Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Five Ways to Help Reduce Problematic Behaviors

Kathi Flynn

If you are responsible for a child who has behavioral outbursts, you're likely looking for ways to reduce both the behaviors and their intensity. As a behavior specialist, I have learned many reactive strategies that help to reduce existing behaviors.

Though it's critical in such scenarios to find the functions of the behaviors by conducting a Functional Behavior Analysis and setting up a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP)1, here are five strategies/consequences to try in the heat of the moment:
  1. Ignore the Behavior
    Do not verbalize the behavior that is happening. If a child is doing something dangerous to himself or others, you obviously have to intervene, but you still do not have to draw attention to the actual behavior. This strategy only works if you know that your child is doing this behavior to get attention, even if the attention is negative. You don’t want to reinforce inappropriate behavior, so ignore it -- and then also try a strategy below.

  2. Redirection
    If a child is a acting out, verbally or physically, it is important to redirect her to another task or activity. Instead of focusing on the behavior, focus on what you want her to do next.

  3. Decrease Demands2
    Sometimes, a child becomes frustrated with the task at hand and does not know how to ask for help, so instead, he acts out. One strategy is to lower the demands that are placed on him. This can include lowering the amount of time he has to be on task before he gets a break. You may just have him work for one more minute. Decrease the number of questions, or offer assistance to complete the task together.

  4. Decrease Stimulation3
    If a child has sensory processing disorders, the environment or setting may provoke behaviors. If a setting is too loud, has too many people, too many pictures, or is too light or too dark, it may be overstimulating. Use headphones, a preferred electronic device like an iPhone or iPad to distract, or simply take a walk outside or to a quieter location. This may help you get through a trip to a restaurant, family party, supermarket, or store.

  5. Use a Calming Down Protocol
    It is very important to try to help a child self-regulate and calm down before behaviors escalate and become dangerous situations. Teach him how to take deep breaths, fold his hands to avoid hitting/punching, count to a designated number, close his eyes, go for a walk, etc. If a child is calmed by sensory integration protocols such as deep pressure or light scratching on the arms, try those, too.

Footnotes from professional advocate Carol Greenburg of New York Special Needs Consulting

1. Parents should specifically request Functional Behavioral Analyses in several venues (not just the usual 20-minute classroom observation) by Board Certified Behavior Analysts. As always, it is preferable for parents to make those requests in writing.

2. Decreasing demands is only the way to go if the problem is that the child does not understand what is expected. It is presumptuous to assume that the child's behavior is attempting to communicate an inability. Sometimes the kid's behavior is saying "I mastered that days ago. Bored Now." There is a risk of dumbing down the work for kids who know they are capable of much more.

It is comprehensible how these misunderstandings happen. Some of us [with autism] are low affect and our processing is delayed but deeper, so not only do we get a concept, we might get it on a deeper level -- when we look the most lost. When this happens, and the response of the teacher is to talk slower and use words with fewer syllables, it is tremendously frustrating for autistic folks -- but not because the work is too hard. 

3. Decreasing stimulation is often a good idea. But if the child is hypo- rather than hyper sensitive to some kind of sensory input, if they are sensory seekers, then the best way to calm them down is to provide more input rather than less. Deep pressure and opportunities for high physical activity is a better bet for such kids.


A version of Kathi's essay was previously published at