The truth about ‘challenging behaviour’

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Cw: bullying, mention of abuse, mental health, substance use and death.

Challenging behaviour refers to a range of intense and frequent behaviours that threaten the quality of life and / or the physical safety of the person and those around them, behaviours can include aggression, verbal abuse and bullying (Imray, 2017). Challenging behaviour is socially constructed by the expectations and rules of social contexts, as well as how the young person behaves within these environments. For a young person’s behaviour to be considered ‘challenging’, a judgement is made that their behaviour is distressing, dangerous or exasperating (Learning Disabilities Professional Senate [LDPS], 2016).

The extent to which behaviour is viewed as challenging is a matter of perception and is dependent upon the competence, experience and attitudes of a caregiver, professional or setting to manage disruptions (Emerson & Einfeld, 2011). The attitudes of the observer and the impact of the behaviour on others combine to form an understanding of challenging behaviour (LDPS, 2016). Furthermore, the characteristics of the young person may define the extent to which behaviour is considered challenging; there may be increased tolerance for a neurodivergent or Disabled young person (Losey, 2011). Whilst unique contextual factors are vital in defining challenging behaviour, there are commonalities between settings and practitioners in their tendency to perceive certain behaviours as challenging (Craig & Harel, 2004). These perceptions inform the responses of professionals which may affect the likelihood, frequency or intensity of future challenging behaviour.

Bullying, a social event in which the perpetrator has a sense of social status and power, is considered challenging behaviour as it comprises physical and verbal acts of aggression directed towards a specific peer (Carr et al., 2017). Bullying is particularly prevalent in the adolescent years as the relationships between social status and peer connections become more complex. As children leave middle childhood their relationships with their family are restructured and peer relationships gain more significance (Erikson, 1968). Adolescents begin to create their identities quasi-autonomously from their family within behaviour-influencing peer cultures. Consequently, young people may engage in bullying to manipulate their public image, gain respect and avoid becoming victims themselves (Farouk, 2017; Jacobson, 2010). Young people may join peer groups which exhibit intimidation and violence to improve self-esteem and social status. Individuals within the group may gain sense of self through the admiration and fear of bystanders and victims, as well as the notoriety of the group itself (Sijetsema et al., 2009). Therefore, bullying can be seen as a social tool used to create and sustain a sense of popularity and self-image through public domination (Juvonen & Graham, 2001).

Social status, however, does not wholly explain why over 30% of teenage students engage in bullying behaviour (Brohl, 2017). Other factors which may lead to power-seeking behaviours include feelings of inadequacy, poor mental health and the changes in social structures influenced by puberty. Increased hormones and emerging sexualities create new possibilities for intimate relationships and identity development (Keenan & Evans, 2007). Bullying behaviour in adolescence can also be influenced by early attachment and social learning differences in the early years. Bowlby (1958; 1969) suggests that children have an innate need to create strong attachments with their main caregiver, allowing them a secure base from which to explore the world. Children who form ‘weak attachments’ may have difficulties with making meaningful relationships and understanding the needs of others (Ainsworth & Bell, 1970; Bowlby, 1973).

More contemporary research suggests that early detachment from parents increases a young person’s susceptibility to peer group pressure (Chan & Chan, 2013; Chester et al., 2007). Young children who experience neglect, abuse and unpredictable daily lives are more likely to use power-seeking behaviours such as bullying and intimidation (Hayden, 2007). Repeated experiences of emotional cruelty or apathy can elevate levels of cortisol affecting a young person’s response to stress. They may assume that the behaviour of others are a threat to them and therefore create social situations in which they are perceived as ‘untouchable’ (Gerhardt, 2004; Healy, 2004; Lindon, 2012).

