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Navigating challenging behaviors through positive behavior intervention strategies

By Darcy Cole

Girl learning in outdoor setting with adult
All youth workers will encounter challenging behavior at some time. This may occur more often when working with youth with disabilities. When challenging behaviors happen, it’s important to think about the purpose of the behavior as we navigate which strategies will be most effective in redirecting the behavior to what we’d prefer to see. Youth workers may assume that when others act differently than they would in a situation that it’s because of "bad" behavior. However, this isn’t necessarily accurate. Behaviors, both positive and negative, are used as a means of communication. If we can remember this when encountering challenging behaviors, we will be better equipped to handle them and be able to create an environment in which negative behaviors don’t need to be a way to communicate.

It’s important to understand that all behavior happens for a reason, even if we’re not entirely sure what that reason is. For some individuals with disabilities, behavior may be the only way they know how to or are able to communicate a need or frustration. Some important concepts to keep in mind related to behavior are that:
  • All behavior is a form of communication;
  • There is always a reason for “problem” behavior;
  • There can be many reasons behind one specific behavior;
  • We can learn to understand and interpret a person’s challenging behavior; and
  • Challenging behavior can be reduced with support, not punishment. 

Individuals exhibiting challenging behavior benefit from the use of evidence-based Positive Behavioral Intervention Strategies (PBIS) to help reduce behaviors and support new skill development. These interventions are positive and proactive, rather than reactive and consequence-based. Some PBIS include:
  • Setting clear routines and expectations that are posted and reviewed to help reduce anxiety or fear. 
  • Using pre-arranged, discrete signals such as a hand motion, a shake of the head or a colored card placed on a table to let someone know that they need to modify their behavior. 
  • Moving closer to the youth in a gentle way. 
  • Using the planned ignoring method for non-serious behaviors.
  • Disciplining privately. 
  • Using the Stop, Think, Act Strategy to teach how to think about a problem and find a solution. 
  • Finding opportunities for youth to help others. 
  • Using positive phrasing to let youth know that there are positive results for using appropriate behaviors. 
  • Recognizing and stating the behavior you want to see. 
  • Using behavior shaping to acknowledge and reinforce small gains.
  • Offering tangible, token, and activity reinforcers to encourage and support appropriate behavior. 
  • Doing an Antecedent Behavior Consequence (ABC) Behavior Analysis to examine the triggers (antecedent) behind a behavior and the impact the behavior can have on the individual or to their surroundings (consequence). 

What are the biggest behavioral challenges you’ve experienced in your work? How did you handle them? What have you tried that’s worked or hasn’t worked? Does thinking about behavior as communication change the way you might think about or approach challenging behaviors? Which of the strategies shared do you think are most helpful? What strategies are missing?

-- Darcy Cole, Extension educator

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  1. Great article Darcy! I was so serious when I said that you could take this "show on the road." There are so many educators/coaches/mentors who could benefit from this work and the strategies that can be implemented immediately. We are so fortunate to have your leadership, knowledge, and your lived experience in our organization. Thanks for showing up as your best self in this way and in so many other ways. I appreciate you.

    1. Thanks, Amy for the kind words! I appreciate them and am glad that you enjoyed this blog, as well as participating in the in-person experiences we done that help staff think through the real reason behind behavior and strategies to use.

  2. Darcy, as always you have me thinking in such positive ways. The statement, "All behavior is a form of communication" is so fundamentally important (and one I need to remember with my young child as much as in my work with youth and adults through 4-H). This is such a humanizing approach to behavior "issues" because we approach things so differently when we ask ourselves, "What are they trying to communicate here? What need are they trying to get met?" This is also one of those places where open channels of communication with a young person's family or caregiver can be so helpful in interpreting behavior that may be difficult to understand in the limited context of a club or camp program. You have given such concrete strategies for ways to be proactive in our planning. Thank you!

    1. Thanks, Kathryn! I'm glad that you found the strategies useful! Yes, our approach to challenging behaviors definitely feels different when we think about it from a communication stance vs. being reactive to what's happening in the environment. I think all of us need to remember this in both our personal and professional lives because it's not just a theory that applies to youth, but rather to everyone.

  3. Thank you so much for sharing this article, Darcy. I find myself referring to 'Navigating challenging behaviors through positive behavior intervention strategies' in my work with 4-H volunteers as well as youth workers leading summer camp programming. The concrete strategies you outline give us a place to start - before, during, and after challenges arise. Thanks again.

    1. Yes, Marisa! This is a great strategy and approach to use in a wide variety of situations, not just when working with young people. As you know, volunteer challenging behavior also many times revolves around someone communicating behavior in ways other than what we'd expect or desire. If we think about it in this way, it can help us better analyze the real reasons behind the behavior.


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