Challenging behaviour used to be called ‘problem behaviour’, ‘difficult behaviour’ or ‘socially unacceptable behaviour’. It means that behaviours are a challenge to professionals, teachers, carers and parents.

A person with challenging behaviour is not a ‘problem’ to be fixed and is not doing something ‘wrong’. But behaviour is a sign that something isn’t working. It shows that there is some unfulfilled need or a problem with communication.

Behaviour is challenging if it causes harm or if it stops people fulfilling some aspect of their lives, such as:

  • Someone cannot go to school because they show some aggressive behaviour.
  • Someone cannot go swimming because they tend to run off.

It is the impact of these behaviours that makes them challenging. Challenging behaviour can be:

  • Self-injurious: Head-banging, scratching, pulling, eye poking, picking, grinding teeth, eating things that aren't food.
  • Aggressive: Biting and scratching, hitting, pinching, grabbing, hair pulling, throwing objects, verbal abuse, screaming, spitting.
  • Stereotyped: Repetitive movements, rocking, repetitive speech and repetitive manipulation of objects.
  • Non-person directed: Damage to property, hyperactivity, stealing, inappropriate sexualised behaviour, destruction of clothing, incontinence, lack of awareness of danger, withdrawal.

Disability and challenging behaviour

Challenging behaviour is more likely if a person is disabled. A mix of impairments, environment and interpersonal relationships make it more likely that a disabled person may develop a behaviour to meet their needs.

For example, someone with autism may learn that hitting people takes them out of their personal space. Remember, each behaviour has a function for the person displaying it.

Mental health, challenging behaviour and disability

People with learning difficulties may have the same mental health and emotional difficulties that others do. But they may be less well equipped to deal with them. It can be difficult to deal with anxiety if you do not have the words to describe what you are experiencing. It can be difficult to cope with depression if you do not have the social support to help you.

Sometimes challenging behaviour can be a sign of a wider problem with someone’s mental health. Refusal to eat may be a sign that the person is feeling down, or aggressive behaviour could be a sign of high anxiety. It’s important to see the problem from the perspective of the person showing the behaviour.

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Tips on managing behaviour

Tips from parents and professionals who have experience of challenging behaviour