Challenging Behavior as Communication

Why does challenging behavior matter?

Challenging behavior is any EBIP_Challenging Behavior_1behavior that interferes with a child’s learning, engagement, and social interactions with her peers or adults.1 Many practitioners understand that challenging behavior can make it difficult for all children to learn well. Challenging behavior also has negative short-term and long-term effects on children. As early as preschool, challenging behavior can lead to fewer social interactions, lesser academic engagement, and the diagnosis of emotional or behavioral disorders. In the long-term, challenging behavior in early childhood puts children at risk for later academic dropout, criminal behavior, drug use, limited income and occupational success, and repeated patterns of failure.2

Why does my child engage in challenging behavior?

Children engage in problem behavior to communicate. People working with young children should always consider problem behavior as a communication attempt, and should determine what skill the child needs to learn in order to reduce the need for the problem behavior or what environmental modification makes the behavior unnecessary.

How do I identify what my child is trying to communicate with challenging behavior?

EBIP_Challenging Behavior_2The first step to developing an effective intervention strategy is to identify the function of the behavior. By function, we mean what the child is trying to access by engaging in the challenging behavior. In other words: you first must figure out what it is the child is trying to communicate.

Common functions (or “reasons”) for challenging behavior include: (a) to get access to adult attention (positive or negative!), (b) to get access to an item or activity, and (c) to escape attention, a task/direction, or an activity. To determine the function of the child’s behavior, begin by observing the child throughout the day and use the Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence (ABC) Data Sheet to take data each time challenging behavior occurs. Describe the antecedent, or what happens to the child or in the child’s vicinity directly before challenging behavior occurs. Also describe the
challenging behavior,
including the duration, intensity, and a description of the behavior. Finally, describe the consequence of the behavior, or what happens directly after the child engages in challenging behavior. See if you can determine the antecedent, behavior, and consequence in this hypothetical scenario:

Linus is splashing in a bowl ofEBIP_challenging behavior as communication_1b water, laughing and humming as he plays. His teacher takes away the bowl of water. Linus begins to cry and engage in tantrum behavior. The teacher immediately returns the bowl of water.

In this example, you might write down:

Antecedent: teacher takes away bowl of water
Behavior: crying, tantrum behavior
Consequence: teacher returns bowl of water

When taking ABC data, you may begin to notice patterns. Look for common antecedents (e.g., toys taken away, teacher giving a direction, teacher distracted by another child and not providing attention) and common consequences (e.g., teacher giving child toy, child allowed to escape from task, teacher giving child attention). By assessing the common antecedents and consequences, you can hypothesize the function of the behavior. For example, if Linus’s teacher begins taking data and notices that he engages in tantrums behavior when toys are taken away, and stops tantruming when toys are given back, she might deduce that the function of the behavior is to get access to an item. You might also notice other patterns as you begin taking data. Perhaps challenging behavior occurs only in certain settings, with certain teachers, or at certain times of the day. These are important to note on your ABC data sheet, as well, as this information will help inform your intervention. Note that “consequence” does not refer to an intended reaction to behavior. For example, if the intended reaction to yelling is “time-out”, but the teacher engages in a conversation with the child about what he did wrong before she sends him to “time-out”, the consequence is should be identified as anything happens immediately after the behavior (in this case, adult attention).

Now that I have hypothesized the function of the behavior, how can I help reduce challenging behavior and increase appropriate behaviors?

NEBIP_challenging behavior as communication_2ow that you have identified the behavioral function, you are ready to develop an
intervention! Remember three steps to reducing challenging behavior and increasing appropriate behaviors: Prevent, Teach, Reinforce.

1. PreventWhen we talk about antecedent strategies, we are talking about ways to manipulate the environment or your own actions to prevent challenging behavior from ever occurring in the first place. For example, if your child engages in challenging behavior during transitions, antecedent strategies might include giving additional transition warnings, giving a choice between transitioning now or in one minute, or always having him at the front of the line during transitions between settings. For more examples of antecedent strategies, see the table below and the Environmental Arrangement section.

2. TeachOnce you have identified the behavioral function for challenging behavior, you have also just identified a skill deficit that you can help teach. Determine one or two EBIP_challenging behavior as communication_3 appropriate ways for the child to ask for or access their desired reinforcer (e.g., access to attention, access to toys). This skill should be appropriate for the child’s level of development, and should not be more effortful than the challenging behavior. For example, if the replacement behavior is to request access to toys, you might have the child exchange a picture card, request of her AAC device, or request verbally with a short sentence. Systematically teach that skill at a time when the child is not engaging in challenging behavior. See Progressive Time Delay and System of Least Prompts for prompting strategies that can be used to teach these new skills. Even children with advanced verbal skills sometimes need systematic instruction to engage in appropriate communication attempts.

3. ReinforceTo reduce challenging behavior, begin reinforcing the appropriate replacement skill and cease to reinforce the challenging behavior. By reinforce here, we mean giving the child access to whatever he or she is attempting to access. For example, if your child hits his peers in order to get access to attention, you would withhold attention right after he hits, while still keeping the child and her classmates safe. You might block her from hitting to keep her classmates safe, but avoid eye contact and keep your body turned away from her. If the child uses an appropriate request for attention (e.g., taps you on the shoulder, says your name), reinforce this behavior by immediately providing high-quality attention. Note that unless you systematically teach the appropriate replacement skill across the day, it is unlikely that she will use the replacement skill instead of challenging behavior! Also, remember that is a child engages in problem behavior to get attention from an adult, this is likely a powerful reward. Thus, any time the child is engaging in appropriate activities (e.g., playing), be sure to provide attention, instead of waiting until the child shows you that she “needs” attention.

EBIP_reinforcement_independent contingency_3b

 Here are some examples of ways to prevent challenging behavior, teach appropriate replacement skills, and reinforce appropriate replacement skills in lieu of the challenging behavior:EBIP_Challenging Behavior as Communication_Chart

Data sheets:
Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence (ABC) Data Collection

Where can I find additional information regarding reducing challenging behavior and increasing appropriate replacement skills?

  1. Smith, B., & Fox, L. (2003). Systems of service delivery: A synthesis of evidence relevant to young children at risk of or who have challenging behavior. Tampa, FL: University of South Florida, Center of Evidence-Based Practice; Young Children with Challenging Behavior.
  2. Park, K. L., & Scott, T. M. (2009). Antecedent-based interventions for young children at risk for emotional and behavioral disorders. Behavioral Disorders, 34, 196-211.
  3. Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (CSEFEL)
  4. Technical Assistance Center on Social Emotional Intervention (TACSEI)
  5. National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorders
  6. Functional Communication Training: A Review and Practical Guide 

To cite this page (APA 6th edition):

  • Chazin, K.T. & Ledford, J.R. (2016). Challenging behavior as communication. In Evidence-based instructional practices for young children with autism and other disabilities. Retrieved from