Consequently, trauma in the early years may explain bullying behaviours in adolescence. However, not all young people who engage in bullying live in neglectful and abusive families; some young people may acquire attitudes and behaviours through social learning (Bandura, 1977). Children may observe the bullying behaviour of others and then replicate these behaviours to feel a sense of power or belonging. Children who are exposed to aggressive behaviour may be more likely to repeat these; young people who are victims of bullying may adapt bullying behaviours themselves (Hayden, 2007). Young people can also be influenced by the indirect discreet messages they receive from the people around them (Bandura, 1962). If the social environment of a young person rewards bullying behaviours they may be more likely to try a ‘bully’ identity within their adolescent moratorium. Bullying behaviour is often related to other issues and can be influenced by experiences outside of the school setting and of course child bullies can grow into adults who humiliate and abuse others.

There are several factors which influence bullying behaviours of young people, including early life experiences, interpersonal relationships and social contexts (Shelton, 2019). Adverse experiences in early and middle childhood can create maladaptive coping mechanisms, such as externalised aggression, to regulate emotions (Steinberg & Morris, 2001; Cowie & Jennifer, 2008). Experiences such as the death of a sibling or the separation of parents may impact on the young person’s ability to cope and behave in ways which are considered appropriate. These experiences can vary in intensity, duration and consistency, and therefore ‘challenging behaviour’ can appear to come out of nowhere. Students may engage in bullying due to poor impulsivity, rejection from peers and adverse family factors (Bowes et al, 2009; Unnever & Cornell, 2003). Therefore, bullying can be considered an attempt to manage one’s social differences and communicate unmet needs – this may explain why bullying is so pervasive (O’Brien, 2016).

The response to such behaviours from professionals, peers, and family members, may leave patterns of aggressive behaviours unchallenged (Connell et al, 2016). Moreover, cultural norms which perceive young people as anti-social and support violent resolution to conflict, may frame bullying as an inevitable part of adolescence (Furlong, 2012). However, if bullying is extracted from childhood contexts it could be renamed as abuse, hate-crime, assault and many other moral and criminal offences (Arseneault et al., 2010; Farrington & Ttofi, 2011). Professionals who do challenge recurrent and violent bullying may use measures that ghettoise young people into isolation, exclusion or behavioural units. Those who are regularly involved in bullying in adolescence are at increased risk of school exclusion and criminality in early adulthood (Farouke, 2017; Kumpulainen & Rasanen, 2000). These punitive measures create expectant cultures which can exacerbate the young person’s bullying behaviour and may result in poor outcomes in both adolescence and later life.

Many aspects of young adulthood are dependent on the decisions that adolescents make at school as well as the experiences that they have there (Kroger, 2007). Those who experience, witness or perpetrate bullying can be adversely affected in school and in later life (NCSPCC, 2017). Victims may experience low self-esteem and anxiety, which may lead to victims adopting harmful behaviours towards themselves and others. In extreme cases victims may self-harm, self-medicate with substances and attempt suicide (Hay et al., 2010). These young people are more likely to experience psychological disorders and substance use and may commit serious offences such as arson, assault, and burglary (Timpson, 2019). Furthermore, those who are permanently excluded from school have reduced access to training, education and employment; those who are permanently excluded and are more likely to earn less in young adulthood than their peers who remain in education (Department for Education, 2011; Jarvinen & Vanttaja, 2001).

Challenging behaviour can be considered as socially constructed by the expectations of adults within different environments, informed by societal perceptions of adolescents (Imray, 2017). Bullying is considered a challenging behaviour; however, it can also be understood as a method for young people to gain self-esteem and social status (Carr et al., 2017). Attachment and social learning theories suggest that challenging behaviour is created through adverse early life experiences (Bandura, 1962; Bowlby 1969). Therefore, bullying could be considered as a method for young people to manage their social and emotional worlds, with perpetrators expressing unmet needs through power-seeking behaviours (O’Brien, 2016).

The response to these behaviours from caregivers and professionals influences future incidents of such behaviours. Consequently, adverse behaviours exhibited by young people inform discourses on challenging behaviour which is reinforced by the adults around them (Hayden, 2007).  The extent to which bullying behaviour is exhibited by young people will affect perpetrator and victim attainment and outcomes in both school and later life. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to frame challenging behaviour as those which culminate in adverse outcomes for victims and perpetrators throughout adolescence and adulthood.

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