David J Carey
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Challenging Behavior !


Understanding Challenging Behaviour Part I


The issue of challenging behaviour is of increasing concern to educators at every level of schooling. In today’s world children are coming to school with increasing levels of stress and uncertainty in their lives. Coming to school with anxieties, a history of poor early years experiences, and familial difficulties they bring with them a variety of behaviours that can disrupt the learning environment for themselves and others. Efforts are underway to create and sustain interventions at classroom, school, and system level to reduce the frequency and severity of behavioural disturbances in schools. An understanding of the psychological, social, familial, and brain-related factors that contribute to challenging behaviour is the first step towards creating effective whole-school policies and related classroom strategies that reduce behavioural disturbances in schools.


What is challenging behaviour?


Challenging behaviour is difficult to define. It is not a diagnosis and not a special education condition (although it can accompany several special education conditions). The educational literature does not contain a unified and consensual definition but the one featured in the INTO handbook is a good reference point


“Behaviour of such intensity, frequency and duration that the physical safety of the person or others is likely to be placed in serious jeopardy or behaviour which is likely to seriously limit or delay access to, and use of ordinary facilities” (Emerson et. al. 1987) cited in INTO “Managing Challenging Behaviour”


Challenging behaviour takes a number of forms, some of them low intensity, some high intensity. Again, the INTO publication offers a good description of the variety of challenging behaviours encountered in schools Interferes with the pupil’s own and/or other pupil’s learning.


Challenges the day to day functioning of the school.


Challenges the right of staff and pupils to a safe and orderly environment


Has a duration, frequency, intensity or persistence that is beyond the normal range of what schools tolerate


Is less likely to be responsive to the usual range of interventions used by the school for misbehaviour (INTO, Managing Challenging Behaviour)


From the educational perspective the most important point to consider is that whatever the form of behaviour labelled “challenging” it is a type of behaviour most unlikely to respond to the customary strategies used in the classroom and school. Behaviour is challenging when our efforts as educators, assuming they are appropriate in the fist instance, fail to reduce either its frequency or intensity.


What causes challenging behaviour?


Challenging behaviour, whether it occurs in children, adolescents, or adults can arise from a number of different causal factors that include, but are not limited to


  •         Senile Dementia
  •         Alzheimer’s Disease
  • Huntington’s Disease
  • Severe Autism
  • Severe/Profound General Learning Disability
  • ADHD
  • Traumatic Brain Injury
  • Schizophrenia, Bi-Polar Disorder
  • Opposition Defiant Disorder
  • Conduct Disorder
  • Socio-economic Disadvantage
  • Attention-seeking
  • Communication difficulties
  • Special education conditions
  • Dysfunctional family systems
  • Dysfunctional schools
  • Dysfunctional teachers
  • Developmentally inappropriate methodology
  • Child temperament
  • Educational neglect
  • Abuse, trauma, chaos


Given the fact that the cause of challenging behaviour can be varied it is critical for educators to be mindful that whatever interventions, be they at classroom level or school policy level, must be tailored to the cause. Interventions for challenging behaviour that arises from ADHD, if applied to children with autism, will likely be harmful to the child and lead to increased difficulties. For this reason it is not possible to generate one-size-fits-all interventions or to find a manual of quick fixes. Before anything is done to create interventions it is necessary to investigate the causal factors, research the causal condition, take a close look at the class and school environment and assure there is a proper “fit” between cause and intervention.


Issues in Identifying Challenging Behaviour


Since there is no generally agreed definition of what constitutes challenging behaviour it follows that there can be great variation in what is identified as challenging, by whom it is identified, and from whom it is manifested. All behaviour is relative to a context be it social, environmental, cultural, or historical. What is challenging in one context can be perceived as quite normal in another. The contextual nature of human behaviour makes it difficult to be certain what is appropriate or inappropriate.


Another difficulty in ascertaining whether or not behaviour is challenging is the fact that we cannot be definitive as to whether what we call challenging is a continuum of behaviour or is a distinct category of behaviour. At what exact point does a behaviour cease to be irritating and become challenging? Who makes this judgment and how? What criteria are used to make this judgment? It is well recognised in schools that a child who is described as challenging by one teacher is perceived as a typical youngster by another. All teachers, like all parents and all adults, have differing thresholds of tolerance for behavioural variations. We must exercise caution before we conclude that a child is exhibiting challenging behaviour. As hard as it may be to consider there are times when the problem is within us, not the child.


Researchers continue to tease out biological versus environmental factors as causal agents in challenging behaviour. The old question of nature or nurture has been answered definitively now. It is neither one or the other but both; it is how our nature is nurtured that largely determines our behavioural repertoire. There are however, biological factors that put an individual at greater risk for development challenging behaviour. Among these are a strong family history of mental health problems or delinquency and temperament. More will be said about this later.


There are gender related issues involved in challenging behaviour as well. In the West, as in most countries, girls are socialised differently from boys. Right from infancy males are played with more vigorously than girls, are allowed to engage in more active play, and have behavioural patterns that are tolerated differently when they occur than if they occur in females. Research seems to indicate that only one factor accounts for the difference in how fathers parent children as opposed to mothers-the amount of physical play then engage with in their children. Fathers tend to play more vigorously with children than mothers, and play more vigorously with their male children then their female children. There is research that seems to indicate that the male sex hormone plays a role in aggressive behaviour in boys. A definitive answer to some of these gender issues has yet to be arrived at.


Ethical issues will always raise their head when attempting to create interventions, programme, and policies for children with challenging behaviour. What sorts of measures are appropriate? What is the role of punishment? Are sanctions appropriate? What behaviours will we attempt to change and what cost will the child pay if we are successful in changing them. Children who live in a violent and aggressive environment in their community may pay a price if their own aggressive responses are totally eliminated in school. There are certain survival factors that have to be taken into account when we begin to change children’s behaviour in significant ways. I am not making a case for the tolerance of aggression in school but attempting to raise the ethical issues involved in placing an obsessive focus on individual behaviour rather than on behaviour and school structures.



Dr. David Carey, EzineArticles.com Platinum Author 

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