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Teaching alternative behaviors to decrease or stop inappropriate challenging behaviors

Implementing a behavior intervention plan to decrease or stop a challenging behavior is one thing.  Teaching an alternative to the challenging behavior is another.  Imagine this: your child climbs on the kitchen counter to reach for a jar of cookies way up in a cabinet.  Can you implement a plan to decrease or eliminate the behavior of climbing on the counter?  Yes, but there is also a chance that your child will just learn another challenging behavior to get him the same result.  In practice, it is always best to teach and alternative behavior.  Teaching the alternative behavior, in a way, can make the “unlearning” of the challenging behavior much faster.

There are four reasons why children may engage in challenging behaviors: either to get something she or he wants (access), to get out of doing something they don’t want (escape), to get attention, or because the behavior itself feels good or pleases them (self-stimulatory/automatic).  The general theme that you will see throughout this article is that the alternative behavior that you should teach your child should still lead to your child getting what they want (i.e., one of the four reasons).

Let’s say your child screams and throws objects when they are done with their dinner.  Your child is trying to get out of something—the dinner table.  What might you teach your child to do instead of throwing and screaming?  You can possibly teach your child to “properly” 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 repertoire of skills.  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 of climbing on the counter.  As your child gets used to this process, you can start giving him what he wants once in a while—this is a way to guarantee that the new behavior becomes stronger over time.

For attention-based challenging behaviors, one way to tackle this is to figure out what you think your child should be doing instead of the inappropriate behavior.  Of course, considering your child’s repertoire of skills first is important when figuring out what replacement behavior to teach.  Let’s say your child somehow finds the time you spend with him getting a “lecture” from you reinforcing, maybe one thing that you can do is stop or at least minimize the amount of time that you spend lecturing him and spend more time with him when he is behaving appropriately.  While doing that, also you can also do your best to spend more time with your child when he or she is behaving well (e.g., spending some time to play a favorite game, watching a favorite tv show, about talking about school/anything).

Lastly, 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.  For example, if your child engages in repeating words/phrases or just vocalizing sounds 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 your child engages in this behavior anywhere else, he should be required to use the communication phrase and then go to the specified location.  Self-stimulatory behaviors can be very difficult to address on your own—more so if the behavior is also self-injurious in nature.

It will help you as a parent to practice on these concepts; however, should you continue having difficulties as to how to address you child’s most challenging behaviors, it is a good idea to reach out to a trained professional such as a BCBA as soon as possible.