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What Is Challenging Behavior?

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Challenging behavior is any behavior that

  • interferes with children’s learning, development, and success at play
  • is harmful to the child, other children, or adults
  • puts a child at high risk for later social problems or school failure (Klass, Guskin, and Thomas, 1995; Ritchie and Pohl, 1995).

We do not call this behavior challenging because it summons you to a duel or battle but because it is threatening, provocative, and stimulating, all at the same time.

First of all, this behavior is challenging for the child. It puts him in danger by preventing him from learning what he needs to know to succeed in school and get along well with his peers. It is also challenging for him because he probably doesn’t have much control over it. Even if he knows what to do instead—and chances are he doesn’t—his ability to regulate his feelings and actions just isn’t up to the job yet. Improving matters will be an enormous challenge for him.

Perhaps more to the point, challenging behavior is challenging for us, the people around him, his family and teachers. In the face of this behavior, we often find ourselves at a loss. We don’t know how to turn things around, how to make the situation tenable, how to help the child get back on track, behaving appropriately and feeling good about himself.

Yet it is essential for us to rise to this challenge. The child’s future can depend on it—to say nothing of our own sanity and the well-being of the other children in the classroom. By its very nature, a challenge is difficult, but once conquered it brings incredible rewards. This is a challenge that is worthy of your very best efforts.

Any child can exhibit challenging behavior. To begin with, it is developmentally appropriate early in life, and all children continue to use it as they grow—once in a while, when they’re angry or having a bad day. Some even use it for an extended period when parents separate or divorce, a new baby arrives, a parent loses a job or falls ill, or the family moves to a different place. Children find such events confusing and difficult, and they often react with challenging behavior. Although most children eventually manage to cope with these experiences, they usually need extra support and understanding from their families and teachers for quite some time.

Then there are the children whose problems are more difficult, the children who have come to rely on challenging behavior as the best way to respond to a situation. Their behavior is challenging in all three aspects of the definition and demands very special care and handling. With the appropriate information and strategies, the adults in their lives can play a pivotal role, helping these children avoid serious risk and blossom into the fully functioning people all children deserve to become.

This book focuses on aggressive, antisocial, and disruptive behaviors because their impact is so dramatic and so vast. But many of the ideas here will work equally well with children who display timid and withdrawn behaviors, which certainly also qualify as challenging.

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