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The ABCs of challenging behaviour

All behaviour – whether it is positive or negative – happens for a reason. When a baby cries they are communicating to us that they are hungry, tired, in pain, or need their nappy changed. When a toddler laughs they are showing us that they think something is funny. When a four year old has a massive tantrum in the aisle of the supermarket, their reason is often only too clear. By looking at what’s going on when the behaviour occurs, we can try to figure out the function of the behaviour. Understanding it’s function will help us know how best to respond, and how to manage any undesirable behaviours.

First, some definitions:

  • A is for Antecedent: this is what happensbefore a behaviour occurs, e.g. a dad tickling his son’s feet.
  • B is for Behaviour. This is everything we do! Actions, words, sounds, thoughts, e.g. laughing.
  • C is for Consequence. This refers to what happens after a behaviour occurs, e.g. the dad tickles his son’s feet again. In any situation, there are a number of possible consequences that may occur. Which one actually happens will determine how likely it is that the behaviour will occur again.

Here are some more examples:

  • Difficulty with communicating verbally tends to result in frustration, so kids with language delays or young children who are still learning language often exhibit difficult behaviour at times. This blog is going to focus on challenging, or undesirable behaviours, since these are the kind that parents want to change! However, the same principles apply to all behaviour. If you understand what a child is getting out of a particular interaction, you will know how to increase or decrease the likelihood of that behaviour happening again in the future (e.g. children crave their parents’ approval so praising them when they do something good makes it more likely they’ll do it again in the future).

There are 4 main functions of behaviour:

  • Get something – to gain access to an object (e.g. lollies), event (e.g. party), or activity (e.g. tickles) or to gain access to a different environment (e.g. go to the park).
  • Avoid something – to escape from a situation, person, or activity. A child may want to avoid a situation or activity that they perceive as being unpleasant (e.g. having a bath), too difficult (e.g. doing their homework), or too lengthy.
  • Gain attention – it is a natural desire for a child to want the attention of their parents or peers. The only problem is when they use inappropriate behaviour to seek that attention.
  • Sensory – when a child is seeking or avoiding specific input from any of the senses. Sensory seeking behaviours include anything that provides an immediate sensory experience (i.e. through sight, sound, movement, touch, smell, or taste) such as jumping up and down on the trampoline, eating play dough, smelling flowers, watching fans or the washing machine spinning around etc. These behaviors would occur even in the absence of an adult or attention from others as they are pleasurable and rewarding to the child. Sensory avoiding behaviours serve to escape from or avoid an unpleasant sensory experience. Examples include a child putting their hands over their ears when the vacuum cleaner is turned on, leaving unwanted food on their plate, pinching their nose to avoid smelling a particular fragrance etc. Again, these behaviors would occur even in the absence of adults or attention from others as the child is attempting to avoid an unpleasant or even painful stimulus.

The same behaviour may occur but for different reasons.

For example:

  • To get something
  • To avoid something
  • To get attention
  • Sensory

In order to decrease the likelihood of an undesirable behaviour occurring again in the future, we must respond appropriately according to the function of the behaviour.

This is a crucial point! We would respond in different ways to the same behaviour, depending on what the function of the behaviour is. In each of the above examples an inappropriate response (consequence) was given to the head banging behaviour, and this would result in an increase of the undesirable behaviour, i.e. more head banging in the future.

To address challenging behaviours we need to shift the pay-off (i.e. the reinforcement that a child is getting for the behaviour). We must decrease the pay-off for the undesirable behaviour and increase the pay-off for the positive behaviour. Sometimes a child may know what the appropriate behaviour is. For example, a child may call out in class even though they know they must raise their hand, because when they call out it always gets a response from the teacher. In this case, the teacher should increase the pay-off for positive behavior by only calling on students and giving praise when they raise their hands, and reduce the pay-off for the negative behaviour by ignoring the calling out. Other times, a child will need to be taught a new skill, or ‘replacement behaviour’ – in order to manage challenging behaviour.

Below I will suggest replacement behaviours or strategies to reduce the head banging in the examples given above.

To get something

In this example, requesting a biscuit was a new skill for Alex. A parent could help their child communicate their needs/wants by modelling the word/s the child could use, e.g. Alex’s parents might notice other cues that he may be hungry (such as going to the fridge, looking in the cupboards, tummy grumbling, it being the time of day he usually has a snack) which suggests to them that this head banging behaviour is Alex’s way of communicating his hunger. They could then model “I’m hungry” or “Biscuit please”, and wait to see if Alex can copy before giving him a biscuit.

If Alex is not yet talking, his parents might use pictures to help him communicate, e.g. by having a photo of chocolate biscuits stuck to the fridge so Alex can go to the picture and point, or lead his parents by the hand to the picture, or take the picture off the fridge and give it to his parents. They should then reinforce Alex requesting for food appropriately by acknowledging his request and modelling the relevant words (“I want a biscuit!”) and then giving him what he’s asked for.

