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Possible causes
A carer calms a distressed boy

Over the years the views of the causes of challenging behaviour and how to ameliorate it have changed from that of:

  • inappropriate learnt behaviour (caused by inappropriate reinforcement), to
  • recognising that the child might not have learnt appropriate behaviour (caused by a skill deficit), to
  • a view that challenging behaviour is a way of the child communicating (difficulties with appropriate communication).

All of these are possible causes of why a child is displaying challenging behaviour, but there is a fourth reason – the child might be emotionally distressed.

Emotional distress
A carer calms a distressed boy

The role of emotional distress is sometimes forgotten when thinking about challenging behaviour.

One explanation for emotional distress in a child is that children with complex needs may have had particular difficulties building attachment relationships in the first few years of life with their parents and caregivers as has been discussed in an earlier resource.

It could also be caused by being with people who are themselves experiencing considerable emotional stress. Adults need to be particularly resilient not to become emotionally drained, when their capacity and competence to sustain emotional relationships with some children is constantly challenged.

Providing support
A carer calms a distressed boy

It is the role of leaders and school managers to help those who work with children with challenging behaviour deal with the pressures of the job.

One way managers can provide support is by setting up peer supervision, either within the school or with colleagues in similar schools. Psychologists can also provide this form of support to teachers in school.

What strategies are used in your school to help staff deal with the pressures of the job?

Further reading

Steel, L. (2001), Staff support through supervision, Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties, vol. 6, 2.