Challenging Behavior as Communication

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Challenging behavior must be assessed to identify why the behavior is occurring—that is, whether the behavior serves a particular function(s) for the individual and, if so, what function(s) and under what circumstances. It is necessary to teach the individual alternative and appropriate ways to achieve the same function while ignoring or preventing the challenging behavior.

To assess the function of a challenging behavior that is serious and/or long-standing, the team uses a formal process (including, for example, interviews, hypothesis setting, and observation to support or revise the hypotheses) to determine the purpose the challenging behavior achieves for the individual with severe disabilities. For less serious behaviors, the team takes a less formal approach (including, for example, team discussion, checklists, and possible interview). Functional behavior assessment (FBA) is accomplished with several steps:

  1. describing the behavior;
  2. interviewing those who know the individual to identify the events, times, and situations that give rise to the behavior(s) and the consequences that seem to maintain the behavior;
  3. developing a hypothesis or hypotheses to explain these situations and the reinforcers that maintain them;
  4. collecting data, through direct observation, to systematically test and support/refute the hypothesis/hypotheses.

Several approaches have been described and validated for functional assessment; various checklists also have proven helpful when direct observation is not called for or to supplement observation. If the challenging behavior is serious, a crisis management plan may need to be designed and put into place before a functional assessment can be conducted.

Goals are accomplished through team development and implementation of a positive behavior support (PBS) plan that extends across the daily routines and environments used by the individual. The completed FBA will guide the development of the PBS plan. A typical component of PBS plans is the instruction of communication, often through AAC methods.

Functional communication training (FCT) is often a part of plans to respond to challenging behaviors. FCT may target AAC communication responses and involves several instructional steps to teach the communication responses that will replace the challenging behavior and typically match its function.

Bottom Line: Many so-called challenging behaviors actually serve a communicative function. Individuals who have no conventional means to seek escape from undesired tasks/situations or gain desired social attention may produce challenging behaviors that accomplish those outcomes.


Neidert, P. L., Rooker, G. W., Bayles, M. W., & Miller, J. R. (2013). Functional analysis of problem behavior. In D. D. Reed, F. D. D. G. Reed, & J. K. Luiselli (Eds.), Handbook of crisis intervention and developmental disabilities: Issues in clinical child psychology (pp. 147–167). New York: Springer.