1-800-649-8481 Toll Free
Managing Challenging Behaviors

Written by: Danielle Kessinger, M.Ed, BCBA, LBA

Challenging behavior can be described as an individual’s solution to a problem and a form of communication. In order for a behavior to be categorized as challenging, it must interfere with either the individual’s learning or learning of the individual’s peers. ​Severe challenging behavior can result in self injury or injury to others​, damage to the physical environment​, and can socially isolate an individual.

There are many strategies to help manage challenging behaviors. The strategies we will discuss in this blog post are: 1) Environmental Arrangement 2) Set clear expectations 3) Honoring requests 4) Give choices 5) Visuals


Environmental Arrangement

Environmental arrangement can teach individuals expected behavior by arranging the physical space in ways that support growth and development.

Particular areas designated for specific activities may help an individual learn what behaviors are acceptable in an area. For example, break area for relaxing vs. desk for academic work. In addition, physical boundaries, such as partitions, can be added to separate a break environment from a work environment.

Labels/pictures are also helpful, as using them minimizes the need for repeated verbal prompting from the instructor. Minimizing verbal instruction promotes independence in completing skills. If verbal instruction is continually delivered to prompt behavior, they may become dependent on staff, parents, or guardians to deliver those prompts.


Set clear expectations

Setting clear expectations can help manage and prevent challenging behavior for an individual.

Using simple, literal language will be useful when explaining an expectation. For example, you will determine if someone needs to have a visual paired with the verbal expectation. Some individuals will need added support when it comes to giving details about their expectations.

Setting clear expectations can be helpful when someone is resistant to change. Social stories are a great approach to help set clear expectations. When changes are happening, it can cause a lot of unknowns for the subject. Presenting frequent social stories can help with the big and small aspects of those changes. It allows an individual to know what is coming up on their agenda, which can decrease challenging behaviors over time.

Honoring requests

Honoring an individual’s appropriate requests is a strategy implemented to decrease challenging behaviors by improving and developing an individual’s communication. For example, an individual may point to a food item in the kitchen instead of hitting your leg with their closed fist. You will want to honor that request to increase their appropriate communication in the future.

When honoring appropriate requests you want to keep in mind whether or not the requests interfere with an individual’s work and if the request is reasonable. This will all need to be determined on an individual basis. For example, did the individual appropriately request for a break 1 minute into desk work or 10 minutes into desk work?

In addition, it is important to keep in mind that there are many different forms of communication.

Communication can be vocalizations, sign language, pictures or object exchange, usage of a communication device, gestures, facial expressions, eye gaze, etc.


Providing Choices

Providing choices in an individual’s day is an effective strategy to manage challenging behavior.

It allows someone to become involved in his or her activity schedule, gives them control of their environment, and can increase participation while teaching new skills.

When providing choices, it is important to pay attention to the individual’s skills and learning level. This will influence how many choices you present to the learner. For example, an individual may only do well with a choice of two preferred items. Anything more than that could be overwhelming. In addition, there are many different approaches to making a choice. For example, someone may point to a preferred item, use pictures, verbalize their choice, or use eye gazing to make a choice.


Implementing visuals in an individual’s day can be an effective way to manage challenging behaviors while increasing independence.

Visuals are an efficient way to teach rules and routines, support verbal prompts, and show individuals what to do in certain social situations. For example, an individual who is unable to read and who struggles with receptive language can use a visual of picture icons to learn how to wait in line with the rest of his or her class.

You can use a wide variety of visuals such as, drawings, picture icons, and Google images to foster independence. It is also important to locate the visuals you are using strategically.

If an individual is struggling with their bathroom routine, putting the visual in the bathroom as support is the right location.

We hope these strategies are useful and will help you manage challenging behaviors in the future!

Click here for a one page summary (PDF) of this blog.

Stay connected to CA

CA works with autistic people and their families to help them thrive. Every day, we’re building a future where the most vulnerable Virginians can actively participate in our community and realize their full potential.

© 2023 Commonwealth Autism. All Rights Reserved.