Communication and Challenging Behaviour

Many people with learning disabilities find some parts of communicating hard. Some people may have little or no language. They might find it hard to:

•           Understand what other people say

•           Tell other people what they want or how they feel

If you can’t tell other people what you want (or don’t want!) challenging behaviour can be more likely.  Making communication better can reduce challenging behaviours.




Common communication difficulties

Difficulties understanding what other people are saying can be related to:

  • Hearing loss that has not been detected
  • Being given too much language to process.
  • Abstract concepts (things that cannot be seen or touched), negatives (e.g. “not”, don’t”) and time concepts (e.g. “yesterday”, “this afternoon”).
  • Sarcasm and taking things literally e.g. “Oh, that’s great!” when you actually mean the opposite. To understand this we need to read tone of voice, facial expression and body language. Other people may think the person can understand more than they can.

Difficulties in communicating a message to others can come from:

  • Lack of words needed to send the message.
  • Difficulties in producing clear speech/signs.

Using the right words but in the wrong order or without matching body language.

What can be done?

  • Make sure you are communicating in a way that the person understands. This may include using simple, short sentences and trying to avoid saying something which could be misunderstood.
  • Objects, pictures and symbols, sign language and voice output communication aids are all ways of backing up spoken language.
  • Reminding people what will be happening throughout the day is very important.
  • Can you teach the person an easier way of communicating their needs?
  • Can you teach the person new words or phrases? E.g. teaching the person to ask for a rest.

For more information see the Challenging Behaviour Foundation information sheet “Communication and Challenging Behaviour”. With thanks to Jill Bradshaw, Lecturer in Learning Disability, The Tizard Centre, University of Kent at Canterbury.


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