The Boxall Profile

What is the Boxall Profile and how effective is it?  
Marion Bennathan introduces the Boxall Profile in a very clear step-by-step manner, explaining its origins and also how it can support professionals in schools today.


The Boxall Profile provides a framework for the precise assessment of children who have social, emotional and behavioural difficulties (SEBD) and are failing at school. It helps teachers to plan focused intervention for those children whose behaviour seems to make no sense. The profile provides the teacher with insights and suggests points of entry into the child's world — it makes people think about what lies behind the behaviour.

The Boxall Profile is, from a practical point of view, very easy to use. The two-part check list, which is completed by staff who know the child best in a classroom situation, is quick — and, very importantly, it is constructive.


It is widely agreed that children with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties (SEBD) are the biggest challenge to the effective running of schools. These are children who do not respond to teachers' best efforts, they fail to learn, they can leave teachers frustrated, quite often resentful and with their professional confidence undermined. They also spoil the atmosphere for the rest of the class, consuming the teacher's time and energy, diverting it away from children who could use it so much better.

While a well delivered curriculum, and a behaviour policy owned by all concerned are all central to running an effective school, this is not enough to meet the needs of children with SEBD. A big part of the problem is that their behaviour appears to make no sense — it achieves nothing for the child. So, what is it about the Boxall Profile that has helped literally thousands of teachers and teaching assistants to succeed, sometimes quite dramatically, in changing the response of troubled and troublesome children? First the concepts on which it is based need to be understood.


The profile developed as part of the nurture group movement. Nurture groups were started in Hackney, inner London, in 1969, as the response of Marjorie Boxall, an educational psychologist, to the high levels of distress in primary schools at a time of great social upheaval and teacher shortage. Referrals to special schools for children seen as having SEBD had reached unmanageable levels. The annual rate of staff turnover in many schools had reached 50%.

Boxall brought into school a different way of looking at the behaviour that was getting in the way of the child's progress. She focused on children's early development, on their self-concept, on the attitudes they had absorbed and brought with them into school. She understood the difficulties presented by most of these children as the outcome of impoverished early nurturing. Lacking an adequate experience of being cherished and attended to, for whatever reason, they were not able to make trusting relationships with adults or to respond appropriately to other children. They were unready to meet the social and intellectual demands of school life, and so failed.

This way of thinking made sense to teachers, who knew of the stresses in the lives of many local families. They were also well aware of pressures brought about by 'child-centred' education, which took for granted the child's ability to organise themselves, to sit round tables, cooperating with each other, with much less structure and supervision than in the old-style classrooms. Nurture groups quickly became established in many schools in inner London, and staff saw great progress in children who had been on the verge of exclusion. They also saw a great improvement in staff morale as teachers and assistants realised that they could develop the skills to improve children's lives quite fundamentally.

The group has two staff, usually a teacher and an assistant, who understand the developmental processes of childhood, that some children get stuck at an early stage and need experiences appropriate to that stage to enable them to move on. They realise that the child's first need is to build up trust. This is achieved by demonstrating acceptance of the child as s/he is, and, as confidence grows, offering work appropriate to the stage they have reached. There are secure routines, always explained — no prior knowledge is taken for granted. The child is always listened to, with staff doing what every attentive parent does, commenting on what the child tells them, expanding it, putting it in a wider context — in short, helping the child to make sense of their world. The National Curriculum is taught, but in a way which fits in with the child's developmental needs.

Boxall took a central and active part in sharing her knowledge of child development with staff working in nurture groups and trained them to look at maladaptive behaviour as an expression of underlying distress. She also freely acknowledged that, though the original concept was hers, it was teachers and assistants running the groups who 'picked it up and ran with it'. As their experience grew, staff began to want a way of looking more precisely at the hindrances to learning they saw in their pupils. They also wanted to be able to measure change and progress. This was the start of the Boxall Profile.

