7 Proactive Strategies for Dealing with Problem Behaviors

It is natural for all children to become frustrated and agitated throughout their young lives. As adults, it is our job to give them the tools they can use to channel their frustration with a problem into a solution. However, for children with Autism, sometimes becoming frustrated happens more often than not and their reaction to this feeling can be extreme as a result of their lack of coping skills. Applied Behavior Analysis offers two effective ways to handle problem behavior: antecedent or proactive interventions, and consequence or reactive interventions. When used in combination, these approaches provide parents, caregivers, and teachers, with the tools they need for preventing and managing problem behavior.

Proactive strategies are the tactics most of us use on a regular basis to help prevent frustration from becoming too overwhelming. You might recognize them as the ways you stay organized, or the approach you use to simplify your daily life. For children with Autism, because frustration triggers are more prevalent and frequent proactive strategies take on a whole new meaning and importance. As adults, we can ease their frustration by improving their understanding of the events occurring around them. The following is a list of 7 strategies you can implement:

  1. Schedules and Timers 

    Children with Autism often struggle with the deviations or changes in their regular schedule. As an example, your child many not understand why they have to go to school every weekday, except on the fourth Monday of each month, when there are parent-teacher conferences. That modification may frustrate your child. By creating schedules, calendars, using timers or even simply listing your child’s daily activities you may be able to eliminate some of the unneeded frustration in your child’s life.

  2. Rewards for Appropriate Behavior 

    While it may seem unorthodox to reward your child for things they should be doing on a regular basis, children with Autism often learn best how to behave through positive reinforcement. For example, when you praise them for sitting down at the dinner table quietly and offer them something meaningful in return, it will make more of an impact than corrective feedback (Don’t yell!), punishment (Go to timeout!), or explaining to them what the expected behavior is (“I said when we sit down, we are quiet”). However, positive reinforcement systems need to be designed and well thought out in order for them to be effective.  The parent needs to know in advance the type of behavior they expect in a situation and the corresponding reward if it is successfully exhibited. As an example, a parent’s goal might be to improve their child’s car-riding behavior. If their child is able to ride in the car from point A to point B appropriately, perhaps their favorite cookie would be a reward. But the parent needs to make sure they have those cookies on hand. They must also ensure the child has not had that same cookie during the day. If that is the case, then in the child’s eyes, the reward may be meaningless. This approach may sound exhausting, but rest-assured, it is less demanding than managing problem behavior on a constant basis.

  3. Providing Choices 

    We all have preferences: chocolate versus vanilla ice cream, a Coke versus a Pepsi cola and a hard mattress versus a soft one. As adults we realize that if the choice we like is not available then we will take whatever is left. Yet, for children with Autism they experience intense and frequent needs for unique or specific items and often are unable to understand why their choice is unavailable. That’s why, when possible offer your child a choice of activity, food item or piece of clothing. It may seem like a simple gesture to you. But in the larger picture this act will help eliminate unnecessary confrontation, thereby making it easier for you and your child to manage frustration around items or activities that are not a choice (i.e. bedtime, brushing teeth, bath time, toileting, etc.).

  4. Free Access 

    Sometimes, it’s easier to concede than to stand firm when facing a tantrum. Before you get to that point, we recommend, that you and your family proactively decide which things you are not going to fight over with your child. Maybe a favorite stuffed animal, a favorite snack item or a favorite TV show are items you will always let your child have. Consider these things ‘free’ or non-negotiables for your child. Once you determine what things are not and what things are free, it will help create realistic boundaries for you, your child, and your family, and potentially eliminate daily problem behavior.

  5. Language Training

    Problem behavior is often based in language deficits. Meaning, children with Autism may engage in problem behavior because they are frustrated with their inability to communicate a want or need. Teaching your child a way to communicate and actively reinforcing that communication (granting the request) will help decrease the problem behavior. Often some initial experiences with language for children with Autism are pointing or gesturing to the items. Other examples include pulling adults over to preferred items and echoing language for preferred items (Parent: “Cookie,” Child: “cookie,” Parent: “Here is a cookie! Nice talking!”) or making approximations for things they like or want (Child: “Buh” for bubbles, Parent: *blows bubbles*, “nice asking for bubbles!”).

  6. Social Stories

    Outings such as birthday parties, school field trips, and even a meal at a restaurant are all opportunities for your child to practice appropriate social behavior. Before the outing, we suggest you prepare your child for expected behaviors using a story that includes pictures that are relevant and clear. For instance, if your child is struggling with understanding the expected behaviors at school create a story that details what might happen in such a situation. By doing so, you will help your child anticipate what will happen and how to deal with it. Additionally, the story should be detailed with the behaviors the child should exhibit and the positive consequences they will encounter following the excursion.

  7. Modeling

    Keep in mind, children with Autism can often be very good at scripting known or preferred activities. Their ability to re-enact or imitate certain behaviors is excellent. Always model what you would like them to do, and reward them for attempts to copy you (or siblings, or others, etc.). Likewise, by using video models (videos of other people or favorite characters) doing the right thing are a great tool, and easily accessible these days via the Internet. Similarly, you can create your own videos using your family members and watch them together, as a family.

Remember, this is just a small sample of available interventions using proactive strategies. For continued interest in antecedent, or proactive interventions based in Applied Behavior Analysis, please see the resources linked below.

Should you have any questions or concerns and you are in the greater Chicago, Illinois area, please contact us directly.

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