What are the most-common reasons for challenging behaviour?
In an educational setting behaviour might be defined as ‘challenging’ for many reasons. Therefore it is important that every school has a definition of the type of behaviour that it considers to be challenging so that it can be communicated to learners, teachers and parents.
When challenging behaviour does occur, the school-specific definition can be used to offer support to the learner, but it must also be used to offer support for the teacher too.
The needs of teachers who are dealing with challenging behaviour must not be overlooked.
I assume that such definitions are likely to focus on ‘acting-out’ behaviours, but I would urge schools to consider the more passive and withdrawn ‘acting-in’ behaviours too.
Because all behaviour is communication and challenging behaviour requires an understanding of its underlying communication in order to create successful support and intervention for all.
All behaviour is communication:
If we start from the premise that all behaviour is communication, then we must accept that challenging behaviour has a function for every person and the person’s behaviour is communicating that function. The function may not be obvious as it can be driven consciously or unconsciously.
Lets consider 4 overarching reasons why people behave in a challenging way, so that you have something inside your head that can help when you or your school encounters it and decides how to respond.
The function of the behaviour might relate to one of these four reasons, but it is also possible that the function of the behaviour could lie in varying combinations of the four. Understanding the function, the drivers of behaviour, can be very helpful when trying to determine the thinking and emotions that the behaviour is communicating. It also helps you to support the person in making a change. Here are the four reasons, discussed in more depth in my new book Inner Story.
1. Give me some attention:
People may behave in a challenging way to communicate a need for attention, whatever that attention may look like. For some it does not matter if the attention they receive is positive or negative, as long as they are gaining attention of some description.
Young children may display challenging behaviour that is attention-seeking behaviour and on occasions they do not even need to be provoked in order to do so. For example, they can behave in an aggressive way even when they are not angry or emotionally distressed, because the function of the behaviour is to gain attention. The function is not to gain revenge or to release their anger or frustration. Attention is usually the assumed reason for certain types of challenging behaviour, but there are times when attention may not be a factor at all.
2. Get me out of here!
Challenging behaviour might communicate a need to escape from a situation that a person does not want to be in. In this context, a person may behave in a subtle manner to achieve their goal or – due to the lack of repertoire in their emotional skill set – apply less sophisticated responses to help them achieve the same outcome.
Young people who find some aspects of learning difficult may behave in a way that disrupts the learning of others in order to be removed from the classroom by their teacher. It might be because the work reinforces negative aspects of their Inner Story. It is not uncommon for a challenging task to prompt challenging behaviour. Their only option may be to regress and revert to what worked for them when they were younger, in the hope that it will work for them now.
In such situations, a teacher has to model the behaviour that they want because the regressive challenging behaviour of a learner will not diminish when it is met by the regressive challenging behaviour of a teacher.
3. It feels good:
Challenging behaviour may also have a sensory function. Some young people behave in a challenging way because for them, it just feels good to do so. Their behaviour might communicate a need to have some power because exercising power makes them feel empowered; it establishes a sense of control.
This is especially relevant for those who feel an unrelenting sense of powerlessness as individuals within the systems that they exist in. For some learners, the sensory function can create behaviour that feels so good when it is happening that, in the moment, the learner will have no concern about the consequences that will follow.
Perhaps a less obvious example relates to how self-injurious behaviour can feel good. But this is so. Self-harming can be driven by a sensory need. Although it may be difficult for non self-harmers to understand, in the mind of the person who is involved in self-harming, it can feel empowering – especially at the time that it is happening. It can also provide other sensory functions such as relief. It can feel relieving as the physical pain momentarily removes the person’s emotional pain.
4. Give me a reward:
Challenging behaviour might communicate a desire for a tangible reward. The young child screaming in the back seat of the car may not be doing so to gain the attention of their parents at all. The child may have learned that if they persistently scream they will eventually get their favourite toy to play with or a favourite sweet to eat because their parents cannot bear the noise and need it to stop. The child learns that challenging behaviour can be rewarded and the function of the behaviour is reinforced. The parents may find a short-term solution but they are setting up a longer-term problem.
If you are a teacher who is dealing with challenging behaviour it is always useful to ask, “Is my response to the behaviour rewarding or maintaining the behaviour in any way?”
We cannot assume that the function of any behaviour is always consciously driven. Young people who find it difficult to self-regulate may find controlling unconsciously driven impulses is one of their greatest challenges.
If you would like to read more about why we behave the way we do and how you can respond to challenging behaviour, you can do so by clicking the book image.
Written by Dr. Tim O’Brien for Teacher Toolkit.
Tim is a former lecturer in Psychology and Human Development at Institute of Education.
You can follow Tim on Twitter at @doctob.