Maryland Positive Behavior Support Training

Understanding Why Challenging Behaviors Occur (Function)

Flow chart titled Understaning why Problem Behaviors Occur. Functions: Problem Behavior. the function is either to obtain/get something or to escape/avoid something.Stimulation / Sensory, Social, and tangible / activity. Social options are either Adult and Peer.

Adapted from: Freeman, R., Matthews, K., Griggs, P. & Quick, S. (2013). Functional behavioral assessment [Online]. Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas. Available:

Positive behavior support is a strategy that encourages us to think about what people are trying to communicate. Understanding verbal and nonverbal messages is an important part of all three prevention tiers. This is referred to as function-based thinking.

Research in the disability field has shown us that challenging behavior often occurs for a reason and that the function that maintains a behavior is one way to communicate something important. The challenging behavior that we observe is communicating that:

  • We need or want to access someone or something, or
  • We are trying to avoid or escape from someone or something.

If we are trying to obtain something, it may be internal or sensory in nature. This can occur when a person feels the need to increase physiological arousal levels. If the function of the behavior is communicating a social function, the person may be trying to say that they want to spend time with a favorite person, item or event. In other cases, a person may seek to escape or avoid internal or external sensory issues. The function of a behavior can also be communicating a need to avoid or escape a person or social setting, events that occur, or items such as clothing. 

We often choose a communication strategy that is the most efficient and effective for us. Sometimes a behavior is verbal. We verbally ask someone whether we can join an activity, meet with friends for coffee, request an item that we cannot reach, or we may say that we want to leave a setting.

Nonverbal behavior is also used to communicate. If it is difficult for us to speak, we may point to an object or just reach out and take it.  People who have more challenges communicating with others verbally may develop unique ways of communicating using these nonverbal behaviors. Our job is to understand what a person is trying to say.

Examples of nonverbal communication that may be considered challenging by others:

  • A young child begins crying while reaches out towards a toy or item at the store that a parent can't afford to purchase.
  • An older man who has asked for help standing up and moving to his bedroom has been ignored and after while he starts banging his cane on the floor loudly until someone notices him and helps him to stand up so he can go to his room.
  • A young man who is working in an employment setting that he really dislikes has begun to push people out of his way when he is prompted to go back to work because he is often left alone for awhile when he reacts in frustration.
  • When a woman with a history of self-injury finds out her plans for going shopping with her friend has suddenly been cancelled, she begins to strike her head against the wall, her heart rate increases, and she shouts loudly at the person who gave her the news.