Responding to Challenging Behavior

Big Picture

While previous sections identified preventative approaches, like environmental factors, and teaching strategies to reduce the likelihood of the occurrence of challenging behavior, the team will need to develop strategies to respond when challenging behavior occurs again.

What adults do when the challenging behavior occurs is critical to ensure that the challenging behavior is not maintained, and the new skill is learned. The response to challenging behavior should describe the series of behaviors the adults should employ to return the student to more appropriate behavior, prevent inadvertently reinforcing challenging behavior, and prevent further behavior escalation.


Implementers need to know how to address challenging behavior if it occurs again. Having a plan to respond to challenging behavior when it inevitably does occur will serve several purposes:

  1. Directs staff to respond in a consistent manner to challenging behavior.
  2. Informs staff what to do when the behavior occurs to ensure that challenging is not maintained, and the new skill is learned.
  3. Delineates interventions used in the moment to end the challenging behavior and keep the student, peers, and staff safe.
  4. Provides a progressive response of how to maintain a positive approach to supporting positive behavior, which does not reinforce the challenging behavior.

Key Concepts

  • Emphasis should be placed on identifying responses which will limit reinforcement of the problem behavior.
  • Restraint and seclusion should never be a part of a BIP. A separate safety/ crisis intervention plan can be developed for this purpose.
  • Cathartic Strategies (i.e., encouraging aggression via other means) have been extensively researched and are shown to foster or promote further aggression and therefore contaminate the plan.
  • Understanding the students' Behavior Escalation Cycle will assist BIP developers match appropriate strategies from a continuum of behavioral interventions to the different phases of the escalation cycle.
  • Strategies should be described in detail for the following phases:
    • Precursor Behaviors: When/how can staff intervene early.
    • Problem Behavior: How will staff respond in ways that don't reinforce the behavior, prompt desired behavior, and ensure safety of student and others.
    • De-Escalation: What does student behavior look like and how does staff respond? Any consequences (as appropriate) warranted, and if so, are described.


Selection of response strategies and interventions should be individualized and based on the student's profile. What works for one student may not work for another. The team should consider:

  1. Understanding the known history of the student's challenging behavior
  2. Clear and accurate identification of function for challenging behavior
  3. Student's level of development

For example, debriefing may work with one student but causes another to re-escalate and perseverate on what they did wrong. When response strategies are individualized, appropriate strategies can be matched to each individual student.

Examples and Non-Examples



Non-Example of Response Strategy:

Staff will redirect Kai to skip activities instead of displaying aggression.

Non-Example: Lacking details about how staff will redirect student, what student/staff behavior look like, and how response strategy ensures the safety of student, staff, and other students.

Non-Example of a Response Strategy:

Kai will be provided a therapy ball to punch instead of his peers and adults.

Non-Example: Response details a cathartic strategy (i.e., encouraging aggression via other means). Cathartic strategies for aggression have been extensively researched and are shown to foster or promote further aggression and therefore contaminate the plan.

Example of Response Strategy:

Early Escalation (precursor behavior)

Student Behavior: Making facial grimaces, pushing papers away, turning head/body away, putting head down.

Staff Response: Teacher and classroom staff will prompt use of "skip card" (point to skip card or tell Kai "remember what you can do if this is too hard for you"). Should Kai use skip card, reinforce Kai's use of skip card and follow FERB reinforcement protocol.

During Problem Behavior:

Student Behavior: Yelling loudly, biting arm, grabbing at adult's arms in attempt to bite.

Staff Response: As needed, move students to ensure safety, speak in calm, neutral tone, use short, brief statements focused on positive, desired behavior, emphasizing the visual supports "if it's hard" (while pointing to skip card). Do not remove assignment until Kai uses skip card.


Student Behavior: Reduction in attempts of above behavior, Kai may begin to cry or put head down. Behavior may quickly escalate if given another instructional level assignment, resulting in biting and other aggressive behaviors again.

Staff Response: Provide success-level tasks for Kai to engage with, refrain from re-presenting original task or other instructional level tasks, encourage positive behavior and engagement with provided activities.

Post Incident:

Student Behavior: Kai may make apologies to staff, demonstrate less engagement with tasks, take longer to complete tasks, and be less willing to engage and participate in new tasks.

Staff Response: Increase frequency of reinforcement, provide choices of assignments (e.g., number to complete), intersperse success-level tasks with instructional level tasks. Avoid debriefing, as this does not appear to be effective for Kai, rather, practice use of "skip card". Suspension or removal from class should not be used, as this may reinforce the behavior.

Example: Complete, detailed description of how staff will respond to challenging behavior.


Responding to challenging behavior while maintaining the flow of instruction is often reported by educators to be one of the most difficult aspects of implementing a BIP. This creates a potential barrier to implementation and presents a great challenge to implementing the plan with fidelity.

All implementers should be consistent in their approach when challenging behavior occurs. This ensures that no one implementing the response strategy of the BIP inadvertently reinforces the challenging behavior.

Incorporating elements to support treatment fidelity, (e.g., cheat sheets, task analyses, and/or checklists) have been shown to increase the consistency, fidelity, and quality of intervention implementation. Additionally, it is recommended that teams take time to create an Action and Coping Plan, to identify areas where implementation may be challenging or break down, to support implementation of the BIP.

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