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Pure Friendship for Individuals with Special Needs
Emma Sterland

Special Needs Parenting: 12 Tips For Managing Challenging Behavior

Managing behavior that is challenging can be very stressful for parents of children and adults with special needs. But it’s important to see it as a form of communication. Challenging behavior indicates there is a problem in learning and not in the person.

Getting what we want

We all learn to behave in certain ways in order to get what we want or to avoid things we don’t. In order to achieve the same goals, people with special needs may exhibit behavior that we find ‘challenging’ or ‘difficult.’ Challenging behavior works because we listen when people cause trouble. If you start banging your head on the table or making a loud noise, people will offer you something different to try, or give you some affection.

Managing behavior

The key to managing behavior is to listen to what the person is trying to tell you.  Be consistent in your approach, and try to avoid confrontation. Be aware of your body language, especially when you are under stress. Although challenging behavior is a learned behavior  remember that people with special needs don't do it on purpose to ‘manipulate’ you. Behavior always happens for a good reason.

Tips From Parents on Managing Behavior

The following tips for encouraging communication have been contributed to Scope by parents of children and adults with special needs. We hope you will find them useful, and please feel free to add your own! While there is no one-size-fits-all solution, they may give you some ideas to try … but remember to be consistent before you say, ‘this doesn't work for me!’

1. Keep A Journal

Keeping a journal and recording incidents can help you to look back and see if there are any patterns or contributing factors. It can also be a good thing to look through with the person you are caring for, talking about both the positives and negatives.

 2. Use A Break Card

A ‘break card’ can be useful for averting meltdowns.  It gives a person the means to communicate their wish to leave an unpleasant situation. They simply need to hand the card over.  Useful in school or out and about.

3. Exercise As An Outlet

My son's behavior became very difficult when he started puberty. We found a punch bag helped. He used to yell at it too when beating it up! Also lots of scheduled exercise to get rid of some of the overload of stress/anger. We built it into his home from school routine as a daily thing.

4. Be Calm But Assertive

I find calm but assertive instructions and body language are the most important assets when dealing with any challenging behavior.  Any more emotion into an already emotional situation can only cloud judgments and cause greater confusion.

 5. Lower The Volume

When faced with someone who is aggressive and shouting, keep your face neutral and lower the volume and pitch of your own voice. Nine times out of ten, they will quieten down to hear what you are saying.

6. A Good Night's Sleep

Sleep can make a big difference to a person’s behavior  The right amount of sleep is very important. Ideally we need a minimum of 7/8 hours quality sleep each day.

7. Encourage Friendships

Loneliness is one of the main causes for challenging behavior among people with special needs. Try to encourage opportunities for socializing and making friends.

8. Independence Helps

It’s so easy to do everything for Toby including making decisions for him.  Since I started giving him the chance to do more himself and to make decisions his behavior has improved.

9. Monitor Medications

Don’t forget medications can have side effects. In our case one of them was making Neil feel groggy and hungry, and not being able to communicate this caused him to self harm.

10. Remove All Distractions

When Jake throws something or throws himself on the floor - then everything is turned off TV/ ipod - take all distractions away - and we say "OK Jake nothing is happening , no one is talking about anything until you stand up, pick up xxx, and then we can carry on" that always works like magic!

11. Early Intervention

We have learned to recognize the warning signs, and we intervene early when we see them.  We have a range of distraction techniques we use.

12. Take Care Of Yourself

Wendy is very sensitive and picks up on my moods. If I am stressed or feeling down her, behavior gets worse. I really recommend you do what you can to take care of yourself as well. If you put just a little bit of energy and time in to yourself it will help both of you. Note: To read more about managing the behavior of children with special needs read 10 Alternatives to Restraining a Child with Special Needs About the author: Gina Skourti is a Behavioral Support Practitioner at, a practical tip-swapping site and online community for parents, carers and special needs professionals. Gina is one of a team of specialist experts at Netbuddy who provide free, one-to-one advice to parents of children and adults with special needs.

WRITTEN ON October 29, 2015 BY:

Emma Sterland

Emma Sterland helps run the online community at Scope, a national UK-based disability charity, offering support for disabled people and their families. All the tips used in this post were contributed by members of the online community, and can be seen in the tips section of the community .