Some schools do not have nurture groups — they may lack the resources, or may even not have many children who cannot be adequately helped in the normal classroom. But the experience of nurture groups over the past generation has brought about a much greater understanding of the emotional content of learning. This is now being widely recognised as 'emotional literacy' and seen as relevant to all children. As the headteacher of one of the first junior schools to set up a nurture group wrote of the profile, ‘We gained a sort of positive language. To identify where a child is in different areas in its development was quite tough — there was no history or training or background to doing that. It helped people to look more perceptively, to think where does this behaviour come from? It put some structure into teachers' thinking and reporting.' Many children in school are insecure about their worth, often not able to articulate their feelings. Instead they show their discomfort by withdrawal, achieving much less than they could, not making good relationships. Others may act out their feelings of anger and failure by minor or major acts of disrupting the progress of others. Whatever the behaviour, the result is that they do not get positively engaged in education. Understanding what lies behind this can make all teachers much more confident in their class management, which is where the Small Profile comes in.


The handbook provides background information, case material to illustrate the use of the profile, and an account of how the profile evolved. The profile was published in cyclostyled form by the Inner London Education Authority in 1984, its use largely confined to those active in nurture-group work and so already familiar with the underlying concepts. As staff working in other settings began to hear of its effectiveness, it was decided to publish the profile in a more formal handbook. Its contents help users to understand the concepts which are the basis for using the profile to best effect, so it is essential that the profile should only be used in conjunction with the handbook.


The profile has two sections, each consisting of a list of 34 descriptive items to be scored by a member of staff who knows the child well in class.

Section I: Developmental strands

This measures progress through the different aspects of development in the pre-school years. Satisfactory completion of this first stage of learning is essential if children are to make good use of their educational opportunities, so being able to identify the child's strengths and weaknesses allows staff to focus on the areas where extra support is most needed. The section has two clusters, the first assessing the child's organisation of their learning experiences, the second, their internalisation of controls. Each cluster has five columns.

Section II: The diagnostic profile

This consists of items describing behaviours that inhibit or interfere with the child's satisfactory involvement in school. They are directly or indirectly the outcome of impaired learning in the earliest years. The section has three clusters, 'self-limiting features', 'undeveloped behaviour' and 'unsupported development.


The scores on developmental strands are important — they show what progress has been made so far and where help is needed. But it is the diagnostic profile that pulls users up short and starts them looking at the child with new eyes. What do these scores suggest?

'Self-limiting' features implies the child has something in him/herself that is preventing engagement with the world —maybe autism should be considered, or depression, or the deep hopelessness of a child who has been severely emotionally neglected from birth. Such children need a warm, supportive relationship but this will take much patience and confidence from staff.

'Undeveloped behaviour' suggests that the child has had too little help early on to develop the inner resources required to adjust to school. Teachers understandably find their demanding, disorganised, immature behaviour a nuisance. The response this produces is likely to reduce the child's self-confidence even further. Once staff see the underlying causes of the behaviour, their attitude changes and they start planning to meet the child's needs in a way that helps them to mature. Although still functioning at an early stage, they have a readily available potential for attachment and are likely to respond well to an early level relationship and appropriate experiences.

High scores on 'Unsupported development' should ring alarm bells. They suggest a profound lack of early nurturing care, and perhaps abusive treatment. The child has had no reason to trust the adults in his/her world and protects him/herself from hurt and total loss of self-regard by strategies that cause trouble in school; serious problems such as mental illness or criminality may develop later on. The earlier such children are identified the greater the hope of being able to change their attitudes. The children who score heavily in the earlier columns are those who are mainly turning the hurt inward. They can be helped by staff understanding the origins of their behaviour and offering patient and supportive teaching. But the behaviour underlying high scores in the later columns is more directed at others. It is likely to lead to organised and internalised anti-social behaviour patterns that, because they bring the child satisfaction, are difficult to change, and so urgently need early and skilled intervention. The two London brothers who, unprovoked, murdered the 10-year-old Damilola Taylor, were described as 'a pair of street children whose feral lives made them fearless of authority, brutal in their use of violence and completely without remorse'. (The Times p3 August 10, 2006.) It takes many years of sustained neglect of their basic emotional needs for young people to reach this state.


First reflect on what the diagnostic profile has shown you. Think what the world looks like from inside that child's head. Use your empathetic skills, your own life experience to think what might help such a child. A good school exercise is for staff to describe the child who gives them trouble, then as a group to puzzle out what might be lying behind the behaviour. Positive strategies then often suggest themselves.

Seen through the diagnostic profile, scores on developmental strands are easier to interpret. For example, it is clear what a low score for ‘Participates constructively', or 'Responds constructively to others' means. Indeed, why should a child who has had no reason to trust others score better?


