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Well, it depends... life as a Behavioural Specialist

will22 Member Posts: 31

My name is Will Chadwick and I work as the Behaviour Specialist, managing the challenging behaviour support team at Beaumont College in Lancaster.  I’ve worked in various roles with adults who display behaviour which challenges for around 15 years now.

All this is quite a mouthful, and when meeting parents for the first time they tend to sum it up with something along the lines of ‘Oh, so you’re the expert in behaviour?’

And the answer I usually give is something along the lines of “well, it depends….”

Living with someone who displays behaviour which challenges, working with them, supporting them in any capacity is a very mixed experience.  Yes, it is rewarding and will give you perspectives on people that you rarely encounter in other areas of life. But it can also be difficult, and a challenge to your own ability to understand what is happening and respond to it appropriately.

I’ve worked with families who have a 20-year-old son who has been getting the whole family up night after night around midnight to watch DVDs until 8am.  Staff who’ve worked with young people who would spit directly at them dozens of times in an hour or who could breakout in seemingly random aggressive outbursts.  Difficult, challenging and emotionally draining situations. 

And into this walks the ‘expert’ with all the answers. But the difficulty is that there’s no such thing as an ‘expert’ in behaviour really. We all start from the same position, trying to work out what is happening and what’s the best thing to do. The role of the behaviour specialist is to be a specialist at working these things out. So when asked –frequently asked – ‘Why is so and so doing this and what do we do about it?’ the first answer is always the same

‘Well, it depends…’

Challenging behaviour, or behaviour which challenges is rarely a straightforward situation. Working out what is going on is the starting point of a process, which in its best form is looking at the totality of someone’s life and experience. Who is this person? What are their needs? What is their living situation, who looks after them, how do they feel about this? Why does this person feel compelled to hurl furniture around when things don’t go their way?

Young child in red coat standing on cobbled path

Understanding this and working through a process to try and understand what a certain behaviour means for a person is a tricky process. Experiencing challenging behaviour is a unique situation for most people. It’s an assault on our well-being, and our understanding of how people normally operate. Experiencing, for example, aggressive behaviour from someone we care about or spend our time educating or supporting in some capacity has a powerful emotional impact on us. It alters how we perceive what is happening and what we feel should be done about it.

Commonly I hear familiar themes when first assessing a person. This is when I read through the views of teachers, or talk to parents and direct support staff. At some point, someone will say “He’s just pushing the boundaries’ or ‘it’s all about attention’.

Is this right or is this wrong? At the start of an assessment, I have no idea. But every idea about why a behaviour is occurring must be supported by evidence. At the end of the day, it must make logical sense based on an understanding of who that person is and what they are capable of doing and not doing.

As an example, I worked with a young man who due to the degree of aggression he was judged to show, was isolated from his peers and supported by two staff hovering somewhat menacingly around him. He was judged to be an attention seeker, a boundary pusher “He’ll see how far he can push you!” was what I was told.

This young man is severely learning disabled and Autistic. The assessment of his ability strongly indicated that he had serious impairments in his ability to understand and manage social interactions. His family related an anecdote where their consultant had told them many years ago that their son could not tell the difference between a person and a tree.

Mangled metaphors aside, it was clear that concepts such as boundary pushing and limit testing didn’t really seem to apply. How could he alter his interactions based on an understanding of the dynamics of the social situation he was in when his abilities in these areas were so impaired?

Young parent cuddling his baby son

He couldn’t, obviously. But those who worked with him, those who had been on the receiving end of his ‘aggressive’ behaviour were firmly convinced he could. Everything they saw reinforced this. The idea that his ‘aggression’ was a pattern of behaviour stemming from his desire to have, but near inability to manage a social interaction was viewed as naïve at best.

This is not a jab at those staff, not at all. The experience of supporting someone who challenges creates stress. Stress affects perception. Perception affects assessment and poor assessment leads to poor support plans. In this case, the perception of this young man led to an outcome where he was isolated from others.

During my training, I was once told that assessing behaviour is like being in a detective story. Put on your cap and get the magnifying glass. Look for clues and build a story based on evidence. Ultimately present the family or support staff with a version of events, supported by evidence that makes logical sense. From this, you can begin to build a plan that addresses the difficulties and creates a better outcome for everyone.


But don’t pretend everyone wants to hear what you have to say. Especially when it’s, “Well…it depends.”

 Will is our Behaviour Advisor, if you have any questions about challenging behaviour, you can ask him now. What is your experience of challenging behaviour? Do you have any tips that worked for you?



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