Talk me through it: The importance of communication with challenging behaviour

Written by Jenna Cunneen (BCBA/Registered Psychologist/Master of Arts in Applied Psychology)

Challenging behaviour is one of the biggest barriers to learning and can be one of the most stressful aspects for anyone who has or supports children. It is widely recognised that challenging behaviour is more prevalent and more severe in children who have an intellectual disability. The important thing to remember is that, for the most part, challenging behaviour is a form of communication – especially in those who experience delayed language. Its deciphering what is being communicated that can be the tricky part and can sometimes, but not always, require professional guidance.

Often, we hear [following an instance of challenging behaviour], “it was just so random!”. However, if the environment before, during, and after the behaviour is broken down, usually a clear picture can come to light. Did Suzie get a chocolate bar after she had a meltdown in the supermarket? Did you leave the supermarket because it was too much for you to cope with on that Tuesday afternoon? Did Tommy get access to his favourite toy train? Or did all the parents rush over to the playground and tell him off? All of these are important factors when attempting to figure out what your child is attempting to tell you.

In general, no one does anything for free. Usually we engage in behaviours (both desirable and undesirable) for three specific reasons: to gain access to something we want (start a fight with your partner for their attention or work a little harder for a Christmas bonus), to remove something we don’t want (going to McDonalds to stop the kids nagging or going to see the doctor to get rid of an earache) or because it feels good (spending too much money on a massage or paying for someone else’s petrol). You will notice a lot of these behaviours could fall under multiple categories. I could pay for someone else’s petrol because it feels good to do something nice for someone else, but I could also be doing it for the attention of others. Likewise, I could work extra hard at work to get a Christmas bonus, but I could also be doing it to avoid getting in trouble with my manager. The reasons why we engage in the behaviours we do can be quite complex, but it is a crucial step to ensure the next steps are as easy and effective as possible.

If a child is engaging in behaviours deemed to be undesirable, the best way to reduce the prevalence of these behaviours is to replace them with one that is more desirable andgoing to result in the same outcome for the learner. For example, if a child hits a teacher to get out of doing work, perhaps, we might teach him how to ask for a break. If a child throws a tantrum in the lolly isle and we figure out it is because he wants his favourite chocolate bar, perhaps we can teach him how to ask for his favourite chocolate bar. These responses need to be easier for the child to do and result in the same consequence for them to even consider using the more desirable behaviour.

Communication of wants and needs is crucial for an individual to be able to do so as effectively and independently as possible. It has been identified as the first verbal skill (not necessarily vocal) that should be taught to learners. This is because it provides them a sense of control of their environment and an ability to ensure their wants and needs are being adequately met.

To be able to communicate effectively, there needs to be a communicative strategy that is appropriate for that learner. There are multiple forms of communication that can be effective and adapted to the ability and needs of the individual and their environment. Some of these are listed below:

  • Eye contact – Often eye contact is one of the preliminary steps when teaching a learner how to communicate that they want access to something and can be very effective for non-verbal children. However, eye contact can also be a good strategy to use in conjunction with other communicative strategies.
  • PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System) – The use of PECS has been shown to be effective for learners who have delayed language or is non-verbal. A system such as PECS involves an individual learning what pictures correspond to what objects and subsequently giving the picture to the teacher, or support person, in exchange for access to the item shown on the picture.
  • Technology assisted communication – With the rise of technology, these methods are becoming increasingly more popular. Usually these are in the form of an app on an iPad or other transportable device. Children can press a button, select a picture, or create full sentences to communicate with those around them.
  • Gestures or signs – These can be individual-specific or from a widely-recognised dictionary (such as NZSL). National sign languages or Makaton (sign language that was designed specifically for individuals with disabilities) are often preferred as they can be more widely recognised by the general public and/or new support people.
  • Vocal verbal language – This is the most widely recognised and easy to understand form of communication for the lay person. As the learner acquires their vocal verbal repertoire, it will usually begin quite simply (i.e. making the sound “m” to request milk) and becoming more complex as the learner acquires the skill (i.e. saying the word “milk” and then the short sentence “I want milk”).

By teaching a learner how to effectively communicate their wants and needs using a method that is appropriate for their ability, their level of independence increases substantially, independent social interactions (as we are usually the ones that give them access to what they want) increases and as a result, and challenging or undesirable behaviours decrease.

Don’t get me wrong, teaching a child how to ask for access to chocolate probably won’t eliminate tantrums at the supermarket when you then have to say no because they’ve eaten 36 chocolate bars this week, but it is a step in the right direction.



Chiang, H. M. (2008). Expressive communication of children with autism: the use of challenging behaviour. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, 52(11), 966-972.

Lloyd, B. P., & Kennedy, C. H. (2014). Assessment and treatment of challenging behaviour for individuals with intellectual disability: A research review. Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities, 27(3), 187-199.

Lowe, K., Allen, D., Jones, E., Brophy, S., Moore, K., & James, W. (2007). Challenging behaviours: Prevalence and topographies. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, 51(8), 625-636.

Spears, C. L., & Turner, V. L. (2010). Rising to new heights of communication and learning for children with autism: The definitive guide to using alternative-augmentative communication, visual strategies, and learning supports at home and school. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.