Challenging Behaviour: An Action Plan for Education and Training

By Farrell, Gerald A.; Salmon, Peter | Contemporary Nurse : a Journal for the Australian Nursing Profession, December/January 2009 | Go to article overview
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Challenging Behaviour: An Action Plan for Education and Training

Farrell, Gerald A., Salmon, Peter, Contemporary Nurse : a Journal for the Australian Nursing Profession


Nurses and other health care staff frequently encounter a range of aggressive and other 'challenging behaviours' at work from clients and colleagues. In response to staff concerns, an abundance of state and national policies are now available but it is left up to individual employers to decide how best to implement them at a local level. In this paper we offer an education and training model which is conceptually sound, practical in application, and suitable for health care staff at different levels in the organisation. The importance of understanding challenging behaviour from an interactional perspective, and the educational principles on which training should be founded, are discussed. Finally, the cost of training and the need for program evaluation are considered.

KEYWORDS: challenging behaviour; aggression; training; nursing; education; evaluation


There is growing concern with the problem of 'challenging behaviour' (CB) in nursing and other clinical professions (Farrell, Bobrowski, & Bobrowski, 2006; Moniz-Cook, Woods, & Gardiner, 2000). A wide range of behaviours are encompassed by this term, ranging from violence to eccentric habits. It is not the severity of behaviours per se that determines whether it is challenging. Rather, it is whether nurses feel that they have the ability to manage the situation; that is, whether they have the necessary environmental resources (e.g. patient facilities) and personal resources (e.g. communication skills) (Kay, 1995).

Staff working with patients whose behaviour is labelled as CB are more anxious and less satisfied with their jobs than are others, feel less supported, and are more emotionally exhausted (Jenkins, Rose, & Lovell, 1997), more fearful about workrelated violence and less safe at work (Rose & Cleary, 2007). Other reported effects of patient aggression on staff include anger, guilt, selfblame and feelings of powerlessness (Needham, Abderhalden, Halfens, Fischer, & Dassen, 2005). In recognition of this problem, a plethora of state and national guidelines and requirements is falling on employers' desks (Department of Human Services, 2007; International Labour Organization, International Council of Nurses, World Health Organization, & Public Services International, 2002; Worksafe, 2008).

Our aim here is to provide a coherent framework for services to meet this new responsibility. We describe a training model based on sound educational principles, which acknowledges the importance of nurses' values, emotions and skills, their knowledge of the factors affecting clients' behaviour, and their knowledge of the ways in which the cultural and physical situation can influence behaviour. Program evaluation, in terms of learner outcomes and cost-effectiveness, are also discussed.


Attempts to understand CB fall into two broad types. The predominant approach emphasises properties of the patient and illness; for example, CB is related to gender, age, or intellectual disability (Emerson et al., 2001; Holden & Gitlesen, 2006; McClintock, Hall, & Oliver, 2003). Taking this approach objectifies CB, leading to an emphasis on policies and procedures for risk aversion and containment (Holmes, 2006). The second approach is 'interactional', whereby CB is recognised to be a product of both the patient and external factors - specifically the environment and staff behaviour (Secker et al., 2004).

The most obvious way in which staff are involved in the problem of CB is in labelling behaviour as 'challenging'. For example, consider a man raising his voice in the Emergency Department to complain about his spouse's care. The growing concern with CB and the increasing vigilance for 'violence hazard identification and risk assessment' that is emphasised in policies (Worksafe, 2008) may sensitise the nurse to perceive this as aggressive, and therefore as a 'risk factor' for escalation to physical violence.

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Challenging Behaviour: An Action Plan for Education and Training


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