Understanding Sudden Outbursts of Behaviour

Published On: 13 July 2022

Reading time: 3 minutes

Sudden outbursts of behaviours can take us by surprise. Sometimes they seem to have come out of nowhere. However, behaviour is a way of communicating. There is a reason for it happening and we can find the triggers behind it. The behaviour you see is perhaps the response to slow or long triggers and can present in different ways. For example, children and young people may drop and lie on the floor screaming whereas as adults may kick and swear. No matter the setting, the individual in your care is trying to communicate something to you. Your role is to unpick the function of that behaviour. 

Remember not to trivialise the behaviour. There is a feeling driving the behaviour you are seeing; your role is to both validate the emotion and help the individual develop more socially acceptable ways to communicate in the future.

Why do individuals have sudden outbursts of behaviour?

Often the children, young people, or adults in your setting won’t know why they’re behaving in such a way. The behaviour they’re exhibiting may be a physical reaction to the feelings they are experiencing; they have not yet developed the skills to communicate their response in a different way.  For example, a child who is hungry or tired may scream, shout, and lie on the floor to communicate that their basic needs have not been met. For older children and adults, outbursts may be a response to an emotion they find overwhelming, such as jealousy or a feeling of injustice. Periods of emotional instability can often coincide with times of developmental changes.

How can you support a sudden outburst of behaviour?

With experience and knowledge of the individual, you can often spot the warning signs that a child, young person, or adult is dysregulating and spiralling towards a crisis. Sometimes we miss those early warning signs, so keeping a record is a simple way to spot the patterns that emerge.

Take time to identify possible triggers and put supportive plans in place to ensure the individual is equipped with the tools they need when they feel heightened. Ensure they can use either verbal or nonverbal prompts to communicate their needs, as frustration is a common reason for physical behaviours. It is a good idea to teach and rehearse these responses in periods of calm so that the child, young person, or adult feels confident that they will be understood. 

While we want to be able to respond safely when someone is showing distressed behaviours, this isn’t our end goal. What we want to do is to equip the individual with the skills and self-awareness to avoid needing de-escalation at all because they can effectively self-regulate.

Remember CALM

The CALM Communication model helps us think about how best to respond to behaviours in a safe way that reduces risk and any need for restraint.

CALM stands for:

  • Communication: Stance, posture, gestures, facial expression, intonation, and scripts.
  • Awareness & Assessment: Dynamic risk assessments, reading behaviour, and a secure knowledge of handling
  • Listening & Learning plans: Anticipating what might happen next, giving time and space, allow pauses for take up time, and giving a way out.
  • Making Safe

A CALM approach to behaviour reduces risk and helps you effectively de-escalate situations. You can find more about CALM communication in your Team Teach workbook.