A Behavior Analyst's Favorite Tips and Tricks
I have to admit that I am a behavior nerd. I love assessing behaviors, as well as empowering parents and professionals in how to better understand and manage behaviors. Whether you are a parent or a professional, understanding and addressing disruptive behaviors can be very challenging. As a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA), I am always asking myself, “What is our goal?” Most often the answer to that question is to decrease challenging and disruptive behaviors and increase appropriate and positive behaviors. That is going to look different for different people and for different settings. So, I wanted to share some of my favorite tips and tricks!
1. Determine the function of the behavior and teach a replacement behavior.
All behaviors have a function
Escape: getting out of a non preferred activity
Can we teach a behavior that serves the same function, but is more appropriate and/or functional? Examples are noted below:
Escape: teaching a child to request a break (verbally or nonverbally) instead of head banging or aggression
Attention: teaching a child to raise their hand instead of yelling out in class
Tangible: teaching a child to request a turn rather than grabbing a toy out of another child’s hand
Automatic: teaching a child to mouth/chew on a provided object rather than mouthing/chewing on various unsafe objects in the environment
2. Positive Reinforcement
Positive reinforcement means giving something (e.g., attention, toy, snack, etc.) to the child when they perform the desired action (e.g., comply with a direction, complete an activity, clean up their toys, etc.) so that they associate the behavior they displayed (e.g., cleaning up their toys) with the reward and do it more often.
In other words…what they get increases the likelihood of them displaying the desired behavior more frequently.
This sends a clear message to the child as to what the expected behavior is (what you want to see) and pairs something positive (e.g., toy, snack, etc.) with the behavior you are trying to increase (e.g., cleaning up their toys).
Observe the child. What is motivating to them? Positive reinforcement does not always need to be a “thing” (e.g., toy, snack). It can be as simple as a high five, tickles, praise, etc. Do they love to play peek-a-boo? Do they love it when you sign their favorite song to them? Do they love when you pull silly faces at them?
Variety is important. I love Pumpkin Spice lattes, but not every day! Sometimes I want hot chocolate. What is motivating to one child is different than what is motivating to another child. Mix it up. Use different reinforcers.
Visuals can assist children in:
understanding the expectations. e.g., necessary tasks to be completed prior to receiving a reinforcer or expected behaviors, such as hands to own body and quiet mouths
understanding what to expect. e.g., schedule for the day
decreasing language demands.
There are endless possibilities as to how and when to use visuals. Building in pictures of favorite characters, objects, etc. can only further motivate children and make the process fun. Here are some examples. You will notice the Pokémon example builds in a variety of reinforcers the child can choose to work for. Both examples clearly let the child know the number of tasks they have to complete prior to accessing what they are working for. And each time they complete a task, they get to put a star or Pokémon character in one of the squares allowing them to see their progress and how many more tasks they have left.
4. Behavioral momentum
Start the day with a more preferred activity, followed by a less preferred activity.
Make easier requests first (requests that are more likely to be complied with), followed by more challenging requests (less likely to be complied with).
5. "First, Then" language
First, Then" language helps us reduce and simplify our language and provides clear expectations to the child. We can even use a visual, paired with "First, Then" language.
teaching the child the expected behavior: "sit criss-cross applesauce on the rug for circle time"
and determining what is motivating and reinforcing for the child: "snack"
Now, we can use "First, Then" language to help the child understand the expectation and what the result will be if they demonstrate that expected behavior:
First sit criss-cross applesauce on the rug, then snack.
Behavioral strategies should be individualized, practical, as simple as possible, consistent across people and settings, and positive. And if needed ask for help! It takes a village. Consult with a BCBA or behavioral specialist if needed.