Moving Beyond ‘Challenging Behaviour’: Why Language Matters for Behaviour Support

Published On: 3 May 2024

Every day, across the education and health and social care sectors, we support individuals with a widely diverse range of needs. And every day, we commit to providing the best care possible, ensuring that each and every person is equipped with the tools they need to thrive, and fulfil their potential.

Our roles are not always easy. We encounter difficult situations; some individuals need more support than others, and some may engage in behaviours that we could describe as ‘challenging behaviour’, or ‘disruptive behaviour’.

These phrases are not uncommon in our workplaces, are they? Words that describe how behaviour impacts on us, rather than the individuals we’re supporting.

However, it’s important to understand that the language we use has an enormous impact on our perceptions of behaviour. It has the power to influence – both positively and negatively – how we interact with, and support, those in our care.

The Team Teach philosophy

Here at Team Teach, our mission is clear: to help everyone understand and support behaviour in a positive and respectful manner. We aim to foster a culture of support within organisations, empowering professionals to recognise and respond to the individual needs of the children, young people, and adults they care for.

Central to this philosophy is the understanding that all behaviour is communication. In other words, no behaviour is intrinsically ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘positive’ or ‘negative’; rather, it is just an attempt to express an unmet need. By that rationale, terms such as ‘challenging behaviour’, ‘disruptive behaviour’ or ‘behaviours that challenge’ can be unhelpful, insofar as they attribute meaning that is not there and could inadvertently skew our approach to support.

This core principle of Team Teach’s values – that behaviour is a form of communication – should prompt us all to reflect on how we think and talk about behaviour in our organisations, and potentially reconsider the language we use to describe it.

‘Challenging behaviour’ focuses on the behaviour, not the person

Across all our different settings, we might use phrases like ‘challenging behaviour’, ‘disruptive behaviour’ or ‘behaviours that challenge’ to separate the behaviour from the individual, and to describe what we see. This language shows up in everyday conversations between professionals, is visible on policy documents and support plans, and, in most cases, is a well-intended attempt to avoid labelling individuals themselves as ‘challenging’ or ‘difficult’.

But this type of terminology can be problematic when thinking about the most effective approach to behaviour support. For example, when we say things like, “Kayla displays challenging behaviour”, we are training our attention on the behaviour, rather than the needs of individual we are supporting. Phrases like ‘challenging behaviour’ immediately draw our focus towards what someone is doing, distracting us from exploring the underlying reasons. As a result, we can end up managing the behaviour, rather than identifying the need, and supporting the individual with that need.

Language can create detrimental labels and affect our response

When we talk about someone’s behaviour as being ‘challenging’ or ‘disruptive’, it can also provoke feelings of trepidation about approaching them. It can prompt thoughts such as, ‘This person is dangerous’, making us wary of stepping in and offering the most appropriate support. After all, the very word ‘challenging’ conjures up images of confrontation, so we can sometimes unwittingly prime ourselves for potential conflict.

In some instances, practitioners may even refer to the child, young person, or adult themselves as ‘challenging’ or ‘disruptive’ (“Scott is a really challenging child.”). This is particularly contentious, as it fails to separate the individual from their behaviour, and they can quickly become the label assigned to them, or worse, it can become their whole identity.

Once someone is perceived as ‘challenging’, it can be virtually impossible for them to ‘shake off’ this label and change perceptions others have about them. By default, ‘challenging’ or ‘disruptive’ simply becomes who they are in the eyes of those around them – something which can only be detrimental to their support provision and expected outcomes.

Whom is behaviour challenging for?

Even in settings where individuals are not defined by their behaviour, but where phrases like ‘challenging behaviour’ are commonplace, we need to ask ourselves one important question: whom is the behaviour challenging for?

While the individual is, of course, at the centre of their own behaviour, it’s often us as practitioners who feel challenged by it. The same is true of ‘disruptive behaviour’, or ‘behaviours that challenge’: these terms place the emphasis on everyone else, not the person directly involved.

Of course, we must also consider the impact on colleagues and other individuals, particularly if there is a risk of immediate harm, but the focus should always be on why we are seeing the behaviour in the first place.

Changing perspectives on behaviour support

Over recent years, perspectives on behaviour support have shifted, and this is something that needs to be reflected in the language we use in our organisations. In the past, phrases such as ‘challenging behaviour’, ‘disruptive behaviour’, and ‘behaviours that challenge’ might have been considered the most accurate way for professionals to talk about behaviour across education and health and social care, and in some places, this remains the case, but the landscape is now changing.

We now have a far more in-depth understanding of behaviour, including its functions, its manifestations, and its impact on individuals. We know that all behaviour is the communication of an unmet need, which enables us to bring more compassion and understanding to situations, rather than judgement or blame.

We are also far more aware of the differing characteristics and types of neurodivergence, such as ADHD and autism, and how we may need to adapt our approach to behaviour support, in order to create more positive, inclusive, and supportive environments.

