What Causes Challenging Behavior?
The vast outpouring of research in both neuroscience and child development in recent years has made this interesting question more difficult than ever to answer. People used to ask, "Which is more important, nature or nurture?" But today's experts say that this debate is "scientifically obsolete" (Shonkoff and Phillips, 2000, p. 6). They have discovered that nature and nurture are inextricably entangled and work together in every aspect of human development. We will try to tease a few threads out of this intricately woven fabric so that we can examine them more closely, but we must warn you that they won't come out neatly.
The relationship between risk factors and challenging behavior is complicated. Similar risk factors can result in different outcomes, and different risk factors can produce similar outcomes. And risk factors have a cumulative effect. A student who has one risk factor faces no more risk of developing challenging behavior than a student who has none. But a student who has two risk factors faces a risk four times as great (Rutter, 2000; Yoshikawa, 1994). Where risk factors are concerned, one plus one equals more than two.
Risk factors are often invisible, and families may not even know they're there. You can ask about risk factors if it seems appropriate, but it's entirely possible that no hard information will ever come to light. At the same time, even though you're not a doctor or a psychologist trained to make diagnoses, you can learn a lot by observing a student with challenging behavior and talking to her family about what's going on. As you do, keep the risk factors in mind. Rarely can you change them, but they will provide you with insight, empathy, and ideas about how to proceed. Understanding risk factors can make a difference in your attitude toward a student and enable you to develop a relationship of trust and caring that can help her feel safe, accepted, and more likely to behave appropriately.
The risk factors for challenging behavior fall into two broad categories, biological and environmental. We've defined biological as anything that impinges on the child from conception to birth, and we've organized this section chronologically, beginning with genes. Anything that influences a child after birth we've considered as environmental, whether it acts on her directly (such as physical punishment or lead in her drinking water) or indirectly (such as poverty). The environmental section begins with the family—a child's most intimate environment—and gradually moves outward through school and community influences. Although cultural dissonance is an important factor, we won't deal with it here because we've given it a chapter of its own. Once again, it's important to remember that these factors overlap, and although we present them here as if each is separate, in fact they are constantly interacting and influencing each other.
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