Psychological perspectives on behaviour

This unit introduces the following psychological perspectives on behaviour:

  • Psychodynamic
  • Behaviourist
  • Cognitive
  • Humanist
  • Ecosystemic

It looks at the origins, principles and approaches of each perspective and considers what each means in the context of schools.

Psychological perspectives

The different approaches to understanding and managing behaviour are informed by a variety of theoretical perspectives on psychology.

This resource presents an overview of each of these approaches.

Select one of the circles to find out more.

  1. Psycho-dynamic
  2. Behaviourist
  3. Cognitive
  4. Humanist
  5. Ecosystemic


The psychodynamic perspective is based around the early work of Freud and argues that behaviour is governed by subconscious feelings arising from early life experiences.

From this perspective, difficulties with behaviour in children (and adults) are seen as external symptoms of internal conflicts, such as early trauma, loss or troubled relationships with parents and carers.


Psychodynamic assessment is carried out by professional psychoanalytic counsellors. They employ questioning and inference techniques to analyse a pupil’s subconscious motives for behaviour.


Interventions based on the psychodynamic approach focus on encouraging individuals to express painful feelings in a safe environment, often through talking therapy or creative play. This builds a sense of security which allows pupils to give up negative behaviour and form strong bonds with others.

« Return


This perspective states that all behaviour is learned, and as such can be modified with reward and punishment systems. It focuses on a scientific approach to the study of behaviour.

It rejects introspective Freudian methods, concentrating instead on measurable behaviour, rather than underlying causes.


Assessments related to this approach are based on systematic observation and recording of behaviour. The intention is to avoid inaccurate evaluations, so behavioural information is recorded on checklists, both pre- and post-intervention. These checklists can then be compared to give an accurate picture of a child’s behaviour and the efficacy of any interventions.


Interventions that employ behaviourist principles aim to change behavioural patterns by establishing positive reinforcement of good behaviour and negative consequences for bad behaviour.

« Return


The cognitive perspective argues that internal processes of cognition – like reasoning, understanding and interpretation – have the greatest impact on behaviour.

This approach maintains that difficult behaviour may arise from conflict between an individual’s perception of a situation and the perceptions of others. Pupils are likely to respond to the world in a way that seems appropriate and rational to them, but can sometimes seem inappropriate to carers and peers that see the situation differently.


Cognitive assessment is often carried out in schools through the use of self-monitoring logs, self-reports, or interviews. The aim of cognitive assessment is to understand behaviour from the pupils’ point of view in order to define areas on which to focus any intervention.


Interventions modelled on the cognitive perspective aim to clarify misperceptions, and challenge negative attitudes. Cognitive training is implemented in schools as ‘emotional literacy’, and helps students to develop a strong understanding of their own behaviour.

« Return


The humanist perspective expands on the behaviourist approach by incorporating other essential human needs into the list of motivations for behaviour.

These needs, as described by Abraham Maslow in A theory of human motivation (1943), engage with the idea of what it means to exist as a human being, and include the want for social belonging, the drive towards personal growth, and the desire to think well of oneself.


Central to the humanist perspective is a belief that the meaning of individual behaviour is personal and subjective. As such, humanists argue that scientific assessment cannot be truly objective. Nonetheless, there is an acceptance amongst some that assessment can be used to serve the goals of humanist approaches.


Interventions based on humanist approaches aim to address the hierarchy of need by developing self-esteem and a sense of social belonging. Counselling may be used to help pupils learn alternative ways of perceiving themselves and the world around them, enabling them to be less dependent on others for a sense of self-worth and more resilient to troubling factors in their lives.

« Return


The ecosystemic perspective is based on models of ecosystems in the natural world. Small changes in any part of an ecosystem can have knock-on effects on the rest of the system, and changes can snowball into large problems.

From this perspective, problems arise from smaller difficulties in interaction between teachers, pupils, families and peers. Pupils can become locked into a cycle of negative interaction, which may lead to deterioration in behaviour.


Ecosystemic approaches to assessment encourage teachers to examine their own interpretations of their interactions with pupils, parents and other teachers. They are encouraged to think about their own behaviour at particular times and in particular contexts.


Interventions modelled on this approach train teachers to look for a positive interpretation of events in order to change, or ‘reframe’, pupils’ behaviour and break out of negative cycles of interaction with students.

« Return

Research cited in the 2009 book, Special Educational Needs and Diversity, showed the frequency with which educational psychologists in one local authority recommended particular strategies during the previous school term.


Psychological perspectives in schools

Frequency of recommending strategies


25.8% behavioural

3.5% cognitive

8.5% systemic

0.7% other agencies


18.4% behavioural

20.6% cognitive

5% systemic

0.7% other agencies


6.4% behavioural

4.3% cognitive

5% systemic

2.1% other agencies