top of page
  • Writer's pictureCoField ABA

Understanding Challenging Behaviour

When a child exhibits challenging behaviour, parents and caregivers often wonder why this behavior is happening. Often, it can be helpful to take a step back and look at what a child may be trying to achieve and what they may be gaining from this behaviour. This will help determine how to react. In Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA), this is called identifying the function of behaviour.

Children are typically motivated by:

  • Attention (e.g., if I jump on the couch, Mom is going to stop what she is doing and come pay attention to me)

  • To escape from a demand (e.g., If I hit my sister, I will get sent to my room and not have to clean up; I don’t want to put my coat on so I’ll run away instead)

  • To gain access to an object or activity (e.g., If I scream and cry in the restaurant, Dad will give me his phone to play with)

  • Communication (e.g., I don’t have the words to tell you I’m frustrated, so I will scream)

  • Sensory Stimuli (e.g., I chew on my clothing or toys because the pressure feels good)

When the function of behaviour has been identified, there are different strategies that can be put in place. These strategies help to reduce challenging behaviour and teach a child new behaviors to meet their needs in a more appropriate way.

Here are some examples:


  • Ignore and wait out the challenging behaviour. If the child is doing something dangerous, remove them from the situation but talk as little as possible. If the behaviour involves another child, focus your attention on the child that is being targeted.

  • Give the child increased attention when they are behaving appropriately- this will help them learn that positive behaviour is an easier and more effective way to get needs met


  • Follow through on what you have asked your child to do, helping them as needed. It may also be helpful to teach your child to ask for help or a break, use first-then language to let a child know the expectation (e.g., first get dressed, then you can have your iPad), or schedule in breaks for longer or more difficult tasks (e.g., make your bed, play for 5 minutes, then clean your room)

To Gain Access to An Object or Activity

  • The challenging behaviour should not result in the child getting the object or activity.

  • Distract and use positive statements (e.g., “I know it’s hard to wait for our food when you’re hungry, let’s colour/play I spy/sing songs”).

  • Use First-then language (e.g., first you have to finish your homework, then you can go outside to play)

  • teach communication skills, waiting skills, and acceptance of the word “no”

Sensory Stimuli

  • Give your child an appropriate replacement item or activity to meet sensory needs (e.g., If a child is chewing toys or clothing, provide them with chewlery to meet the same sensory need).

Some other important points to remember are…

Reward and Praise!

  • When you see your child doing something nice, appropriate, funny, new… compliment them. Let them know they are being awesome/kind/silly/ or that they have made a good choice. Even if the behaviour is something your child has done many times before, let them know you see it and you like it.

  • If you use your “happy” voice a lot, your “not happy” voice will catch your child’s attention much more quickly.

Change the Activity

  • If you child is engaging in challenging behaviour, switch to a new activity, removing access to whatever was causing the problem (e.g., You threw the toy again so we are going to put it away for the rest of the morning. Would you like to do puzzles or read books now?)

First-Then and If-Then Language

  • First-Then statements are a great way to simplify instructions and expectations for behaviour. These statements help a child to understand what is being asked and the reward/consequence e.g., IF you throw that toy, THEN it’s all done FIRST clean up, THEN we get a snack! IF you do that again, THEN you get time out. FIRST (eat a) noodle, THEN blueberry! FIRST boots on, THEN puddles! IF you don’t put away your shoes, THEN mom will help you.

Follow Through

Children thrive off consistency and knowing what to expect. A crucial part of changing behaviour is making sure that rewards and consequences have follow-through. (e.g., if children are fighting over an iPad, the iPad is removed). It is also important to follow through with rewards (e.g., if you behave well at Grandma’s, we can get ice cream on the way home).


Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page