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Communicating Through Challenging Behaviours

Communication is a basic necessity in everyday life. Children, specifically, use communication to convey their wants, to gain attention or assistance, and to comment on a situation or event. Children with behaviour problems often face communication problems at the same time. Challenging behaviours may occur in normally developing children, but usually are more severe in children with developmental disorders.

Why Do They Misbehave?

Children with development disorders such as Autism Spectrum Disorder, ADHD, or Down’s syndrome are at risk for behaviour problems because they have difficulties understanding their surroundings and what is being told to them. They also have poor verbal skills, therefore making it difficult for them to express their feelings or needs appropriately. These children also often suffer from emotional disturbances due to anxiety or hormone imbalance. Children with autism, in particular, may behave aggressively due to the change in their environment, such as lights or touch, or in their routines.

Among the challenging behaviours children display include:

  • Ignoring or refusing to follow instructions or requests
  • Acting impulsively or inappropriately, such as spitting or undressing in public
  • Behaving aggressively or throwing tantrums
  • Repeating self-stimulating actions, for example spinning or arm flapping
  • Hurting self or other people, such as knocking their own heads, biting, or pinching

What is the Link between Behaviour and Communication?

This issue should be taken seriously in view of the direct correlation communication and behaviour. Children with communication difficulties use negative behaviours to express their intention, which results in ineffective communication, which gives rise to worse behaviour problems. There are a few steps to take in order to take the children out of this vicious, problematic cycle. To ensure long-lasting, more effective results, both issues that are the communication skills and behaviour problems should be targeted simultaneously.

No Communication vs. Alternative Communication

The most basic help that we can provide to people with communication difficulties is providing a communication mode that is much easier for them to use. Every child requires a high enough level of understanding before they can use verbal expression for effective communication. For children with developmental and behaviour disorders, the best solution to enable them to communicate effectively is by introducing them to an Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC). Among them include the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS), gestural communication (MAKATON), or the use of technologies such as tablet computers.

For children with limited verbal output, the use of these communication modes help in reducing frustration and anger due to needs not being met or opinions not being heard. The use of symbols or pictures makes it easier for them to understand situations without the struggle of understanding multiple verbal instructions. When communication is more effective, these children no longer need to use negative behaviour to express themselves, thereby eliminating frustration on both sides.

Dealing with Challenging Behaviours

Concurrently, challenging behaviours in children can be overcome by practicing behaviour management techniques consistently and continuously. In adjusting your child’s behaviour, the ABC theory might reveal the cause of the behaviour and also what you can do to change it.

  • Antecedents (Triggers): what triggers or causes the behaviour (situation, actions, etc.)
  • Behaviour: the way your child reacts to the trigger
  • Consequences: what they gain from their behaviour; whether getting the toy they wanted, or getting out of doing things they dislike

If you are certain of the elements above, you can manage their behaviour by changing the antecedent or the consequences of their actions.

Steps you might take are as below:

  1. Pick a negative behaviour – choose a behaviour to focus on, for example crying when asked to put away his toys
  2. Identify the cause and outcome of the behaviour – record the situation at the time the behaviour occurs over the course of a few days. Sometimes there will be more than one cause for your child’s negative behaviour. Try to use a diary to record the events.

    For example:

    Behaviour: Crying and throwing tantrum

    Date & Time


    What happen before the behaviour

    What happen after the behaviour

    31/8/15, 10.30 am

    Living room

    Asked to put away toys before going out for shopping Give instructions a few times, tried to force to keep toys, go shopping without putting toys away

    In the example above, the child receives the outcome he wants, which is to go shopping without having to put away his toys. This will result in him repeating the same actions whenever he wants to get out of doing things he is asked to do.

  3. Make changes – when you have enough information, you can use them to change your child’s behaviour. Among the things you can do are:
    • Use picture or event scheduling – by using simple pictures, such as pictures of playing with toys ? putting toys away into a box ? go for shopping, you can easily explain to your child what to do in sequence without using a lot of verbal instructions
    • Using simple and short phrases – when giving instructions, make sure the words used are familiar and easy, for example, “Take your car. Put it in the box.” You can also use a different tone of voice to create focus on something: “Put the box UNDER the bed.”
    • Provide physical prompt when necessary – when instructions are not adequate, hold your child’s hand and help them finish an action, and be sure to only give them what they want or promised to get only after they finish the instruction
    • Calmly ignore your child’s protests, but give them praises and undivided attention and encouragement whenever they do something right or what they are told to

Here are a few general tips on reducing negative behaviours and encouraging good behaviours in your children.

  • Children do what you do – your actions are more important than what you say to them. Do all the positive actions you hope to get from them and they will follow your example.
  • Express your feelings – tell your child what you feel when his behaviour is inappropriate. For instance, “I feel sad and hurt when you hit me.”
  • Praise good behaviours – always take the chance to praise your child every time they do something positive. The attention you give them will ensure they want to it again and again. Remember that when given a choice between no attention and negative attention, children will choose to get negative attention.
  • Get to your child’s level – talking to your child at their level by kneeling or sitting together on the floor will enable your child to focus more on you and what you say.
  • Repeat the relayed message – when you repeat what your child try to tell you (for example, “Oh, you’re angry because she doesn’t want to play with you”), it reduces their stress and makes them feel appreciated and understood.

  • Keep your promises – make sure you fulfil all that you promised. Whether positive or negative, your child needs to know that his/her behaviour will be followed by a consistent and certain outcome.
  • Responsibility and consequences – sometimes there is no need for you to punish your child’s behaviour. They need to learn to take responsibility and accept the consequences of their actions. For instance, if they step out of the house without putting on shoes after being told to, they might hurt themselves stepping on rocks.
  • Pick your battles – before scolding your child for doing something, consider whether it is necessary. By reducing instructions, prohibitions, and negative feedback, stress and anger between you and your child will also decrease. Rules are important, but use them at important times only.
  • Stay simple and positive – positive instructions will yield positive reactions. For example, saying “Please put your shoes on the rack” is better than “Don’t leave your shoes in front of the door.”

To conclude, communication and challenging behaviours in children are directly related and constantly affect each other. Deficits in both components should be managed simultaneously to ensure faster and longer lasting improvements. Help in terms of communication can be given by introducing an Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC). Behaviour problems can be tackled by ensuring effective communication as well as reducing frustrations by using behaviour management techniques consistently. Discuss with a Speech-Language Therapist to choose the best communication methods and behaviour management techniques for your child.


  1. Challenging Behaviors; retrieved 30/8/15 from http://iancommunity.org
  2. Managing Challenging Behaviour in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder; retrieved 31/8/15 from http://raisingchildren.net.au
  3. Using Communication to Reduce Challenging Behaviors in Autism Spectrum Disorders; retrieved 31/8/15 from www.vermontfamilynetwork.org
Last Reviewed : 28 August 2020
Writer / Translator : Siti Suhana bt. Mohd Khalid
Accreditor : Fairus bt. Mukhtar
Reviewer : Nadwah bt. Onwi