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Behavioural Barriers

Updated: Jul 17, 2021

In my work as a behavioural consultant, I have encountered many different terms over the years. The current term “challenging behavior” is used in many English speaking countries, with the term “behaviour of concern” being used primarily in Australia. Two definitions of the term challenging behavior follow:

Challenging Behavior: Behaviour of such an intensity, frequency or duration as to threaten the quality of life and/or the physical safety of the individual or others and is likely to lead to responses that are restrictive, aversive or result in exclusion.

Behaviour of Concern: Adopted by the Australasian Society for Intellectual Disabilities and the Australian Psychological Society, a Behaviour of Concern is: Any behaviour that is a barrier to a person participating in and contributing to their community (including both active and passive behaviours) that undermines, directly or indirectly, a person’s rights, dignity or quality of life, and poses a risk to the health and safety of a person and those with whom they live or work.

The difficulties posed by both the terms Challenging Behavior and Behaviour of Concern is that someone other than the individual using the behaviour perceives a challenge or a concern. In that perception lies an often unstated imbalance of power between the individual using a behaviour and the person(s) making judgements about that behaviour, including the development of a behaviour support plan.

The definition of Challenging Behavior makes the overt statement that responses to the behaviour of the individual may include restrictive or aversive responses including the use of exclusion. The term Behaviour of Concern removes this statement, and places it within policies and procedures regulating the use of restrictive practices.

A Behavioural Barrier is just that, a barrier that is behavioural, and shields the person using the behaviour from others and/or their environment. A colleague I work with who is autistic said that when he was younger he did things to keep people away from him so he could think about what was happening. He said that as he got older, his brain began to sync with his body (his terms) and now he no longer needs to use these behavioural barriers to maintain his psychological and emotional safety as his brain can process incoming stimuli in what he calls real-time.

Behavioural barriers are erected by the person, and function, in that moment, to provide physical, psychological, emotional, social or sexual safety for the person. For example, a child who is inappropriately touched by an adult may slap that adult. In this instance, the act of slapping is a Behavioural Barrier that is functional. It is not physical aggression. However, if that same child slaps an adult who had no verbal, visual, or physical contact with the child, then the Behavioural Barrier would be afunctional (that is, not functional).

Recognising this, the first response by people paid to interact with the individual must be to assess the function of the behavioural barrier from the perspective of the individual, and accommodate that person’s needs unless to do so would harm the individual and/or others. In both examples, it is the behaviour of the person within the context of the interaction which determines the functionality of the behaviour.

Many afunctional behavioural barriers have their origins in trauma histories, where the behaviour within the context of abuse, neglect or other adverse conditions is a response by the person, usually a small child, with the intent of escaping or avoiding the abuse or neglect. As identified in numerous research studies and stories by survivors of abuse, the neurobiological changes that result from complex trauma often result in behaviour that is reflexive for the person and not part of an intentional pattern of behaviour.

By using the phrase Behavioural Barrier, practitioners of behaviour support, regulatory and funding bodies and most importantly the individual themselves can re-establish a sense of power and control over their own behaviours. Those of us providing supports to individuals can now do so in ways that remove judgement about challenges or concerns and look at the Behavioural Barrier from the perspective of the individual using the behaviour. The proposed definition for the term is:

Behavioural Barrier – a barrier to continued physical, verbal and/or visual interaction between the person using the behaviour and others. Behavioural Barriers are considered to be functional for the individual unless the Barrier inhibits the ability of the person to participate in and contribute to their community in ways which enhance the quality of life of the members of the community, including the individual using the behaviour.

It is my hope that this term restores to the people we support the ability to put up their own safety barriers when they are in settings and/or with people and for one reason or another do not feel safe. Our responsibility, as providers of supports, is to honour the barrier and then respectfully ask its’ purpose. We can move on cooperatively from there as we seek to improve the quality of life of all people in this system of supports.


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