Project information

The development of challenging behaviour in children with intellectual disabilities

Funded by Cerebra and the University of Birmingham from 2011 – 2013

Cerebra logo Background

Challenging behaviour in children with severe intellectual disabilities is relatively common, with behaviours such as self-injury and aggressive behaviours occurring in between 10% and 40% of these children, respectively. Severe challenging behaviour can have a serious impact on the quality of life for these children, as well as leading to higher levels of stress for parents/carers and greater use and costs of services. Effective early intervention for children at risk of challenging behaviour could help to reduce such costs. However it is only recently that researchers have attempted to use knowledge about potential risk markers for challenging behaviour to develop a screening questionnaire to aid with early intervention. The ability of this screening questionnaire to identify those children most at risk of developing challenging behaviour is yet to be fully evaluated.


We aim to continue to evaluate the screening questionnaire in children with intellectual disabilities or developmental delay and to investigate possible differences between children with and without challenging behaviour in terms of a number of different behaviours and characteristics (e.g. parent/carer wellbeing, and use of services). In addition we aim to understand the psychological causes/functions of challenging behaviour in these children.


Study One
Study one will evaluate the screening questionnaire. This study involves completion of the questionnaire by parents/carers of children aged 11 and under with intellectual disabilities or developmental delay. Participants are recruited through child development centres and special schools when attending assessment and clinic appointments with their child. Families were followed up by a brief telephone interview with parents/carers about their child’s communication and daily living skills.

Study Two
Study two investigates child characteristics, parental well-being and service. Families who took part in the first study are recruited into a study requiring completion of a number of questionnaire measures, which will be used to compare children at a ‘high’ versus ‘low’ risk of challenging behaviour.

Study Three
Study Three will examine the functions of challenging behaviour. A small group of children from the first two studies who already have challenging behaviour will be observed in different situations constructed by the researcher to try to determine the reasons for their challenging behaviour.

Implications of research

If the screening questionnaire is found to be effective, it could potentially be used to identify those children most in need of an early intervention for challenging behaviour. This could help prevent the behaviour escalating and becoming more severe. An understanding of the sorts of causes of challenging behaviour in these children, as well as their parent’s wellbeing and need for services also has implications in terms of what would be required in order for intervention to effectively help families.

Contact details

Louise HandleyPrimary contact: Louise Handley
Tel: 0121 414 2855 




Professor Chris Oliver
Tel: 0121 414 4909

Dr Dawn Adams
Tel: 0121 414 7206