Conduct Disorder refers to a group of behavioural and emotional problems in children and adolescents that are persistent and repetitive.
Conduct disorders are often caused by brain damage, abuse and neglect. These traumatic experiences along with genetic vulnerability can lead to the development of conduct disorders. Many children and adolescents will experience some behaviour related problems, such as aggression, anger or defiance, and this is a part of normal development.
However, in children with conduct disorders the behaviours will be more frequent and long lasting. These behaviours can be disruptive to the child or families’ everyday life, violate the rights of others and go against accepted norms. This diagnosis will only be given following a comprehensive assessment by a specialist mental health professional and often coexists with other conditions such as anxiety, trauma, substance abuse, ADHD, learning and mood disorders.
Due to the major changes occurring in the prefrontal cortex (the thinking part of the brain), adolescents can tend to rely on their limbic system (the part of the brain that deals with emotions) to make decisions. This may explain why they are more likely to engage in risky behaviours (e.g. drinking alcohol, taking drugs or acts of self-harm). The reward systems in their brain are exaggerated during this time in their lives which may also contribute to these risk taking and novelty seeking behaviours. While their prefrontal cortex is still wiring itself, children and young people are still learning self-control. They are also becoming much more aware of their environments and the social world around them, where they may take risks in order to seek connection and acceptance from others (e.g. peer pressure).
How to identify the signs of conduct disorders?
Conduct disorders result in serious behavioural problems that may raise concern among teachers, parents and peers and it is important to access appropriate professional treatment and support. Recognising the signs can help you to take appropriate action.
Symptoms of conduct disorders vary depending on the severity of the disorder and the age of the child or young person.
Symptoms of conduct disorders broadly fall into five categories:
Aggressive behaviour – fighting, bullying, cruelty to animals, use of weapons or other violent behaviours
Destructive behaviour – vandalism, arson or substance misuse
Deceitful behaviour – lying, shoplifting or stealing
Violation of rule – engaging in age inappropriate behaviour, going against accepted societal rules, running away, truancy or being sexually active at a young age
Emotional deficits – lack of remorse for negative behaviour, minimal emotional expression, lack of concern about consequences, or lack of concern about school performance
These behaviours can then result in more frequent disciplinary action, struggling to maintain friendships, higher risk of failure, dropping out of school, disruption to family relationships or higher risk of legal issues.
Children with conduct disorders may present as challenging to their family or caregivers and teachershoweverit is important to consider that conduct disorder impairs a child’s ability to function which can impact their lives and relationships in the long–term.
Children or young people with conduct disorders can sometimes be labelled as “bad” however it is important to recognise their difficulties as a mental illness with which they are struggling.
How can teachers support students with conduct disorders?
Seeking out positive behaviours in children with conduct disorders can develop more prosocial patterns of behaviour.
Use Antecedent, Behaviour, Consqeuence charts
Using ABC (Antecedent, Behaviour, Consequences) charts can help to understand the sequences of behaviours by helping to identify what happened before and after a target behaviour including what others, such as teachers or peers were doing at the time.
These focus on:
Antecedents (A): what happened directly before the behaviour
Behaviour (B): the specific behaviour of interest
Consequences (C): what happened directly after the behaviour
Further information about ABC charts, practical instructions on how to use them and an ABC chart template can be found in our resource section.