There are many potential reasons or combination of reasons for challenging behaviour. In some cases the reasons may be quite simple – a person cannot cope with crowds so runs away. Or there may be a complex mix of factors involved.

  • It can stem from biological causes. For instance, Lesch-Nyhan syndrome is linked to self-injuring behaviour due to differences in how the brain handles chemicals and hormones.
  • Stereotyped behaviour, such as rocking, may be the way a person maintains the level of stimulation or arousal they want.
  • It might be a means of communication. The need for food, drink or comfort may be the reason for the behaviour. It may be possible to teach more socially acceptable ways of communicating a need.
  • It can be a sign of abuse, distress, anger, frustration, discomfort or pain. Withdrawal of co-operation (for example, at mealtimes) may be the only means available to a highly physically dependent person of showing emotions.
  • Challenging behaviour can be a response to the environment. This could include under- or over-stimulation, poor physical environment - such as extremes in temperature or noise levels - inconsistencies in staff including staffing levels, awareness, approach and training.

Challenging behaviour is not the same as psychiatric disturbance. A mental health problem may exist and this should be explored by appropriate professionals. Communication difficulties can have significant impact on diagnosis.

Aims of challenging behaviour

  • Self-stimulation
  • Gaining the attention of others
  • Avoidance

In most people who have severe learning difficulties, these behaviours are not premeditated and are not designed to upset. However, the emotional response they create in us tends to make us think that the person is deliberately trying to ‘wind us up’ or that they ’are only doing it for attention’.

When confronted by some form of challenge, it’s always worth stepping back and asking yourself - why does this person need to go to all the effort of showing this behaviour? What’s going on from their point of view that makes them need to do this?

Some people will show only one form of challenging behaviour whereas in others, 'clusters' of behaviours are evident. For instance, aggression, outburst and destructiveness may occur together.

Read tips on managing behaviour.

Tips on managing behaviour

Tips from parents and professionals who have experience of challenging behaviour


How useful is this page?