What is challenging behaviour?

The term challenging behaviour is used to describe a range of behaviours which can put the person displaying the behaviour or those around them at risk.

What is challenging behaviour?

The term challenging behaviour is used to describe a range of behaviours which can put the person displaying the behaviour or those around them at risk. This can be the risk of physical harm or risk of exclusion from various aspects of life such as school, work and relationships. It is behaviour that challenges parents, carers and teachers because it is of such intensity and usually not seen as socially acceptable.

Behaviours that challenge include but are not limited to:

  • Physical – injury to themselves or others i.e. head banging, hitting, biting, hair pulling, throwing things, spitting
  • Verbal – offensive language, screaming, shouting, threats, abuse, repetitive speech
  • Non-verbal – being destructive, rocking, pacing, stealing, withdrawal, inappropriate sexualised behaviours, eating inedible objects

What causes challenging behaviour?

All behaviour is a form of communication and there is a reason for all behaviour. Behaviour that challenges is a way to communicate unmet needs when an individual struggles to communicate their needs in other ways often due to factors such as anxiety, neglect, abuse, learning disabilities and conditions like dementia. Understanding the causes of challenging behaviour is the first step towards finding ways to support individuals and manage their behaviour.

There are numerous causes of behaviour that challenges, which are usually unique to each individual. Behaviour is influenced by a number of different factors including:


  • seeking social interaction or trying to get noticed
  • boredom
  • attempting to exert control over a situation
  • unaware of the expected behaviour


  • pain
  • medication
  • hyper- or hypo-sensitivity


  • an individual might try to live up to low or negative expectations they believe people have of them
  • feeling excluded from social situations


  • changes to routine or carers without warning
  • trying to get something they want
  • under- or over-stimulation i.e. too loud, bright lights, too hot or cold

How to manage challenging behaviour

There are some general tips that can help when confronted with challenging behaviour:

  • Figure out any conditions which commonly trigger behaviour that challenges
  • Encourage alternative ways of communicating and expressing themselves
  • Be aware of warning signs and potential problems
  • Develop strategies to diffuse the situation
  • Explain things clearly and be patient, allow extra time for the individual to process information
  • Find out the individual’s personal preferences i.e. do they have issues with being touched or do they struggle to make eye contact?

Challenging behaviour strategies for schools

In a school environment challenging behaviour can be particularity disruptive and have a negative impact on a greater number of people so any response should be consistent and fair. The aim should be to notice the warning signals and to prevent escalation:

  • Focus on reinforcing the good behaviour rather than reacting negatively to challenging behaviour
  • Ensure you have the individuals full attention before making a request
  • Phrase instructions positively e.g. instead of ‘stop hitting’ try ‘put your hands down’
  • Make individuals aware of consequences for repeated behaviour. They should be clearly explained and logical and may include being moved or loss of privileges.

Challenging behaviour strategies for health and social care

It is important to have a good understanding of the individual’s needs. Work with families and other carers to build a picture of the individual’s background which can help with understanding the reasons behind challenging behaviour.

  • Ensure the individual feels understood and valued
  • Give the individual clear and defined parameters for a situation so they understand what is expected of them i.e. the amount of time they can spend doing an activity
  • Pay close attention to any attempts at communication as this may not always be talking
  • Be aware of your own body language, 55% of communication is body language
  • Positive reinforcement is a very effective tool to help an individual managing their own behaviour as well as when trying to teach new behaviour

How to tackle challenging if prevention measures have been unsuccessful

Ways to defuse the situation:

  • Stay calm and give the individual space
  • Try to find out what the problem is
  • Speak gently and clearly whilst thinking about your body language, try not to appear threatening in any way
  • Be compassionate and show empathy for the individual
  • Try to negotiate and work out a compromise
  • Distract the individual

Things that could exacerbate the situation:

  • Becoming agitated or upset
  • Attempting to restrain or corner the individual
  • Not listening, shouting or talking over them
  • Embarrassing, humiliating or laughing at them
  • Forcing them to make eye contact

Impact on family members and teachers

Behaviour that challenges can be very stressful as well as physically and emotionally demanding for those that are close to the individual. It is important to seek out support in order to talk to people in similar situations and share coping strategies. It is also necessary for the carer to take regular breaks for the sake of their health, although often it can be hard to delegate to others.

Further Information

Runway Training has recently added the CACHE Level 2 Certificate in Understanding Behaviour that Challenges to their distance learning courses. We work with a variety of employers across Kent to provide training to staff, often free of charge.

It is a fully funded qualification and has been designed to benefit those that work in education, health and social care. Click below for further information:


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