The power of language to change perceptions

But why does the language we use matter so much? Because language is a fundamental prerequisite for change, and if we want to improve our approach to behaviour support for the better, we also need to modify how we talk about it.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the words we use have the power to shape us as individuals, and to create the cultures in which we live and work. They reflect our ethos and values, weaving a narrative for all to see and hear. Our words tell people: this is who we are, and this is what we believe in.

Through carefully curating our language, we can foster feelings of respect, dignity, compassion, and trust that underpin every interaction we have in our settings and, indeed, beyond. Compare these two scenarios, for example. Both are reports about an incident:

Scenario 1:

‘Lucas was very challenging today. He became disruptive and threw books all over the room. He refused to sit down, and repeatedly swore at staff. After this, he continued to be aggressive, and staff were unable to persuade him to come back inside when he went out.’

Scenario 2:

‘Lucas was very anxious on arrival today. His mum is seriously ill, and Lucas is extremely worried about her. As a result, he found it tricky to focus during our session, and became distressed because of a change to a planned activity. He went outside but found it hard to regulate himself, so was offered the option of going to the nurture room to calm down, which he accepted.’

Both are descriptions of the same situation; however, the first focuses solely on the behaviours, and implies that this was intentionally challenging and disruptive; that the individual – and their behaviour – was somehow ‘problematic’. The second, through the use of intentional language, and a focus on why behaviours were being seen, reflects a more compassionate, understanding approach to behaviour support that recognises the underlying causes, and describes the support measures offered and accepted.

This simple shift – substituting just a handful of words and adding some relevant contextual information – immediately moves the focus from the external behaviour, to what was driving it, and invites us to view the situation through the lens of compassion, care, and understanding.

The Team Teach approach to language evolution

Here at Team Teach, we are committed to being responsive to the ever-changing landscape of behaviour support and are always looking for ways to improve what we do. We acknowledge that language is continually evolving, and endeavour to reflect this in all of our training and support materials.

As such, we keep our resources under constant review, and, where necessary, adapt not only the content, but also the words and phrases we use to talk about behaviour. Through a stringent, ongoing evaluation process, we aim to develop content that is in alignment with our core values, making sure that the language we promote is explicitly reflected in our course designs, trainer manuals, workbooks, member-only Connect Knowledge Hub materials, and all other Team Teach resources.

This takes time. It’s a continuous journey, and we will keep having these conversations. We won’t get it right overnight. There are places where we’ve used these phrases and we’re making every effort to change. And of course, the question for us all is: what do we change our language to? We all attribute different meanings to different words, and what might feel is a viable option to one person, may not be acceptable to another. Even the word ‘behaviour’ itself can have specific connotations, not all of which are positive.

The key to progress is ongoing, collaborative reflection, where we acknowledge the perspectives of as many stakeholders as possible. As Aristotle, the world-renowned Greek philosopher, said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act, but a habit”, and at Team Teach, we are in the habit of striving for excellence in everything that we do, and everything that we create, to support our colleagues across education and health and social care.

What can organisations do to move on from ‘challenging behaviour’?

Organisations that employ language like ‘challenging behaviour’, ‘disruptive behaviour’ or ‘behaviours that challenge’ may decide that they wish to review and refresh their terminology, to reflect a new and deeper understanding of behaviour support.

The good news is that this does not have to involve a seismic root-and-branch overhaul: it could simply be a case of carrying out a systematic review of existing policies and practices, to check that the language used in any documentation reflects the organisation’s commitment to compassionate care and behaviour support.

This type of review process feeds nicely into professional conversations between staff, collaborating on how best to embed effective language, and ensuring that the reasons for any changes are well-understood. Buy-in is key, so it’s vital for leaders to share their thinking around the importance of language. We can hold others to account for adopting and using agreed terminology in daily interactions and recording and reporting systems.

Of course, none of this can be effective in isolation, and organisations can increase the impact of any changes by working together with and garnering the views of parents, carers, and other key stakeholders across the wider community. A joined-up, coherent approach that encompasses everyone involved in an organisation increases the likelihood of effecting long-lasting, sustainable change.

Language can be transformational

As caring, compassionate professionals, we all want what is best for the individuals in our care. We know that, with understanding, and the right support, every child, young person, and adult has the potential to flourish, and lead a full, rich, and happy life.

With so much at stake, we need to acknowledge that language has the extraordinary power to create our individual and collective reality; that the words we choose can, quite simply, transform our world, and the world of everyone around us.

By describing behaviour as ‘distressed’ or ‘anxious’, rather than ‘challenging’ or ‘disruptive’, and puzzle-solving to identify the underlying causes, we can break away from labels, pre-judgements, and assumptions. Only then, can we demonstrate our commitment to understanding all behaviour as communication, and our desire to meet the unique needs of everyone in our care.

If you’d like to talk to us about your needs when it comes to supporting behaviour in your setting, please get in touch any time.