Empowering People, Launching lives

Understanding the Behaviour Cycle

Author: Hannah Smith, Head of Fast Responder


25th July 2023 | 5 mins read

In the latest data published on permanent exclusions and suspensions in England in 2021/22, the highest rate of suspensions and exclusions was for those who have SEN without an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP). The most common reason for suspensions and permanent exclusions in 2021/22 was ‘persistent disruptive behaviour’.[1]

To bring these figures down, we need to take a holistic and collaborative approach to understanding behaviour. By looking at the when and why, we can provide appropriate support for learners to addressing any barriers to education. A tool that we find is particularly effective in providing a person-centred response to reducing the risk of breakdown within our BeyondAutism Fast Responder® service, is the ‘behaviour cycle’.

What is the behaviour cycle?

The behaviour cycle tools are adapted from the ‘crisis’ or ‘escalation’ curve, which show the stages of a crisis/escalation, and have a dual function;

  • To identify what is observed for the individual across the various stages of a ‘crisis’ when considering behaviours that challenge.(Download a visual representation of the behaviour cycle here)
  • To identify strategies to support the learner that correspond with the stage of the cycle being observed.

The colours used within the cycle correspond with those used in the Zones of Regulation[2], and can be used alongside a learner’s emotional regulation programme.

Whilst the behaviour cycle is typically used with those that support a learner (parents, teachers, teaching assistants etc.), the tool can also be used by the learner themselves. It can be used to map out body sensations, thoughts, actions and feelings based on the stage of the cycle, to provide a visual guide with regulation strategies.

Why is the behaviour cycle useful?

The primary aim of the behaviour cycle is to bring together a learner’s team through a workshop model. It helps to develop a consistent and person-centred understanding of the behaviours observed, and what strategies to introduce based upon which stage of the cycle the learner is in.

There are a number of other benefits of behaviour cycles:

  • Team workshops allow for group reflection​, and can enhance team collaboration and support, which allows for greater consistency in the understanding and implementation of strategies.
  • They are visual and can be used by the learner themselves.
  • It allows you to identify early warning signs to implement strategies to prevent escalation.
  • Can consider the team’s/parents’ own behaviour cycles, to reflect on where they may be within the cycle compared to the learner, and consider their own regulation strategies.

“The child feels safer and calmer, and the consistent approach used has meant incidents of dangerous behaviours have reduced.”

SENCo participating in the BeyondAutism Fast Responder® pilot, following the behaviour cycle workshop.

Implementing the Behaviour Cycle workshop

It is absolutely key that the behaviour cycle tools are created within a team workshop, with all team members present that support the learner. This is to ensure that all observations are captured, and a consistent understanding of the observations and supports are achieved.


Stage 1: Identify the perceived functions of behaviour

Prior to the workshop, the reasons behind the behaviour must first be identified. This is imperative, to ensure that the strategies put in place are effectively meeting the needs that the learner is communicating with their behaviour. If the strategies are not evidence-based upon the needs being communicated, they may result in an increase of behaviours that challenge, or fail to effectively support the learner’s environment, or teach the learner an alternative way of communicating their needs.

See our blog on identifying functions of behaviour for more information.


Stage 2: Behaviour Cycle; the observations

The aim of this stage is to review the observed behaviours across each of the stages/zones of the behaviour cycle. From calm/regulated/happy, to early warning signs, to the behaviours that challenge, and finally the regulating stage.


Green zone:

Consider what ‘calm, happy and regulated’ looks like for the learner. What activities might they be doing? Are there particular times of the day when the learner is in this space? Who are they typically with?

Other things to consider include; What and who is important to the learner? What are the learner’s individual strengths and interests? What are the learner’s facial expressions/body language/tone of voice that tell you they are in the green zone? Also consider this for those supporting the learner.

Top tip: Monitor how often this zone is being observed through a tick/tally sheet, as this is the zone we want learners to spend the most time in. Check if this increases following intervention implementation. Monitoring the green zone as opposed to the red zone can help to shift the focus away from the behaviour that challenges, which can change an often negative narrative to instead focus on increasing quality of life.

When quality of life is prioritised and increased, and the learner’s needs are met, a decrease in behaviours that challenge is more likely.

Yellow zone:

This zone represents the early warning signs that indicate that the learner may be moving away from a calm/regulated/happy space. It also considers the triggers and setting events that lead to the occurrence of the early warning signs and subsequent behaviours that challenge.

