Challenging Behavior: Why Does It Happen?
Children with autism and other special needs frequently engage in challenging behaviors, such as aggression, self-injurious behavior (SIB), and property destruction. These behaviors can range from skin-picking and slapping to head-banging, self-biting, punching, and kicking. Challenging behaviors negatively affect the whole family, and parents are struggling to properly care for loved ones who engage in severe challenging behavior. But why does it happen?
According to Behavior Analyst, Meme Hieneman (author and nationally certified behavior analyst), all challenging behavior serves a purpose for the child, and if we pay attention, the behavior can communicate important information. She says, “The purpose of challenging behavior is to get or avoid something.” The child might want support or attention. He might want an object or activity. Or he might want some sort of internal sensation. Challenging behavior is a way for individuals to get their wants and needs met especially when they have difficulties with communication. If the challenging behavior gets the child what he wants, then he is more likely to behave that way again.
For example, my special needs stepson sometimes yells or hits his head when he has trouble completing a difficult task in virtual school.
I know it’s his nonverbal way of expressing his frustration and asking for help with the task. When I see these behaviors during virtual school, I try not to react to the behavior (easier said than done!) but instead I try to praise his effort and reassure him that I have confidence in his ability to complete the task. This encouragement usually gives him the break he needs to get back to the task and try again. It is important that I don’t let him give up until he completes the task because then he learns that his challenging behaviors can help him avoid all difficult tasks.
Another example is when he wants to earn a “noisy toy” like his tablet.
He doesn’t like to do the chores required to earn, and will often throw himself onto the floor and kick a few things before he finishes his chores. Again, it is so hard to ignore the behavior, but as long as I know he won’t hurt himself or destroy anything, I let him act out until he realizes he won’t get any attention for his negative behavior. When he is quiet, I try to calmly tell him that he can earn the toy he wants when and if he completes his chores, but not before. Then, when he starts working on his chores, I lavish praise on him to reinforce the positive behavior. And I promptly deliver the toy as soon as he earns it.
One treatment for severe challenging behavior is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) which has been proven to substantially reduce severe challenging behavior. The common ABA model typically begins with determining the cause of the severe challenging behavior, and then reinforcing adaptive behaviors that serve the same purpose for the child as the severe challenging behavior.
As we understand the child’s purpose for the challenging behavior, we can help the child find a more effective way of getting their needs met. Believe me, it would be so easy to just give my stepson the toy he wants to make the challenging behavior stop, but that would just teach him that kicking things is a good way to get what he wants.
Harbor School a private special education school in Monmouth County, New Jersey
Our mission at Harbor School is to help all of our special needs students with learning, social, language, behavioral, and other disabilities. Our highly skilled staff are committed daily to helping each student reach their full potential.
We would be more than happy to discuss your child's specific needs and challenges, so please call us at 732.544.9394, or request a tour at Harbor School in Eatontown, NJ. We are located just minutes off of the Garden State Parkway at exit 105 and conveniently located off of Route 35 and Route 36 in Monmouth County, NJ.
LeRoi R. Jones,
Principal-Harbor School, Eatontown, NJ