2 - The social context of challenging behaviour  pp. 7-14


By Eric Emerson and Stewart L. Einfeld

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We have defined challenging behaviour as culturally abnormal behaviour of such an intensity, frequency or duration that the physical safety of the person or others is likely to be placed in serious jeopardy, or behaviour that is likely to seriously limit use of, or result in the person being denied access to, ordinary community facilities (Emerson, 1995). This amendment to an earlier definition (Emerson et al., 1988) made explicit the importance of social and cultural expectations and norms in defining behaviour as challenging.

Challenging behaviour is a social construction. Whether a behaviour is defined as challenging in a particular context will be dependent upon such factors as:

  • social rules regarding what constitutes appropriate behaviour in that setting;
  • the ability of the person to give a plausible account for their behaviour;
  • the beliefs held by other participants in the setting about the nature of intellectual disabilities and the causes of the person's ‘challenging’ behaviour;
  • capacity within the setting to manage any social disruption caused by the person's behaviour.

Behaviour in social settings is, at least in part, governed by implicit and explicit rules and expectations regarding what constitute appropriate conduct. The more formal the setting, the more explicit the rules. Indeed, context is essential in giving meaning to any behaviour. Behaviour can only be defined as challenging in particular contexts. For example, loud shouting and the use of ‘offensive’ language are likely to be tolerated (if not actually condoned) in restaurant kitchens and at football (soccer) matches.