  • Identify the triggers. These are the events that are most likely to ‘switch on’ the behaviours that challenge.
  • Identify the setting events. These are internal states such as being hungry, tired, bored, or prior events that may impact on the learner’s coping when triggers are present.
  • Identify the early warning signs that indicate that an escalation to behaviours that challenge is likely by considering the following;
    • What is the first sign that indicates the learner is moving away from the green zone?
    • Consider discrete signs, take a step back and observe.
    • Discuss the subsequent steps – it may be helpful to role play this.
    • Consider tone of voice and body posture of the learner and those supporting.
    • Do those supporting ask lots of questions/place demands/talk a lot?


Red zone:

The red zone is where the behaviours that challenge occur.

What does this look like to you, but also what does this look like from the learner’s perspective? Is there lots of talking from those supporting? Too many choices? Are they having physical restraint used or other restrictive practice? Do others come to support?

Could this be helping or maintaining the behaviour – thinking back to the functions of behaviour? Remember though, having a second person is needed for safeguarding, monitoring safety, and also to support the staff member supporting at that time.


Blue zone:

This is where the learner may be beginning to regulate and/or calm.

What are the first signs that indicate this move away from the red zone, then what subsequent signs are there? What does the environment look like that contributes to this? How are those supporting feeling?


Stage 3: Behaviour Cycle; the strategies

Once we’ve made our observations, it’s time to start working on strategies to support our learners. These must be based upon an understanding of what needs are being communicated through the behaviours, and be person-centred!


Green zone = Proactive strategies

These are the strategies that maintain a regulated, calm and happy space, that meet the learner’s needs, and prevent escalation.

Some examples that may be considered are below;


  • Establish a key adult to build rapport and facilitate regular check-ins​
  • Engage in the learners’ interests​
  • Consider attention levels​; are they able to access and build positive relationships, and if so, how frequently?
  • Social skill building; do the learners and their peers need support around navigating friendships?



  • Identify calming strategies, which should be built into routine e.g., sensory diet​
  • Teach alternative skills e.g., to ask for a break when needed – designated safe space


Yellow zone = Active strategies  

By observing the triggers of changes in zones we can implement active strategies when early warning signs are observed.

Some examples may include;

  • Redirection to other activities
  • Engaging in interests​
  • Low arousal approaches; reduce demands, monitor tone of voice/body posture to model ‘calm’, consider sensory input​
  • Going through regulation activities/alternative communication​
  • Validate and empathise​
  • Using clear, reduced language


Red zone = Reactive strategies

The aim of reactive strategies are to keep the learner and others safe.

Strategies to consider here may include:​

  • Giving space​
  • Reducing language; using scripts to ensure language is consistent across all supporting​
  • Scanning the environment for any potential risks​
  • Seeking support for yourself and others if needed
  • Show empathy: let the learner know you are there for them


Blue zone = Post-reactive strategies

Post-reactive strategies should be put in place to support regulation following an behaviours that challenge, with sensitive management.

Strategies to consider here may include:

  • Self-check-in, are you ready to re-engage even if the learner is?​
  • Re-engaging but keep language to a minimum​
  • Restoring relationship – engage in interests​
  • Gradually reintroducing the routine/visual supports and choice​
  • Regulation tools​
  • Avoid talking about the red zone here, it is unlikely that the learner is ready for any reflection.

The behaviour cycle tools can form a person-centred plan for a learner, to focus on building a more positive school experience, and reducing barriers to learning. The positive impacts for those supporting the learner can also be achieved by developing collaboration through providing a reflective space. With the high rates of suspensions and exclusions for those who have SEN, leaving some without an education, a different, more individualised approach is needed to be taken.

At BeyondAutism, we provide a unique crisis response to pupils at risk of suspension and exclusion from school, offering support within 24 hours of receiving a referral through the BeyondAutism Fast Responder® service. The aim of the service is provide assessment of the behaviours that challenge, training and intervention to decrease the risk of school placement breakdown. Get in touch to find out more.


To find out more about the behaviour cycle, take a look at our Lunch and Learn webinar on the subject below.


[1] Permanent exclusions and suspensions in England, Spring term 2021/22 – Explore education statistics – GOV.UK (

[2] The Zones of Regulation | A Curriculum For Emotional Regulation

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