When children exhibit behaviour that challenges, it can prove very tough and distressing for those looking after the child. This especially resonates when the child’s behaviour has become a recurrent issue or continues to negatively impact the enjoyment or learning of other children.

Furthermore, when you’re not the child’s parents – in the case of teachers, activity leaders and childcare staff – you’re often left wrestling with another set of difficult questions such as “How do I approach the issue with the child’s parents?”, “What happens if I overstep the mark when intervening?”, or “At what point should I escalate the issue or inform other parents?”.

Likewise, as many parents know, we often feel guilty, embarrassed or helpless when a child is disruptive, which is only further exacerbated when we feel unequipped to manage the child’s behaviour. At TQUK, we understand that dealing with behaviour that challenges isn’t something that appears in a magical ‘parenting handbook’, nor is it always adequately covered during vocational training.

In this blog post with our partner The Skills Network (TSN), we take a closer look into behaviour that challenges among children, giving you some strategies to help manage it, whilst also pointing you towards practical resources via a range of distance learning courses.

1. Types of Behaviour That Challenges

At some point, most children display a form of behaviour that challenges. Whether it is lashing out, throwing objects, running away from adults, being intrusive in class, or being overly physical with other children – behaviour that challenges isn’t uncommon!

However, just because these issues commonly arise, it doesn’t make it any easier to understand the root cause of such behaviour, nor does it help us figure out the correct long-term strategies to tackle it.

So, to start, let’s define behaviour that challenges and explore its different forms.

How do we define behaviour that challenges?

Behaviour that challenges is characterised by a set of disruptive behaviours, commonly displayed by children with learning disabilities, that is typically exhibited by children in an attempt to get their needs met, or achieve a sense of control.

Yet, it must be pointed out that not all children exhibit behaviour that challenges with a deliberate purpose.

Whilst some children act disruptively as a means to get attention from others or display aggression to get what they want (we call this ‘learnt behaviour’), many children, especially those with Special Educational Needs (SEN), do not purposefully display behaviour that challenges.

In such cases, the root cause of the behaviour that challenges is, in fact, the child’s difficulty learning and communicating, not their learnt negative behaviour!

Types of behaviour that challenges

Behaviour that challenges can comprise:

  • Aggression: either verbally i.e. screaming or shouting, or physically via punching, slapping, biting or spitting
  • Destructiveness: purposefully damaging or vandalising items, such as ripping, breaking and throwing items
  • Pica: eating or placing inedible items such as glue, dirt, stones, soap and even faeces in their mouth
  • Self-injury or self-harm: hitting themselves, pulling out their hair, biting or picking at their skin
  • Intrusive repetition: repeating unconstructive speech, rocking back and forth in a chair, or banging on desks
  • Being inappropriate: touching others unwantedly and/or inappropriately, removing own clothes or invading the privacy of others
  • Running away from or disregarding instructions from adults.

2. Causes of Behaviour That Challenges

Like most forms of behaviour, behaviour that challenges in children can be very sporadic, sometimes appearing to be out of the blue. Conversely, a child’s attitude can be almost typified by constant disruptiveness and aggression. But it’s not always obvious what is driving the behaviour!

For example, a child may be just ‘acting out’ as they go through the ups and downs of hormonal mood swings, or they may feel angry or confused about a situation, or maybe they just crave more attention than others.

As such, the causes of behaviour that challenges can include:

  • Lack of stimulation or feelings of boredom
  • Frequent isolation, or experiencing feelings of loneliness
  • Learning difficulties or behavioural issues such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), autism and dyslexia
  • Feeling physically unwell: if a child is in pain, it is not uncommon for them to bang their limbs/head to cope with the discomfort
  • Lack of understanding: a child may be exploring something, i.e. what happens when they do something, what does something taste like or they haven’t been taught proper behaviour such as how to go to the toilet correctly
  • Feeling distressed or uneasy about their surroundings (or a situation at home): this can be caused by a significant change
  • Seeking attention: children who often lack the attention they need, will ‘act out’ to receive it. Again, this is learnt behaviour – the child has learnt that certain actions can lead to them getting what they want
  • Biological factors such as hormones and illness: these are natural factors that cause children to act disruptively.

3. Behaviour That Challenges, Learning Difficulties and Disabilities

It is fairly common for a child with a learning difficulty to display behaviour that challenges, and this is even more common among children with severe disabilities.

