Challenging behaviour

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Editor-In-Chief: C. Michael Gibson, M.S., M.D. [1]


Challenging behaviour is defined as "culturally abnormal behaviour(s) of such intensity, frequency or duration that the physical safety of the person or others is placed in serious jeopardy, or behaviour which is likely to seriously limit or deny access to the use of ordinary community facilities" [1].

Challenging behaviour is most often exhibited by people with developmental disabilities, dementia, psychosis and by children, although such behaviours can be displayed by any person.

Types of challenging behaviour

Common types of challenging behaviour include self-injurious behaviour (such as hitting, headbutting, biting), aggressive behaviour (such as hitting others, screaming, spitting, kicking), inappropriate sexualised behaviour (such as public masturbation or groping), behaviour directed at property (such as throwing objects and stealing) and stereotyped behaviours (such as repetitive rocking, echolalia or elective incontinence).

Causes of challenging behaviour

Challenging behaviour may be caused by a number of factors, including biological (pain, medication, the need for sensory stimulation), social (boredom, seeking social interaction, the need for an element of control, lack of knowledge of community norms, insensitivity of staff and services to the person's wishes and needs), environmental (physical aspects such as noise and lighting, or gaining access to preferred objects or activities), psychological (feeling excluded, lonely, devalued, labelled, disempowered, living up to people's negative expectations) or simply a means of communication. A lot of the time, challenging behaviour is learned and brings rewards and it is very often possible to teach people new behaviours to achieve the same aims.

Experience and research suggests that what professionals call 'challenging behaviour' is often a reaction to the challenging environments that services create around people with developmental disabilities, and a method of communicating dissatisfaction with the failure of services to listen for what kind of life makes most sense to the person, especially where services deliver lifestyles and ways of working that are centred on what suits the service and it's staff rather than what suits the person

A common principle in behaviour management is looking for the message an individual is communicating through their challenging behaviour: "All behaviour has meaning".

Behaviour response cycle

Challenging behaviours may be viewed as occurring in a cycle:

  • Trigger
  • Escalation
  • Crisis
  • Recovery

Analysis of this cycle provides a foundation for using a variety of strategies to minimize the triggers of challenging behaviour, teach more appropriate behaviours in response to these triggers, or provide consequences to the challenging behaviour that will encourage a more appropriate response. Behavioural strategies such as Applied Behaviour Analysis, operant conditioning and Positive behaviour support use similar approaches to analyzing and responding to challenging behaviours.


  1. Emerson, E. 1995. Challenging behaviour: analysis and intervention with people with learning difficulties. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

See also

External links

fi:Haastava käytös

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