Understanding behaviours

All behaviour happens for a reason . It’s really useful to understand the triggers and/or possible purpose behind behaviours that challenge. Keeping records for a period of time – ideally at least a month – is a good way to build up a picture of what can lead to difficult episodes and points us towards the approaches that may be helpful in minimising them. It’s also useful information to share with clinicians during an assessment process.

One method for this is the ‘STAR Approach’ described in this book and summarised below. STAR stands for Setting, Trigger, Action, Response (it’s nothing to do with reward charts!). Another approach is to use ABC charts (Antecedent, Behaviour, Consequence) although the STAR method is more detailed. It can also be used to record information in the school setting.

For each episode of behaviours that challenge, record the following details …


This may be environmental or personal and may include:

  • the physical environment: how busy/noisy was it? what about lighting levels or sensory sensitivities?
  • social interactions and relationships within the environment: was there a perceived lack of control, fear of uncertainty or any conflict?
  • the activities that the child was doing
  • the child’s physical state: hunger, thirst, tiredness, illness, communication difficulties, anxiety…
  • the child’s thoughts and mood, self-esteem, boredom …
  • any life events (loss, change, trauma …)


These are the things that may ‘set off’ a particular behaviour and usually occur shortly beforehand. However, it’s also important to remember that a trigger can also be something that happened some time previously, or a build up of ‘somethings’. It may not be possible to complete the ‘triggers’ section initially, as the trigger may not immediately be evident. This could be completed later on reviewing several days of recording. Points to consider are:

  • had the child been asked to do something?
  • were they requesting something from you, something they wanted?
  • had the activity just finished/started?
  • was something happening that the child dislikes or fears?
  • was it something the child associates with a particular event?
  • where there any additional factors, like time pressures?


Action is where you record the actual behaviour that challenges (the STAR approach emphasises that these must be observable).


This is where you record what follows the action. These may include

  • social result: a child gains attention/comfort or succeeds in avoiding unwanted social contact or successfully avoids a demand
  • occupational result: a child gets to do a desired activity or escapes an unwanted activity
  • sensory result: a child gains sensory satisfaction or avoids sensory overload
  • Did the behaviour result in them getting something they didn’t have before, e.g. object/food?

Results can be positive, negative or neutral and influence the likelihood of the action happening again (i.e. if the results are ‘rewarding’, they increase the chances of the behaviour happening again).

Over time you may begin to see more of a pattern in behaviours and triggers/purposes which may then help in understanding how to reduce the frequency and  severity of escalations. The table below is a sample to show the STAR approach in action.

You can read more information about behaviours that challenge from Ambitious About Autism and the National Autistic Society.

Date & Time Setting Triggers Actions Response Notes  
Sat. 23/09/17 3.00pm Child’s Bedroom.
Child playing computer game.
Parent talking to child about concern. Child has meltdown, hits, swears, shouts and hides. Parent leaves, child avoids discussion and regains personal space. Avoid discussions in child’s personal space / bedroom. Negotiate a time and place to talk. Think of less direct ways to communicate concerns.
Sund. 24/09/17 1.00pm Lounge. Child watching TV show. Parent asks child to sit with family at dinner table. Child ignores request. Parent switches off TV. Child hides and shuts down. Child avoids transition and possible sensory / social overload. Negotiate with child re mealtimes, what to eat and where to eat. Consider allowing child to eat in a setting of their choice.
Local Shop.
On way home from school.
Child wants parent to spend too much money in shop. Parent refuses and child has a meltdown in the shop. Child did not get the items, but this doesn’t stop a reoccurrence of the issue. Negotiate with child on amount to spend in shop. Allow a small reserve amount if further negotiation needed. Discuss a drive in the car prior to going to the shop to allow a period of calm following school. Have treats in the car instead. Go to shop at quieter time and when child is not so overloaded e.g. in the evening.