By Vince LaMarca, M.A., BCBA, Editor
Lovaas Institute - Indianapolis
As every teacher and paraprofessional knows, behavior challenges that arise at school cannot always be approached the same way they are handled at home. Some strategies available at home are difficult to implement at school. For example, ignoring a tantrum at school can make it difficult for other children to concentrate. Equally, the school setting may not be suitable for incorporating the same types of reinforcement that have been effective with a child at home. Although not all strategies used in the home setting can be applied to the school environment, the same thought process used in home behavioral treatment programs may be used to find effective solutions in the classroom. Below are six key steps to determining an effective behavior intervention.
1. Describe the behavior in measurable terms.
Behaviors are often more difficult to define than one might think. What does one mean by "tantrum?" If the child whines, is this considered a tantrum? Or is it only if he falls to the floor? Is it a tantrum if he whines quietly or only if it is loud enough to be heard from across the room? If the behavior is not carefully defined, your child's team will inconsistently implement the behavioral strategy, as well as vary their data collection. Establishing exactly what behavior the team is addressing is a crucial first step in any behavior intervention plan.
2. Establish a hypothesis for the function of the behavior.
Why does the child behave as he does? What does he want or need? Typical functions of a behavior include:
- escape a demand,
- access a desired item,
- gain attention, or
- fulfill a sensory need
A behavior may have more than one function. Determining the function of a behavior should be based on more than just anecdotal observations; it should also include direct observation. Anecdotal observations often focus primarily on the setting events of the behavior (e.g., location and activity, time of day, amount of noise, etc.). Carefully observing, in the moment, what occurs immediately before a behavior and immediately after the behavior often sheds new light on the function of the behavior.
3. Prevent the behavior from occurring.
Based on all the information that is gathered, there may be a way to prevent the behavior from occurring at all. Some people do not like to entertain such strategies because they are concerned that they will be giving in to the child and that the child will not really learn what to do. For example, if a child screams and falls to the ground during transitions, one solution would be to no longer require the child to transition. Now obviously, this may not be practical or desired in every situation, but one should be open to considering all possible solutions (as we'll see below) before rejecting any. Other possibilities that may stop a child screaming and falling to the ground during transitions include:
- allowing choices - let the child decide between two options of where to transition next.
- cueing changes - use a visual timer or provide verbal reminders, "5 minutes left, 2 minutes left" etc., to prepare the child for a transition.
- using behavioral momentum - establish success with a series of simple instructions before presenting an instruction to transition.
- increasing predictability - make sure the transitions occur at the same time in a consistent fashion, or use a visual schedule to show the child what changes are coming
Consider this scenario:
Daniel consistently lay on the ground and screamed in the afternoon when transitioning from free time on the floor to work at the table. Even providing reinforcing activities at the table did not appear to help, since he immediately started screaming the moment he was asked to come to the table. The team decided that the particular transition was not the most important skill to teach at the moment. So, instead of attempting to have Daniel transition to the table, they simply walked over to him on the floor. By pairing themselves with fun activities when they first came over and then slowly including more task demands, Daniel no longer screamed. Eventually the expectations increased further, and Daniel was instructed to walk over to the table after working for a while on the floor. Within a few weeks, teachers were able to immediately call Daniel over to the table and screaming no longer occurred. In their own words, they found a way "around the problem rather than through the problem."
4. Reinforce other appropriate behaviors.
Behaviors occur for a reason. There is a function for every behavior. You may not be able to change the reason for the occurrence of a behavior, but you can teach the child a better way to handle the situation. Two ways to do this include:
- teaching an alternate behavior that serves the same function - rather than scream when a child doesn't want to do something, teach him to communicate, "No," "I don't want to," or "I need a break." Remember that in general, new behaviors replace old behaviors when they are just as easy (or easier) to do and provide the same (or better) consequences.
- teaching the child to better tolerate the situation - in Daniel's scenario above, one possible function of the behavior was to escape demands. By gradually increasing the demands on the floor, and reinforcing his responses to those demands, Daniel eventually learned to better tolerate work at that time of day.
5. Use behavior reduction procedures.
Proactive strategies alone may not be enough to reduce behaviors. When implementing reactive strategies, one should always use the least intrusive and most natural technique that is effective. There are a variety of reactive strategies that may be attempted, such as:
- extinction - the removal of identified reinforcement for the inappropriate behavior. Extinction is not synonymous with ignoring. For example, if the child is trying to escape work, ignoring the child and letting him escape would reinforce the behavior. Instead, an extinction strategy would require the child to continue working.
- time out - the removal of all positive reinforcement for a period of time. This is probably the most used and least effective reactive strategy. It differs from extinction in that during extinction only reinforcement from the specific behavior is withheld. For time out to be effective, the child must find the removal from people and the environment undesirable. ("Time-ins" must be reinforcing.)
- overcorrection - includes restitution (correcting the environmental effects of the behavior) in addition to positive practice (repeated practice of the appropriate behavior). For example, if a child purposefully dumps his bowl of cereal on the floor, he is required to clean it up and practice appropriate mealtime behavior.
- response cost - the removal of a pleasant/desired stimulus (e.g., loss of privilege). It is often used in conjunction with a token reinforcement system. For example, when the child demonstrates the inappropriate behavior, a token is removed. If the child loses all of the tokens, a privilege (e.g., TV or computer time) is lost.
This brief overview is only the tip of the iceberg. Any particular strategy has a variety of elements that should be customized for a particular child. This often requires both creativity and in-depth knowledge of these strategies. One excellent resource for both proactive and reactive strategies is the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, whose past issues are all available free online (http://seab.envmed.rochester.edu/jaba/).
6. Keep data to show if the plan is working.
When a behavior varies from day to day, one can easily be misled to think that a behavior intervention is working on "good days" and not working on "bad days." Consistent data collection allows one to focus on the overall effect of the intervention. Three forms of data collection to consider include:
- frequency data - how often is the behavior occurring
- ABC data - if the behavior occurs, what are the antecedents, behaviors, and consequences
- grouping by function - compatible with either of the above two collection procedures, data are grouped based on the function of the behavior (i.e., how many times today did the child engage in the behavior to escape work, gain attention, etc.)
To conclude, while it is only human to ask, "What do I have to do to make this inappropriate behavior go away?" note that the answer to this question is only one component of an effective behavior intervention strategy and only comes after a variety of other steps have been thoroughly considered.