Responding to a Problem Behavior

Happy Monday!  It feels like it has been a lifetime since I posted on my blog!  Life and work caught up to me for a while, but I’m excited to resume our conversation on Behavioral Intervention and ABA!  In our last blog post (back in February- yikes!), we discussed how to determine the function of a problem behavior.  Today we will discuss methods for responding to a problem behavior once the function has been determined.

Since it has been a while, I want to give a short recap of what we have learned.  The two most basic behavioral principles are reinforcement and punishment.  Reinforcement increases the likelihood that the preceding behavior occurring again in the future.  Punishment decreases the likelihood that the preceding behavior will happen again in the future.  In ABA, it is important to respond based upon the FUNCTION of a behavior.  The four basic functions are:  Socially Mediated Positive (access to attention or tangible items), Socially Mediated Negative (escape from a task or situation), Automatic Positive (self- Stimulation), and Automatic Negative (escape from pain or something internal).  We then learned about the ABCs of ABA:  Antecedent (what happened before the behavior), Behavior, and Consequence (what happened after the behavior).  We can use the antecedents and consequences to determine what is reinforcing the behavior, thus determining what the function of the behavior is.

So, now that we have reviewed what we learned in the past, let’s move on!  Once you have figured out WHY a particular behavior is happening, what do you do about it?  That’s what all parents, teachers, and caregivers really want to know!  All of us want to know how to stop the inappropriate behavior, appropriate methods for responding to a problem behavior.  My first rule of thumb prior to beginning ANY behavior intervention is to rule out our fourth function:  pain attenuation.  Please make sure you child has had a recent physical and that all medications they are taking are leveled out prior to beginning a new procedure.  If the behaviors are being caused by an internal pain or problem, then implementing behavior procedures cannot truly give them what they need. However, if it has been determined that all is well physically, utilize the following guidelines, depending upon the function of the behavior.  The primary rule to remember: provide no reinforcement (anything that the child might like or might increase the likelihood of the behavior occurring in the future).  Use of extinction (not providing reinforcement to a previously reinforced behavior) should typically be employed, unless directed otherwise by a BCBA.

  1. Access to Tangible-  If it is determined that the function of a problem behavior is due to access to a tangible item, it is important to ensure that the child does NOT access any desired item as a result of the problem behavior.  Thus, if the child reaches for a desired item and is told “no”, stand firm in that response, no matter what the child does.  Oftentimes I am told by parents that they “distract” the child when he is having a meltdown.  When asked how they distract him, the response is typically that the child is provided access to an alternative reinforcer.  For example, the child is having a meltdown because they want to watch Barney but the DVD isn’t working.  When the child begins having a tantrum, the parent responds by offering the child access to the iPad instead.  It is okay to offer access to an alternative reinforcer PRIOR to the problem behavior occurring; however, once the behavior occurs, no reinforcers are provided.
  2.  Access to Attention-  If it is determined that the function of a problem behavior is due to access to attention, remove as much attention as possible.  Make sure all potential dangers or hazards are removed.  If possible, walk away, or remove yourself as much as possible from the child.  Keep in mind, if a child is motivated by attention, they will engage in any behaviors necessary to access that attention.  So, if they receive no attention by sitting and playing quietly, but receive your undivided attention by screaming, they will choose to scream when they desire your attention.
  3. Escape-  If it is determined that the function of a problem behavior is escape, keep the demand upon the child until compliance is obtained.  For example, the mother tells her child, “Clean up, then we can go outside”.  However, the child falls to the floor and begins screaming.  The mother will point to the objects that he is to clean, and continues to tell him in a neutral tone, “clean up”.  If, after a few minutes, the child continues to not follow directions, the parent can use hand over hand to help the child comply.  This strategy is called Follow Through.
  4. Self Stimulation-  Self-Stimulation is much more difficult to determine and intervene on.  If it is likely that the function of the problem behavior is self-stimulation, consult your BCBA in order to develop a Behavior Intervention Plan.

There are times in which a problem behavior is multiply maintained.  For example, a child flops to the floor and screams when told to put her plate in the sink (function: escape); but the attention she receives from her mother using hand over hand and continuously telling her to put her plate in the sink reinforces the behavior further (function: access to attention).  When this occurs, it is important to contact a professional regarding how to respond to this situation.

I hope this information gave you insight into how responding to a problem behavior in an appropriate way to decrease that behavior.  Next week we are going to switch gears and look into practical ways that parents can use the principle of reinforcement to increase desired behaviors in their children.  These can apply to all children, not just our special ones with ASD.  I look forward to continuing to learn from each other!

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This is me and my sweet boy, Austin! Trust me- your child does not have to have a diagnosis to benefit from these methods for responding to a problem behavior!


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