Challenging behaviour is defined as persistent, harmful behaviours that may hurt, interfere, or intimidate others. This includes any behaviour that:
🚫Interferes with children’s learning, play or development
🚫Threatens safety to other children and adults
🚫Interferes with educator or parents’ ability to engage with other children
🚫Puts children at high risk of later social problems
Regardless of whether the challenging behaviour is hitting, biting, spitting, destroying property, invading personal space, tantrums, snatching toys, screaming or foul language; the underlying reasons generally fall into three categories:
1️⃣To get what they want
2️⃣To avoid or escape something
3️⃣To meet sensory, physical, emotional, or developmental needs
- To get what they want
A very simple explanation to a child’s challenging behaviour is often just to “get what they want”. Some common examples are:
👉 Get a toy or object they desire
👉 Get more time doing something they enjoy
👉Gain attention from parent, sibling, friend, educator
👉 Gain power, certainty, variety
👉 To fulfill an unmet need
2. To avoid or escape something
Sometimes children engage in challenging behaviours because they just simply don’t want to do something or are trying to avoid a task, responsibility, activity or a particular person. Here are some frequent examples:
👉 Avoid task, responsibility, or activity they don’t like. e.g. pack up time, rest-time, chores, sitting on the mat.
👉Avoid a certain person or group of people
👉Escape social demands
👉Avoid an activity that is developmentally not appropriate (overlaps with category 3)
👉Avoid noise, light, smell, tastes (overlaps with category 3)
3. To meet sensory, physical, emotional, or developmental needs
Sensory, physical, emotional, and developmental reasons are often overlooked as a cause to challenging behaviors – but in my experience are extremely common. Some typical examples include:
👉 Sensory seeking or sensory avoiding behaviours.
👉 Response to overstimulation or under stimulation
👉 Response to trauma
👉 To release bottled up emotions e.g., sadness, anxiety, overwhelm, anger.
👉 Response to an activity that is not developmentally appropriate
👉 Response to an activity that does not meet their emotional or physical needs
If you need more help to determine exactly what the cause of the challenging behaviour is, check out – A Closer Look at Challenging Behaviours
Once you work out exactly what the underlying cause of the behaviour is, you can start transforming the challenging behaviour into a prosocial behaviour. See Transforming Challenging Behaviours into Positive Outcomes for more information.
Information in this article is based on my experience as a Special Education and Early Years trained teacher with post-graduate studies in Positive Psychology.
Children’s Author, Freelance Writer + Educational Consultant
Renee is a children’s author based on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland. She is passionate about creating profound social change by providing children, teachers and parents with the positive language needed for healthy social and emotional development. She is the author of picture books, The Strongest Boy, and Rosie Leads the Way.