“Challenging behavior” is not a technical term

In social services culture, “challenging behavior” is used as though it’s a technical term, defined as something like:

“culturally abnormal behaviour(s) of such intensity, frequency or duration that the physical safety of the person or others is placed in serious jeopardy, or behaviour which is likely to seriously limit or deny access to the use of ordinary community facilities”.

This is expressed in a way that sounds like a technical definition, but it isn’t really. It’s a value judgement.

If you take the definition of “challenging behavior” seriously, all of these things literally fall into it:

  • Participating in the Greensboro sit-in or the Montgomery Bus Boycott
  • Leaving an abuser when your culture considers it inappropriate to do so and is likely to respond with violence
  • Living in a homophobic culture that actively discriminates against gay people, and having a same-gender partner anyway

Defying cultural norms is usually dangerous. It’s not always wrong. Deciding whether an act of defiance is good or bad isn’t a technical question; it’s a value judgement. “Challenging behavior” isn’t an objective clinical term. It means that you’re judging that particular behavior is wrong and that you have a right to modify it.

I don’t think value judgements are wrong. I think they’re necessary and important. I also think it’s important to be honest about them. It’s easier to think clearly about the value judgements you’re making when you’re willing to admit that you’re making them.

Short version: “Challenging behavior” is used as though it’s a technical term. It isn’t. It’s a value judgement, and I think it’s important to be honest about that.