accessibility icon

Paving the Way

Early intervention for children with learning disabilities whose behaviours challenge

What is a learning disability? What is challenging behaviour?

joshua wills

A child or young person with a learning disability will find it harder than other children to understand, learn and remember new things. He/she may need more support with everyday activities such as communicating, keeping safe and managing everyday tasks. The term learning disability refers to a range including mild, moderate, severe and profound/multiple learning disabilities.

Someone who has a severe learning disability will:

  • have little or no speech
  • find it very difficult to learn new skills
  • need support with daily activities such as dressing, washing, eating and keeping safe
  • have difficulties with social skills
  • need life-long support

Someone with a mild learning disability may only need extra help in particular areas, for example at school and with social activities. He/she may be able to manage with less support than someone with a severe learning disability as an adult.

Some children with a learning disability also have autism. Other terms sometimes used where children may have a learning disability are “special educational needs”, “developmental delay”, or “complex needs” (where a child also has physical or health needs.)

What a learning disability is not.

Although the terms sound similar, a learning disability is not the same as a learning difficulty such as dyslexia. Learning difficulties do not affect intellect and will generally have less impact on a child’s ability to manage everyday life.

A learning disability is not the same as a mental health problem. Mental health problems can affect anyone at any time and may be overcome with treatment, which is not true of learning disability. However, people with learning disabilities are just as likely as other people to experience mental health problems.

What is challenging behaviour?

Most parents, early years staff and teachers experience behaviours from children which challenge them at times. A child’s behaviour may challenge someone’s patience, their assumptions or their ability to care for the child. Toddlers or teenagers often behave in a way which challenges those caring for them (for example, screaming, crying, refusing to do as they are asked) when they are unable to explain their needs or emotions. This is usually a phase which children grow out of as they develop new skills.

It is harder for children with learning disabilities to develop the communication and social skills which other children use to get them what they want and need. This may mean that their behaviours are much more challenging and they are unlikely to “grow out” of those behaviours on their own without skilled support to get their needs met in a different way.

Behaviours might be things like:

  • Hurting others (e.g. hair pulling, hitting, head-butting)
  • Self-injury (e.g. head banging, eye poking, hand biting)
  • Destructive behaviours (e.g. throwing things, breaking furniture, tearing things up)
  • Eating inedible objects (e.g. cigarette butts, pen lids, bedding)
  • Other behaviours (e.g. spitting, smearing, repetitive rocking stripping off , running away)

Other terms sometimes used are “behaviour difficulties”, “behaviour problems” or “behavioural, emotional or social difficulties” We prefer the term “challenging behaviour” when talking about children with learning disabilities, as it is the behaviour which is challenging; not the child.

Understanding the cause of behaviours is key. Common causes of challenging behaviour include:

  • Pain or health reasons: A reaction to something that hurts e.g. banging head on wall due to earache
  • Social attention: Everyone needs attention and challenging behaviour may be a good way of getting other people’s attention, even if it is negative, e.g., shouting
  • To get something: A child may learn behaviours that get them things they want, e.g., food, objects etc
  • Escape: It may help to avoid things a child doesn’t like e.g. dentist
  • Sensory: Sometimes people enjoy the feeling that certain behaviours give them, i.e. rocking, humming, etc

Challenging behaviour myths

Challenging behaviour is not :

  • Evidence that a child is bad or naughty.
    Children are simply trying to communicate something in the only way they have found to do so.
  • A diagnosis.
    Challenging behaviour is not a condition or something that can be diagnosed, (although it may be more likely to develop in children with certain genetic conditions). It is part of the way the way a child interacts with the world and with the right support it can be reduced.
  • Your fault.
    There will be different ways you can learn to support your child which will help, but you need the right information and support to help you do that.
  • Something to be ashamed of.
    Your child and your family have the right to be out and about as much as anyone else and disability law says that services need to make reasonable adjustments to help you access them.
  • Something that only you are experiencing.
    There are other families in similar situations and opportunities to share experiences and advice.

If you’d like more information about challenging behaviour – please visit the CBF website.