Challenging behaviors help some individuals to have influence in environments in which they have little or no influence. “Influence” is defined as the “power to make things happen” or the “power to affect other people.” When a person’s attempts to influence the environment are ignored or thwarted (as is often the case with people who have disabilities), he or she may resort to extreme measures to “make things happen.”
Spend a day “walking in the shoes” of someone who challenges you. You may become extremely frustrated by the lack of choices you are allowed to make. You may become angry when your efforts to communicate are ignored or misunderstood. Imagine that you have a difficult time accepting change and find yourself in the middle of change all the time: new teachers, new group homes, new program goals, new expectations, etc.
If you were asked to “walk in someone’s shoes” every day of every week of every year over many years, you might develop your own “bag” of challenging behaviors. Imagine what it would feel like if you lived a life without family and friends. How would you feel if your life was filled with drudgery — if you were asked each day to do the same things over and over again or you had little fun. Can you imagine throwing things on the floor? Can you imagine being aggressive or even self-injurious? In such an event, your behaviors might be characterized as “maladaptive.” You could be described as “manipulative,” “unruly,” or “out of control.” These labels ignore the fact that your behaviors are adaptive responses to a life that most would find intolerable.
Consider now how you would feel if someone put you on a reward schedule for appropriate behavior. Would you change your feelings about life simply because someone patted you on the back? Would the drudgery of your life change because you were allowed to have a cup of coffee after completing an interval of work? If these “reinforcers” should fail to modify your behavior, imagine how you would feel if someone decided to punish you as “a last resort?”
Ask yourself, “What would it feel like to live this person’s life?” Is your vision for the person similar to the vision you have for your own life? How is it different? If the person is a child, is your vision similar to the vision you have for your own children? How is it different?
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By learning to view the person’s behavior from the person’s perspective, by “walking in the person’s shoes,” we are better able to “disengage” from negative views of the person and understand that her/his behavior is a reflection of his/her unique needs and/or stress.
A fundamental question is: “If the person stopped exhibiting challenging behaviors today, who would he or she be?
Make a list of the kinds of decisions the person makes each day about minor and major things. For example, does the person have any say in what time he gets up each morning? Can he decide what to eat for breakfast? Does the person have any say about who she lives with? Does she make decisions about who her caregivers will be?