This is due to a number of reasons, including the fact that children with learning difficulties typically have impaired communication skills (especially when they have sensory issues such as hearing impairments).

Some children with learning difficulties have poor speech and interaction skills, which in turn makes it hard for them to understand what other people say to them, and difficult to tell others how they feel or what they want. Because these children can’t express themselves in a clear manner, they may resort to shouting, banging or other forms of aggression – this can then become their default behaviour

In such circumstances, the child has a strong need to communicate, coupled with emotional and/or physical needs that aren’t being met – both of which stimulate the behaviour that challenges.

In this case, taking steps to improve communication is key to reducing behaviour that challenges.

With often-impaired interactive skills, these children can also struggle to form and maintain relationships with other children. This can lead to isolation and feelings of loneliness, with a higher risk of mental health problems developing – which can also be a key cause of the behaviour that challenges.

4. Mental Health Problems and Behaviour That Challenges

Children experiencing mental health problems are more likely to display behaviour that challenges.

However, 40% of children with learning difficulties are said to also experience mental health problems, so it is important not to mix up the symptoms of mental illness with the child’s learning difficulty.

Whilst a child with a mild learning difficulty may be able to communicate symptoms of low mood and loneliness, they may struggle to communicate exactly how they feel due to their limited communicative abilities. Therefore, key indicators include decreased appetite, poor sleep, weight loss and fatigue.

It is important to assess whether the behaviour that challenges is caused by the emotional issues that derive from mental health problems. Your first step is to discuss this either with the child’s parents or if the child is your own, speak to your GP to ensure a diagnosis takes place and the child receives the support they need.

5. Strategies For Dealing With Behaviour That Challenges

It is important to acquire key strategies to help you manage behaviour that challenges. We have given you five to start with.

Clear communication

Children often display behaviour that challenges when something is wrong, or because they feel distressed/angry, and acting out may be their only way of communicating this. Therefore, open two-way communication is key. Encourage the child to speak about the way they feel, or alert you of any issues, prior to acting in a negative manner.

Likewise, ensure you communicate as clearly as you can, as consistently as possible. Clear pronunciation and prefacing your requests with phrases such as “Thank you for tidying up.” demonstrates to the child that this is a closed request and leaves them with no doubt as to what is expected from them. Also, ensure you are specific with your requests i.e. “Please complete your homework and hand it in to the teacher at the start of the lesson on Tuesday.” – this leaves no room for misinterpretation.

Build relationships and show interest

Children often display behaviour that challenges when their needs are not being met. Therefore, ensure that you take the time to get to know each child individually, building positive relationships to discover the child’s interests and problems.

Make sure that you take the time to ask children how they are feeling, even when no problem is evident – this will encourage better communication when a problem does arise, helping you to mitigate behaviour that challenges.

Model good behaviour

Based on clear and specific communication, set standards for children about the way you expect them to behave. Set clear models of behaviour such as asking children to not to raise their voice aggressively, not damage equipment or not take things without asking.

Setting a class code of conduct both verbally and in writing is an effective way of modelling good behaviour in an educational setting.

Likewise, be a positive role model for children so they can model the correct behaviours from you. For example, if you expect the child to not act aggressively, ensure that you do not raise your shout or snap at children when you feel frustrated; instead pause, take a few deep breaths and respond in a calm manner.

Recognise and celebrate good behaviour

Whilst most children will misbehave occasionally, taking the time to celebrate the child’s progress and small achievements are encouraged. Telling them “Well done!”, and doing so in front of other children, will demonstrate that positive behaviour is rewarded. Children are much more likely to behave constructively in an attempt to meet their needs if they know they will receive positive attention by doing so.

Communicate misbehaviour with parents

Maintaining frequent and open communication with parents is key to addressing behaviour that challenges. Ensure you speak to the child’s parents when the child has misbehaved, so that they can enforce the same rules and standards within their home. By relaying incidents and raising concerns, you may also help parents identify issues that they weren’t aware of, i.e. underlying learning difficulties or mental health problems.

Learn More with The Skills Network’s Courses

You can learn more about behaviour that challenges and how to manage it, by accessing The Skills Network’s online distance learning courses, such as:

Both of these courses are certificated by Training Qualifications UK and can be studied at no cost via available funding methods.

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See you out there!