Tantrums, Meltdowns & Challenging Behaviour

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All children can at times test our patience! Children with autism and learning difficulties are more likely to display challenging behaviour than their peers, which can be very stressful.

Children are curious little bundles of energy that can bring so much joy. However, being a parent, carer or educator does not come without its challenges. Understanding the reasons behind challenging behaviour can help caregivers and children alike.

We all want the best for our children. We want them to learn, be happy, reach their potential and be included. Challenging behaviour can be one of the main barriers to achieving this.

Some common concerns ABA professionals hear from parents are: “I just wish I knew why the behaviour happened,” or “I wish I could help make it better”. Sometimes it seems a child’s behaviour happens out of the blue, without rhyme or reason, making it difficult to understand and manage.

So, why do children behave this way?

Can we really get to the bottom of why it is happening? Luckily, the answer is yes. The reasons for challenging behaviour have been researched for many years, so as behaviour analysts, we have a good idea as to why they happen.

In general, we can view challenging behaviour as a child’s way of communicating their wants and needs. Children with autism and learning difficulties often find communication difficult and challenging behaviour may be the best way they can ensure that they are heard. When challenging behaviour happens, it is important to ask ourselves “what are they trying to tell us?” or “what are they wanting?”

If a behaviour is occurring over and over again, it is likely that the challenging behaviour is working for the child to get their needs met.

The reasons for challenging behaviour can be broken down into four categories: attention, escape, access and sensory input.

Let’s look at each of these a little more closely.

Challenging Behaviour

Reasons for Challenging Behaviour:

  1. Looking for Attention Challenging behaviour may happen because it results in some form of social reaction or interaction for the child, especially if the child does not know or have a better way to gain the attention of others. For example, this behaviour may result in affection (e.g. hugs and tickles), reassurance, playing, laughing or talking about what is wrong. However, attention comes in many different forms and it is important to remember that telling a child off and even something as subtle as facial expression are forms of attention. 
  2. Needing an Escape Another reason this behaviour may happen is because it results in the child escaping or avoiding a situation that they don’t like. The situation may be a place, an activity or a person. For example, challenging behaviour might result in getting out of a situation the child finds scary, such as going to the doctor. It may be that the challenging behaviour results in the child being taken out of a noisy classroom that they didn’t like or away from their dreaded maths lesson. 
  3. Gaining Access Challenging behaviour may happen because it results in the child getting something that they want. This may be an item (e.g. toy or sweets), an activity, a person or a place. For example, challenging behaviour may result in getting to go first in a game, getting their favourite food for dinner or getting to go to a friend’s house for a sleepover. 
  4. Positive Sensory Input The fourth reason why challenging behaviour may occur is because the behaviour itself feels good to do. This reason is less about communication and more about sensory input. For example, scratching an itch might make the itch go away, rocking backwards and forwards might be an enjoyable sensation and twiddling fingers and thumbs might feel nice. 

Challenging behaviour may occur for one of the reasons outlined above, or it may be for a combination of two or more of the reasons. For example, challenging behaviour may result in being given a cuddle, a favourite toy and not having to go to bed. It is important that we understand all of the reasons this behaviour is happening, so that we know what skills to work on.  

Dealing with Challenging Behaviour

Once we have worked out why a child is behaving this way, the next step is to help the child to communicate that want or need in a more appropriate way, or help the child to gain the same sensory input in a more appropriate way. We all have different likes and dislikes and it is important that we have a way to communicate our preference to those around us. For example, we might teach a child to ask for a cuddle or ask to stay up for five more minutes before going to bed. This might be using words, signs (e.g. Makaton) or pictures (e.g. PECS) depending on what works best for the child. 

This is not to say that everything we ask for, we get. Once we have established an appropriate way to communicate, the next step is to build tolerance to when attention, a desired item, activity or person is not available or a situation cannot be avoided. By building communication and tolerance in small incremental steps, we not only reduce challenging behaviour, but increase the child’s independence. 

At the First Bridge Centre we help children to overcome challenges and barriers to learning. We help by supporting the development of language, communication and other important skills such as play, adaptive and social skills. We empower families to implement strategies at home to maximise their child’s development. 

by Lily Stadlober, BCBA

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