When there is a disagreement, argumentation is the dialogic process in which two or more people engage in a debate of opposing claims (Kuhn & Udell, 2007). This exchange allows one to state their needs, concerns and views which creates the opportunity for the other person/s to become aware of what is causing the upset and for everyone involved to address the cause and move forward past the argument.


Arguing in all relationships is normal. It is impossible for two or more people to agree on everything all the time, disagreements will happen from time to time. Disagreements can be caused by differences in: views, opinions, beliefs, ideas, priorities and motivations, ways things are organised, carried out and completed, misunderstandings in communication, misinterpretations of expectations, and resistance to change and doing things differently, unreleased fear, anger and frustration.

Children develop this critical lifelong skill on how to construct and handle arguments as they mature and through guidance from adults in their environment.


Argumentative behaviour becomes a concern when the following occur:

  • the frequency (i.e. how often a child exhibits argumentative behaviour) becomes excessive.
  • the duration (i.e. how long each incident of the argumentative behaviour lasts) becomes excessive.
  • the intensity (i.e. the strength of the argumentative behaviour) escalates from minor behaviours into extreme behaviours.
  • the argumentative behaviour negatively impacts the child’s participation in activities, interaction with others, their day-to-day functioning and development.

It is important to note that argumentative behaviour exists for a variety of reasons, and is particularly prominent in children with depression, anxiety, Oppositional defiant disorder, Conduct disorder, Intermittent explosive disorder and Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.


Supporting an argumentative child is exhausting. It is as if you are walking on eggshells because you do not know what is going to upset them, and every demand you place on them results in an argument. For example, what may seem to a be a simple instruction such as ‘sit on the mat’ or ‘join a group activity’ may result in a straight out ‘No’, and if the adult does not back down a heated argument results. Adults also become wary about confronting the child because the child sees themselves as definitely right and others definitely wrong, which means that it is hard to reason with the child or back down. It can leave everyone feeling at a loss because nobody knows how to set limits and get the child to do what they are supposed to be doing.


John has been diagnosed with Oppositional defiant disorder. John wants a pen from the table where Paul is sitting. As Paul is in the way, John walks up to him and pushes him so he can get the pen. Paul, who fell off his chair when John pushed him, starts crying. The teacher comes over and tells John to apologise, but John looks confused and says, ‘Why do I need to apologise? If anyone should be apologising, it’s him.’ Stunned, the teacher asks why Paul needs to apologise. John says, ‘I wanted the pen off the table. Paul saw me coming. He should have moved out of the way. But because he was in my way, he left me no option. I had to move him. I didn’t even push him as hard as he says, it was just a tap. He’s being a drama queen and just likes to whinge. He should apologise for being in my way.’


Harry and his friend Timothy are caught running in the hallway during recess. The teacher who catches them says, ‘You know you shouldn’t be in here. Go outside.’ Harry, who has Conduct disorder, starts to swear and argue with the teacher. For everything she says, he has something to say. He has to have the final word. When the teacher realises that the situation is going to escalate, she tells the students to go outside; she returns to the staff room. Harry thinks he’s won. Now, whenever Harry sees that teacher, he smiles at her and swears just loud enough for her to hear.

When a child begins to persistently exhibit argumentative behaviour, the climate of the context (e.g. childcare, early childhood, primary and secondary school, disability support and youth services) can change dramatically. A considerable amount of time and energy can be spent on the child showing the argumentative behaviour, which can have a deleterious effect on the quality of the learning experience for all the children. Research consistently shows that managing behaviour is linked to staff experiencing high levels of stress, burnout and job dissatisfaction.

Hence, argumentative behaviour affects everyone involved and the child who is exhibiting argumentative behaviour requires necessary help to learn positive ways of behaving and managing their emotions.


Positive Behaviour Support (PBS) focuses on evidence-based strategies and person-centred supports that address the needs of the individual and the underlying causes of behaviours of concern, to enhance the quality of life for both the individual and those that support them.

PBS recognises that there is no single cause for argumentative behaviour. It is a complex behaviour that is a product of the interaction between multiple factors contributing to its development and persistence.

Argumentative behaviour is like the tip of the iceberg so it is essential to look beneath the surface to work out the why before we can address the problem.

There are three main setting-related factors which impact the child and their behaviour:

  • environment
  • activity
  • interaction

These factors place different demands on the child and when any of these demands outweigh the child’s skills to cope with them, the child engages in argumentative behaviour. Being argumentative may be the only way the child has learnt how to respond to these demands and get their message across.


