How to use alternative behaviors to inappropriate, challenging behaviors.

We recently reviewed four reasons why children may engage in challenging behaviors, and strategies that parents may utilize if put in a situation in which your child begins to engage in challenging behaviors.  We will now provide guidance on how to avoid challenging behaviors in the first place, or rather, teach alternative behaviors that still get your child what she or he wants.

Remember the four reasons that children may engage in challenging behaviors?  Either to get something she or he wants, to get out of doing something they don’t want, to get attention, or because the behavior itself feels good or pleases them.  The general theme that you will see throughout this instructional paper is that the alternative behavior that you should teach your child should still lead to her getting what they want (i.e., one of the four reasons).  Most of the time the alternative behavior is a way of appropriately communicating  what the child wants, also called “functional communication training,” or FCT.

Let’s say your child screams and throws objects when they are done with their dinner.  The child is trying to get out of something.  What might you teach your child to do instead of throwing and screaming?  Teach them to communicate when they are done, whether it be signing “all done” with their hands, saying “all done,” giving an “all done” laminated picture to an adult at the table, or some other mode of communication based on your child’s level.  At first, assist your child when you begin to see the signs of them being all done by guiding them through the physical movements of communicating (i.e., exchanging a picture or signing), or modeling the words they should use.  Gradually fade this assistance until they are doing it on their own, without engaging in the challenging behaviors.

The same strategies should be utilized for the other “functions” of behaviors, or when your child engages in challenging behaviors for other reasons.  When they want a cookie that is out of reach in the kitchen, teach your child to ask for the cookies using whatever mode of communication is appropriate for your child to replace the climbing on the counters.  It is important to give your child cookies every time they ask when they are first learning, as this will be the key to decreasing the challenging behavior, climbing on the counter.  Give small bites of the cookie each time to limit the number of cookies the child eats.  Again, use the same strategies for teaching your child to ask for attention.

Last when your child engages in challenging behaviors because it feels good, a little more thought has to be put into the alternative behavior.  It should be something that is not harmful and something, preferably, that you can control.  If your child engages in vocal behaviors that are not socially appropriate, allowing your child to engage in these behaviors in a particular environment (e.g., their bedroom) and teaching them to ask for “talking in my room” or something similar may help to gain control of where they may engage in this behavior.  When the child engages in this behavior anywhere else, they should be required to use the communication phrase and then go to the specified location.  For additional guidance on self-stimulatory behaviors, we recommend consulting with a professional, especially for behaviors that may be self-injurious in nature.  Try a BCBA.

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