How to Reduce Challenging Behaviours in Children Using Functional Assessment

Renee has a diverse background in Education in a variety of settings; including Early Childhood, Special Education and Tertiary Studies.


Does your child throw major tantrums? Run away when out? Refuse to share? Do they whinge, hit, kick, scream, bite, or spit? Do they display some kind of challenging behaviour that drives you up the wall?

If you answered yes, then Special Education teachers have a secret that will save your sanity!!!! They are faced with these kinds of challenges on a daily basis and utilise a behavoiur management strategy called Functional Assessment.

Functional Assessment is a systematic process for gathering information to understand why a child may be engaging in challenging behaviours. Knowledge of the challenging behaviour’s function is then instrumental in designing an effective behaviour intervention plan. Basically, when a child acts in a challenging way, their behaviour serves as a function. Once you have worked out what that function is, you can begin working out how to decrease the challenging behaviour. For Special Education teachers, this process is extremely thorough and time consuming. They utilise direct observations, interviews, and reviews of Individual Education Plans and medical records. For parents, however, it can be broken down into the following simple steps:

Simplified Step-by-Step Guide for Parents:

Think about a challenging behaviour that your child displays on an ongoing basis. It could be throwing a tantrum, screaming at high pitch, whinging, hitting others, not wanting to go to bed, always throwing food on floor, not getting dressed, swearing, biting…. and the list could go on and on!

Your child may display a number of challenging behaviours, but it is important just to work on one at a time. Make a list of the behaviours you would like to change and work on them in order of priority.

Step One : Examine what happens exactly before the challenging behaviour. Are there any environmental events or triggers that occur prior to the challenging behaviour? Some could include illness, fatigue, hunger, time of day, change in routine, family problems, presence of a certain person or transitions between activities.

Step Two: Examine what happens when the challenging behaviour occurs. What specifically does the child do; physically, emotionally, and/or verbally? What does everyone else do when the challenging behaviour occurs?

Step Three : Examine what happens after the challenging behaviour occurs. What exactly does the child get from acting this way? After excluding hunger, tiredness, illness etc., there are usually 3 things a child gets from a challenging behaviour:

  1. To get what they want (e.g. gaining attention from parent or sibling, being able to stay up later, get whatever toy/food/object that they desire, fulfil an unmet need)
  2. To avoid or escape something (Get out of doing chores/work, avoid going to a certain place/activity or escape social demands)
  3. Change the sensory input/output of a situation. (e.g. Screams to block out loud noises, taps on windows persistently to increase sensory output, has meltdowns when exposed to too much screen time). Sensory reasons are usually overlooked as a cause to challenging behaviour, but are often the case most of the time for children that are highly sensitive and those with Autistic Spectrum or Attention Deficit Disorder.

Step Four: Put it all Together. After observing and examining your child, what have you found out? Talk about with it others (your partner, grandparents etc.) and find out what they think too. Write it all down. It really helps just summarise everything and put it down on paper.

Step Five: Replace the Challenging Behaviour with a Positive Behaviour. Show them what you want them to do instead. Reinforce the positive behaviour with praise. Be OVER THE TOP at first. Give them an age appropriate reward for the new positive behaviour, but also introduce a consequence if they choose the challenging behaviour instead. Be consistent. It will only work if you are consistent.

Source : Pixabay

Source : Pixabay

When responding to a challenging behaviour in your child, it is also vital to keep in mind whether the behaviour is a developmentally appropriate response to the situation. For example, it is certainly appropriate for a 10-month old baby to drop food on the floor because they are at a stage where they are experimenting with tastes/textures and linking actions together to form a sequence. However, this behaviour is not developmentally appropriate for a 4-year old who should already know better.

If you are not sure if you child’s behaviour is developmentally appropriate or not, see the following links for more information:

Aussie Childcare Network : Stages of Behaviour

Hey Sigmund : Phew! It’s Normal. An Age by Age Guide For What to Expect From Kids & Teens – And What They Need From Us

Michigan Medicine : Developmental Milestones

Watch this 16 min video for more information on understanding challenging behaviours in young children:

Children are amazing, yet complex little human beings. Please keep in mind that when your child displays a challenging behaviour, they are just trying to communicate a message to you. Sometimes that message can be incredibly obvious, but other times it takes a lot of detective work to figure it out. If you take the time to really observe, examine and analyse your child's behaviours you will be amazed at what you find out.

"The sign of great parenting is not the child's behaviour. The sign of great parenting is the parent's behaviour." Andy Smithson


Center for Effective Collaboration and Practice. (2012). Functional Behavorial Assessment. Retrieved March 23, 2012, from Center for Effective Collaboration and Practice: http://cecp.air.org/fba/default.asp

Chandler, L., & Dahliquist, C. (2010). Functional assessment : Strategies to prevent and remediate challenging behaviors in school settings. New Jersey: Pearson.

Cipani, E. (2007). Functional Behavioral Assessment, Diagnosis, and Treatment. New York: Springer Publishing Company.

Demar, G. (2009). Behaviorism. Retrieved April 11, 2012, from The Forerunner: http://www.forerunner.com/forerunner/X0497_DeMar_-_Behaviorism.html

Heinman, M., Childs, K., & Sergay, J. (2006). Parenting with positive behavior support: A practical guide to resolving your child's difficult behavior. Baltimore: Paul H.Brooks.

Wright, P. (2009). Functional behavioral assessment, behavioral intervention plans and positive interventions and supports. Retrieved April 11, 2012, from Virginia Department of Education: http://www.doe.virginia.gov/support/student_conduct/functional_behavioral_assessment.pdf

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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