Ben was playing on his iPad. When the timer rang his teacher asked him to put the iPad away. Ben said, ‘No.’ The teacher asked him again to which he replied, ‘Why?’ the teacher explained that he needs to get the rest of his maths work done. Ben said, ‘I don’t want to do the rest of the work.’  His teacher reminded him that was the rule. The argument went on for a while and after the hundredth time of Ben asking ‘Why?’, in exasperation the teacher said, ‘Because I said so.’ This triggered Ben and he screamed, ‘You are not the boss of me. You can’t make me!’

Some of the skills needed to cope with this interaction include:

  • Healthy ways of arguing – Does Ben know how to express his needs in a respectful manner? Can Ben think flexibly to allow himself to see the situation in alternative ways? Does he know how to negotiate with his teacher to identify a mutually agreeable situation?
  • Transition skills – Can Ben transition from a highly preferred activity to a highly non-preferred activity without any additional supports? Is the timer with no countdown reminders (e.g. 5 minutes to go, 4 minutes to go, 3 minutes to go) a sufficient prewarning for Ben?
  • Emotional regulation – Can Ben regulate his emotions and stay calm?
  • Compliance skills – Can Ben comply with instructions where power is used to coerce him to do something?
  • Communication skills – Can Ben explain to his teacher that he is playing a game that has levels and he needs to finish the level? Can Ben negotiate with his teacher that he finishes the level and then he can do the work?
  • Learning skills – Can Ben do the Maths work?

As Ben does not have the skills needed to cope, he resorts to arguing with his teacher.

The examples highlight that argumentative behaviour is not without purpose. It is never too late to address argumentative behaviour, even if it has been occurring for a while.

Developing a comprehensive and individualised PBS plan to address the argumentative behaviour involves three stages: Assess-Manage-Prevent.

  • ASSESS: How to identify the reasons for the argumentative behaviour,
  • MANAGE: How to respond when argumentative behaviour occurs, and
  • PREVENT: How to minimise or eliminate the occurrence of argumentative behaviour.


Assess Stage Aims

The Assess stage aims to identity:

  • Activities during which the argumentative behaviour occurs,
  • Environments in which the argumentative behaviour occurs, and
  • People dealing with the argumentative behaviour.


Assess Stage Checklist:

  • Child’s profile – Gather information about the child to create a comprehensive picture of the child, their abilities and needs.
  • Behaviour data collection forms – Record measurable details (e.g. frequency, intensity, duration) about the child’s argumentative behaviour.
  • Functional Behaviour Analysis (FBA)- Systematically reflect on an incident by analysing the antecedents (what preceded the argumentative behaviour), describing the argumentative behaviour, consequences (what happened after the argumentative behaviour).
  • Hypothesis – Determine the purpose (function) that the argumentative behaviour served.


Manage Stage Aims

The Manage Stage outlines how to effectively respond to the behaviours that occur before the argumentative behaviour and after. Appropriate responses can help to safely defuse, redirect, and de-escalate the situation in the least disruptive manner.

Manage Stage Checklist:

  • Escalation stages – Help those supporting the child to recognise the number of stages the child exhibits as their emotion rises (i.e. mild escalation, moderate escalation, extreme escalation, and recovery stage).
  • Escalation profile– Help those supporting the child to recognise what non-verbal and/or verbal behaviours are exhibited in the different escalation stages, where the argumentative behaviour occurs in the escalation and how long it can last.
  • De-escalation plan – Help those supporting the child with guidelines on how to immediately respond when the behaviour occurs, safely defuse, and de-escalate the situation in the least disruptive manner.


Prevent Stage Aims

This stage aims to prevent the occurrence of the argumentative behaviours by minimising or avoiding the triggers that cause it and teach the child alternative behaviours.

Prevent Stage plan

The plan details strategies to minimise or avoid the triggers that contribute to the argumentative behaviours by providing the child with:

  • Supportive environments – Tailoring environment related aspects to minimise or avoid triggers that set off argumentative behaviour.
  • Supportive activities – Tailoring activity related aspects to minimise or avoid triggers that set off argumentative behaviour.
  • Supportive interactions – Tailoring interaction aspects to minimise or avoid triggers that set off argumentative behaviour, and
  • Teaching the child – Teaching the student positive ways of communicating their messages and managing their emotions and behaviours.


Use the practical tools (checklists, forms, and strategies) in A for Argumentative: Positive Behaviour Support guide to develop comprehensive PBS plans that can be used to support children of all ages consistently in all settings.

This invaluable guide is useful for parents, caregivers, educators in childcare, early childhood, primary and secondary schools, disability, mental health, allied health, and supervisory professionals.


  • Kuhn, D. & Udell, W. (2007). Coordinating own and other perspectives in argument. Thinking & Reasoning, 13, 90-104.