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Learning Centre

Challenging Behaviour

When an individual is engaging in challenging behaviour that’s potentially harmful to themselves or others, it’s very difficult for all of those involved. Challenging behaviour puts children at higher risk for social problems or school failure, making it important to decrease or to eliminate behaviours that interfere with an individual’s opportunity to learn and to replace the problem behaviour with more appropriate behaviours for the individual, such as a communication skill.

In order to be successful in decreasing challenging behaviour, we need to use methods that have been shown to be effective. Using techniques and procedures that have been carefully analyzed, that are scientifically based and are empirically validated is crucial. The techniques and procedures used in Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) have been proven to be effective and are based on over 70 years of research.

Challenging behaviours can take on various forms. An individual may be engaging in self-injurious behaviours (i.e., head hitting or scratching), aggressive behaviours (i.e., hitting or biting), inappropriate social behaviours (i.e., swearing or screaming), destructive behaviours (i.e., throwing or ripping things) or stereotyped repetitive behaviours (i.e., repeating things over and over again, flapping arms or jumping).

There are a number of reasons that an individual could be engaging in challenging behaviours. Perhaps it’s biological (e.g., the individual is in pain or the behaviour produces some type of stimulation for the individual), social (e.g., the individual is bored, seeking attention or confused about a task), environmental (e.g., the individual is trying to get an item, there is something in the environment such as the lighting or noise that is disturbing to them) or perhaps the individual has no other means of communicating their wants or needs.

Often, problem behaviour is learned and brings something desired to the individual (e.g., getting a desired item or getting out of a difficult task). We also need to consider the history of the behaviour because the challenging behaviour has worked for them at some point. For example, if a child has a tantrum in order to get candies at the store and this has worked for them in the past, they’re more likely to continue to tantrum to get their candies because it works. This would be an example of positive reinforcement and accidentally increasing an undesirable behaviour: A child engages in a behaviour (tantrum), they get candy (reinforcer/reward), the tantrums increase and are more probable to happen again next time the child wants candy.

Behaviours take time to learn. Therefore, they take time to decrease as well. In order to successfully decrease a challenging behaviour and replace it with a more appropriate skill, we need to understand the behaviour in question. What function does this behaviour serve for the individual? Perhaps they’re hitting as a way of telling you that they don’t want to do a task. Maybe they’re hitting their head because they’re trying to tell you that they’re tired or hitting you because they want your attention or a preferred item that you have. Remember, because we need to understand the specific challenging behaviour and the reason the individual is engaging in this target behaviour, there is no easy answer. We can’t just say, “he’s hitting so we’re going to use time out.” We need to understand why he is hitting, decrease it and teach a more appropriate skill to get the individual what they want or need.