social issues. Earlier intervention to help support struggling families was proposed, though the issue of providing this in the context of local authority budget cuts was recognised.
  • It was suggested that campaigns to engage with pupils themselves to discuss their rights and responsibilities within school, and how to address low and more serious disruptive behaviours, might be beneficial.



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