Why Is the Challenging Behavior Happening?
Challenging Behavior Happening?
Many parents of children with intellectual, developmental, or medical disabilities seek support for their children’s ‘challenging behavior’, but what does challenging behavior actually mean?
This can be a pretty difficult question to answer, because it could be based on your location, home life, educational situation, and even societal standards. There is a risk that the term challenging behavior can label a person as challenging, thereby isolating them just for being ‘different’ simply because the behavior is deemed culturally inappropriate.
It is important, however, that we focus on behaviors that result in a reduction of the quality of life of that individual and their family especially if they occur often or are severe. Such behaviors may include self-injury and aggression, as well as less serious uncooperative or “annoying” behaviors. What is most important though, is that we ask, “why do people keep doing something that might harm themselves or others?”
Empathy is important when considering challenging behavior
Behaviors are often a reaction to a person’s environment and interactions with other people in that environment. Behavior is not only just affected by what someone is experiencing here and now, it can also be influenced by a person’s biological make-up or psychosocial factors (chronic stress, bullying, isolation, poverty, etc.) they are experiencing.
It is important to have empathy when considering challenging behavior. Consider this: you haven’t had much sleep in the past week, and you want to get a coffee on the way to work. You drive by and the coffee shop is closed. If you weren’t irritated before, you might be now. You get to work and work a long day, only to be criticized by your boss. On your way home, there’s a car accident that delays your arrival home by a half hour. Once home, you snap at your significant other when they ask how your day was, and they then either leave you alone or comfort you. What happened here? You communicated something, and you got what you needed at that time.
Challenging behavior can be the only way or the most effective way for individuals to get their wants and needs met. This is especially true when children have difficulties with communication. All challenging behavior serves as a purpose (i.e., function) for individuals. This doesn’t mean that children always use behavior in a controlled or deliberate way, but that the behavior communicates important information. Here is a video explaining behavioral challenges:
The purpose of challenging behavior is to get or avoid something
If challenging behavior is effective in getting a person’s wants or needs met, then people are more likely to behave like that again in a similar situation. In the previous example, you may snap at your partner again in the future because you learned that they will react in a way that is helpful to you.
Typically, the purpose of challenging behavior is to get or avoid something. These things might be (a) support or attention from a parent or other person, (b) an object or activity or, (c) some sort of internal sensation. These broad categories of the function of challenging behavior can be helpful in understanding the “why”, but it is more helpful to try to make the function specific to the child’s own circumstance.
See these examples:
- Jenna hits her older brother as she struggles to understand how to share and is yet to develop her communication skills. When Jenna hits, her parents come over and ‘fix’ the situation.
- Blake shouts at his mom and dad when he doesn’t want to stop his favorite computer games. This usually happens before dinner when Blake doesn’t know how to fit in the conversation and doesn’t like the food choices.
- Jamaal hits himself when he is tired and stressed and under pressure to do something he finds difficult in a hurry. When he hits, people leave him alone for a while.
One reason for understanding the purpose or function of challenging behavior is so we can teach a replacement – an easier and more effective way of getting the child’s needs met.
There can be multiple examples of what replacements can look like
Jenna hits her brother because she has difficulty sharing. Her parents are trying to keep her from hitting her brother, but they may actually be teaching her that hitting is a good way to get her needs met. Once her parents recognize this, they work on asking her to communicate what she needs before hitting her brother. They can teach her something as simple as the word “No” as a replacement. They may find that this occurs at school as well, when Jenna’s peers bully her by taking her toys away. She might have learned at school that if she hits someone instead of sharing, she will get to keep her toys. Her parents can then teach her to ask the teacher for help when this is happening to her.
Jamaal begins to hit himself when he has to do something that’s difficult quickly. During a dentist visit, his parents also find out that he has an extra tooth growing through the roof of his mouth. His parents realize that this also might be contributing to his hitting because he likely is in pain when they ask him to do something within a certain time period. His parents make sure the tooth is removed and teach him that he can ask for a break in the middle of doing a difficult task. Jamaal now has less stress because his pain is gone. Moving forward he is able to work quicker because he is in less pain and knows he can take a break if he needs to.
It’s important to remember that challenging behavior can be a variety of things, and it can be useful for individuals for their “get” and “avoid” situations. It can be harmful, especially if it escalates into something that isolates the person or results in physical injury. In order to better understand an individual’s needs, we need to take a closer look at their environment – not just here and now, but also what could be happening in their life overall. Do they have any social or physical issues that could be affecting their behavior? It’s good to take a broad perspective when there are challenging behaviors, because there may have more underlying issues than one can see at face value. The first step is finding out the “why”. When this information is found, parents can begin building better communication skills that will help their children throughout their lifetimes.
Meme Hieneman, has a Ph.D. in Special Education and is nationally certified as a behavior analyst. She has published a variety of articles, chapters, and books including “Parenting with Positive Behavior Support: A Practical Guide to Resolving Your Child’s Difficult Behavior.” In her professional career, Meme has worked with children with severe behavior problems for more than 20 years.
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This post originally appeared on our May/June 2020 Magazine