In the event that a child asks for something they can’t / you don’t want them to have, it’s still good to acknowledge their request and that they’ve asked for it appropriately. Then you can explain that they can’t have it at this time and express empathy for their disappointment (e.g. “Thank you for asking nicely! I know you love chocolate biscuits but you can’t have one just now because dinner is soon”).

To avoid something


The 1st/then is a way of helping kids understand what’s expected if they have difficulty understanding it when you just explain verbally. It can be used with any fun activity, not just TV, e.g. “First brush teeth, then story time”. See below for an example of a 1st/then board:


Over time, this reward can be gradually faded out so that Alex is allowed to watch TV for less and less time, until eventually he is brushing his teeth without a reward afterwards. A timer can also be used to help Alex see how long he needs to brush his teeth for. Sometimes, children find it easier to do an unpleasant task if they know when the task will end. If Alex was very resistant to brushing his teeth, we might need to reduce our expectations initially, so that he only has to brush for a very short time and/or with adult help, and over time we could gradually increase how long he needs to brush for. As always, praise should be given for completing the task appropriately.

To get attention


The example of head banging is probably a bit more extreme than some other attention-seeking behaviours. Others I’ve seen include pulling people’s hair, slamming the door or switching the light on and off repeatedly, and pretending to eat dirt. As a reactive strategy (what you do when the behaviour happens) it’s usually best to ignore inappropriate attention-seeking behaviour, however safety must always come first. For example, if a child was banging their head or hurting themselves or another, it is important to try to stop or minimise the behaviour straight away. This might mean putting a cushion under their head so they can continue the behaviour safely, or by removing yourself or another child from their reach (e.g. if they’re pulling other people’s hair). Such actions can still be done without giving attention to the behaviour by not giving eye contact or responding verbally. Therefore, the attention-seeking behaviour won’t have gotten the response they were after.

At least as important as a reactive strategy is a proactive strategy (what you do to try to prevent the behaviour from re-occurring). If you don’t give attention to the inappropriate attention-seeking behaviour, the behaviour may stop. However the need for attention still won’t have been met, so the behaviour is likely to come back bigger, badder and uglier. The child will think, “Hmmm, that used to work but it doesn’t anymore. I’ll have to ramp it up more if I’m going to get a reaction”. To prevent this, we need to teach an appropriate way of requesting attention. For young children this might be simply saying the person’s name (“Mum” or “Dad”), tapping them on the arm, or reaching out for a hug. What you teach them to do will depend on how you would prefer them to request attention. Older children with good language skills may be taught to initiate attention by making a comment, since doing so generally provokes a response (e.g. “Hey Mum, look at what I made at school today!” –“Wow Alex, you’ve put a lot of work into that!”).

In order for the pay-off for appropriate behaviour to be bigger than for negative behaviour, it’s important to give the child your attention straight away when they request it appropriately and to praise them for doing so (“Thank you for remembering to ask nicely”). However it’s unreasonable to expect parents to drop everything and give their full attention to a child 100% of the time. So you might try to reinforce appropriate attention-seeking every time as the child is learning the new skill, but once they are consistently requesting attention appropriately you can start to prompt them to wait before you give them your attention (e.g. “I can listen to you just as soon as I get off the phone”). Make sure you stick to your word and praise them for good waiting. It’s usually best to start with small waiting times and gradually increase the amount of time they have to wait for you.



In this example the replacement behaviour is similar to the example for getting something. Instead of wanting a tangible item Alex is wanting to avoid what for him is an unpleasant sensory experience (as he is sensitive to lights being turned on suddenly). Requesting the light to be turned off is a new skill that must be taught to him as before, i.e. either by modelling appropriate words or phrases, or if he is non verbal then using pictures, signs or gestures (such as pointing to the light or leading his Dad’s hand to towards the light switch), and praising Alex for using these appropriately. It can often be difficult to identify the function of behaviours with a sensory basis, and may require several observations of the behaviour taking place and noting the antecedent and consequence (e.g. the behaviour starts when the light is turned on suddenly and stops when it is turned off or Alex goes into a darker room).

Hopefully this post has provided some useful ideas on how to manage challenging behaviours. I’ve focused more on behaviours resulting from reduced communication skills, which are usually harder to understand the function for compared with ordinary toddler tantrums. However I’d like get around to writing a post about tips for dealing with those as well one day……if my cat will stop sleeping on my laptop for long enough……

If you’d like more advice about behaviour management, see the Raising Children Networkhere.


Erin Wilkins is the founder of SmallTalk Speech & Language Therapy. Erin is a Certified Practising Speech Pathologist and a member of Speech Pathology Australia. Since gaining her Master of Speech and Language Pathology Erin has gained extensive experience working with children in a variety of settings within Sydney, rural NSW, and in the UK. She is passionate about empowering parents with the skills to support their child in becoming successful communicators.


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