Understanding the Boxall Profile relies on clear concepts of child development which may not be part of traditional teacher training but are rapidly understood by educators—both teachers and learning support assistants. There is, and has for a long time been, disquiet in some professional circles that concepts which are seen as part of psychiatry or psychotherapy are beyond the competence of teachers. This is not a view shared by Marjorie Boxall. What she said is that nurture group work is 'concerned with growth not pathology'. The more people understand what has gone into a child's development the more appropriate will be the teaching.

nurtureuk thanks Optimus Education for permission to publish this article which first appeared in the Special Need’s Coordinators File.


Early 1970s The Boxall Profile was first known as The Diagnostic Developmental Profile and consisted of 77 questions split into three levels:

  • Level One ‘Adult Dependency’ and Level Two ‘Separation and Developing Autonomy’, both composed of 30 questions in total divided into two sub-clusters ‘Organised Behaviour’ and ‘Unorganised Behaviour’
  • And Level Three ‘Group-Sufficient Autonomy’ composed of 17 questions split into two sub-clusters ‘Internalised Adaptive Behaviour’ and ‘Internalised Non-Adaptive Behaviour’

Image to the right shows sample questions from the Level Three sub-section 'Internalised Adaptive Behaviour'


Mid to late 1970s By the mid-1970s the Diagnostic Developmental Profile was changed to consist of two scales (named maturity and deviancy) with 150 questions in total:

  • Scale One (maturity) consisted of 60 questions, and consists of items that describe different positive aspects of the developmental process
  • Scale Two (deviancy) consisted of 90 questions describing behaviours that inhibit or interfere with the child’s satisfactory involvement in the school
  • The scoring key also doubled in possible scores to choose from.  Rather than a choice of three scores (0 – often or usually, 1- occasionally or sometimes, 2 – rarely or never), the teacher could now choose from six (0 – doesn’t apply or not true, 1-applies somewhat, 1* - applies from time to time, 2 – certainly applies, 2* - generally true, 3 – very striking)  


Early 1980s – The Diagnostic Developmental Profile is radically simplified.  The two scales are renamed ‘Developmental Strands’ and ‘Diagnostic Profile’ and each consists of only 34 questions (68 questions in total):  

  • The Developmental Strand is split into two sub-clusters: organisation of experience and internalisation of controls
  • The Diagnostic Profile is split into three sub-clusters: self-limiting features, undeveloped behaviour and unsupported development  
  • The scoring key was changed again – each scale having a different scoring key with five possible scores to choose from  

1984 – The Diagnostic Developmental Profile is standardised.  880 children between three to eight years old from the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) are included: 442 from primary school NGs, 307 from primary mainstream classes and 101 nursery mainstream classes.


1990s - The Boxall-Marston is developed, the first electronic version of the Boxall Profile utilising Excel software.


1998 – The Diagnostic Developmental Profile is renamed The Boxall Profile. 

2000 The Nurture Group Network is established as a registered charity which acquires the copyright of the Boxall Profile and begins to print and distribute the Boxall Profile to schools in the UK.  

2006 - Beyond the Boxall Profile is published - Using the information from the Boxall Profile, the Beyond publications provide strategies, resources and ideas about how to engage with children in addressing their identified needs.

2010 – The Boxall Profile for Young People is standardised by David Colley:

  • Year 7, 8 and 9 tutor groups/classes were screened
  • The research sample involved 10 schools and 584 participating students

2011 – The preliminary findings of Couture et al.’s study highlight the concurrent validity between the Boxall Profile and the Goodman’s Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire: Couture, C. Cooper, C. Royer, E. “A Study of the Concurrent Validity between the Boxall Profile and the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire.” The International Journal of Emotional Education, Vol. 3, No. 1, pp. 20- pp.29.

November 2015 – The Boxall Profile is digitised and available for teachers to use online.  Scores for both the Developmental Strands and the Diagnostic Profile are now automatically tallied, highlighting what priority areas the teacher can focus on, and tracking students' scores throughout the NG intervention and beyond. 

Summer 2017 - The Boxall Profile is restandardised. Teachers and practitioners assessing children from three to 11 can now benefit from updated norms on the Boxall Profile. The restandardisation ensures that the norms against which children are compared are up-to-date and reflect the skills children in schools should have.