Challenging behaviour

If you care for a child or adult who is autistic or has learning disabilities or other complex needs, you may have heard the phrase “challenging behaviour”. 

This phrase describes behaviour that poses a challenge to caregivers. It is not a diagnosis. 

People may resort to extreme ways of behaving to make themselves heard or understood. At Sense, we believe that all behaviours can be a kind of communication. 

On this page, find out more about challenging behaviour and how to manage it in a positive way.

On this page:

What is challenging behaviour?

Challenging behaviour is behaviour that can be harmful, risky or creates problems either for the person doing it, or people around them. 

You might be thinking that everyone behaves in challenging ways at times. And you’d be right! We all get sad, angry and frustrated, and show that in our behaviour from time to time. 

Children with or without disabilities might show behaviour that challenges, or test boundaries, for many different reasons. 

But most of us, as we grow up, learn how to act in socially acceptable ways, and can manage our behaviour in public. Some people miss out on this key learning, for a lot of different reasons. 

When we talk about “challenging behaviour”, we usually mean challenging behaviour that is so frequent, or so aggressive, that it’s having a profound impact on the person and those around them. 

This could mean it’s:

  • Preventing the person from being able to make friends or communicate with others. 
  • Raising concerns about their safety or the safety of others.
  • Limiting their opportunities and activities.

People with learning disabilities and/or autism might show signs of challenging behaviour. 

Examples of challenging behaviour

There are many different possible types of challenging behaviour. 

These are just a few examples:

  • Hitting, biting or otherwise hurting others. 
  • Self-injury, like hitting themselves or banging their head against a wall. 
  • Screaming, shouting or having angry outbursts.
  • Throwing or damaging objects.
  • Refusing to move (for example, refusing to get out of a car when you arrive at a destination). 
  • Pica (eating things that are not foods). 

Adults might also show signs of sexually inappropriate behaviour, because of a lack of understanding of social norms. This could include undressing themselves or masturbating in public. 

Understanding challenging behaviour

At Sense, we believe all behaviour can be seen as communication. 

Often, people behave in ways that are challenging because they want to tell you something, or as a way of expressing their feelings.

They might need something (like a drink), or want to change their environment or get out of something (like going swimming). 

Not being able to fully express yourself can be very frustrating. It can lead to behaviours that are challenging or harmful. 

Sometimes, challenging behaviour might be down to an underlying health problem. The person might be in pain or discomfort that they can’t express.

The key to supporting someone who’s showing challenging behaviour is trying to understand what’s causing them to behave this way. Once we’ve figured out what’s behind it, we can support them to get what they need, and find alternative ways of communicating. 

Reasons for challenging behaviour

There is no single reason for challenging behaviour. It’s unique to each person.

But these are some questions that might help you reflect on what could be triggering the behaviour of the person you’re caring for, and how best to support them:

  • Are they hot, uncomfortable or struggling with sensory overload from loud noise or bright lights?
  • Could they be ill, in pain or feeling discomfort (for example, could they be constipated or bloated)?
  • Are they lonely or bored?
  • Has there been change or disruption to their usual routine?
  • Could they be feeling confused or scared because of an unfamiliar person or activity?
  • Is there a certain person or situation that seems to trigger this behaviour?
  • Is there something they really want or need?

Positive behaviour support: managing challenging behaviour

Supporting someone with challenging behaviour begins with understanding their needs. Think about what they are trying to tell you. Listen, observe and understand.

Understanding what they’re trying to communicate with their behaviour gives us the ability to make their overall quality of life better.

At Sense, we do not believe in punishing people for showing challenging behaviour. 

Instead, we take the proactive approach of trying to generally improve their life and meet their needs. This is called positive behaviour support

What is positive behaviour support?

Positive behaviour support (PBS) is a proactive, supportive approach to caring, giving people control and choices over their lives. 

PBS is all about improving people’s quality of life. To achieve this, we try to understand why someone might be showing challenging behaviour, and then provide support for the root problem. 

The main goal of PBS isn’t to change behaviour – it’s about helping the person you support to be happy, safe and able to express themselves. The goal is for them to live a full, enriching life. As a result, they might show less challenging behaviour.

By using a PBS approach, you’ll be supporting the person to:

  • Find safer ways of expressing themselves. 
  • Develop coping strategies for stress (like deep breathing).
  • Adjust their routine and environment to avoid common triggers.

Positive behaviour support examples

Using PBS to support someone with challenging behaviour can take many different forms. 

Some examples of positive behaviour support include:

  • Giving someone choices of what they want to do, wear or eat.
  • Having a stable and predictable routine. 
  • Giving the person a space they can go to when they don’t want to be around other people. 
  • Working out communication methods that are accessible for the person. 

De-escalating challenging behaviour

When someone is in distress and showing challenging behaviour, it’s important to respond in a supportive way. Do not ignore or punish them.

These are some things you can do in the moment to try and de-escalate:

  • Stay calm and do not shout.
  • Distract the person with something they enjoy.
  • Remove anything that might be causing the distress (for example, something that’s making a loud noise).
  • Give the person space.
  • Give the person what they need or want.
  • Intervene only if they or another person are at risk.

Get support

If you are struggling with your child’s challenging behaviour, you could speak to your GP, a health visitor (for children under five), or any other healthcare professional your child sees. 

You can also find out about the support system in England for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), and the different systems in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland

To find out about benefits, grants and other financial support you might be entitled to, including help with energy, food, travel and leisure costs, please visit our Benefits and money section.  

If you care for someone with complex disabilities and would like to discuss how Sense could support you, contact our information and advice service. 

This content was last reviewed in June 2023. We’ll review it again in 2025.