Effectively Handling Problematic Behavior

All children, regardless of whether or not they are on the autism spectrum, exhibit inappropriate behaviors from time to time. These behaviors are often innocent enough, but can become a problem when they are persistent and negatively affect your child and those around them.  By learning to understand why your child exhibits certain negative behaviors, you are better able to eliminate them, and/or teach appropriate replacement behaviors. This article will discuss functions of behavior, or rather what the underlying reason is for the behavior, and help you identify why your child is exhibiting the inappropriate or negative behaviors.  By knowing why your child is acting out, you can more effectively improve the behavior.

Why do Children Misbehave?
Many parents, when there is a question about why the behavior is occurring, often attribute it to internal factors.  They may suggest that the child is tired, or hungry, or has had too much sugar.  Children act inappropriately for a number of reasons. Before exploring interventions for functions of behavior, it is important to eliminate any medical reasons of why the behavior may surface.  Children with autism can suffer a litany of co-morbidities from seizures to sleep troubles that can have detrimental effects on their behavior. After any physical reasons for the behavior have been ruled out, it’s important to then look at the possible reasons why the behavior is occurring.  Four common functions of behavior discussed in this article are: Attention Seeking, Seeking Access to Materials or a Tangible, Escape/Avoidance, and Self Stimulatory.  They are detailed below:

Attention Seeking: Children may exhibit problematic behavior as a means to gain attention from a parent, caregiver or peer. A lot of the time this can be attributed to ineffective communication skills.   Although it may seem counter-intuitive, psychologists have determined that children would rather receive negative attention than to receive no attention at all.

Solution: Teaching appropriate communication skills (using vocal language, sign language, PECS, etc...) and not allowing the problematic behavior to receive attention can be ways to address the issue.

Seeking Access to Materials or a Tangible: Some behaviors are a result of a person trying to acquire something. In some instances, they may be allowed to have the item but didn't ask appropriately for it. In other cases, the item is completely off limits regardless of how they communicated their want or need.  For example, a child might make a public scene until you break down and buy them the candy bar they wanted while waiting in line.

Solution: You would treat each one a little differently.  For a child that displayed problematic behavior when being told that he couldn't have the item he wanted to, a parent would follow through with denial to access to that item.  If the child is asking inappropriately for an item that they could in fact have, the parent should wait until the child is quiet and calm, model the appropriate way to ask for the item, and then reinforce the appropriate communication.

Escape/Avoidance: These behaviors occur when a person is presented with a demand that is undesirable. For example, a child might be asked to sit at circle time.  Once he sits down, he turns to his neighbor and hits his classmate.  The teacher removes him from circle time and sends him to the principal's office.

Solution: In the above described example, the child was actually reinforced for the problematic behavior.  By being removed from circle time, he was removed from the demand condition.  As a result of this reinforcement, next time he is presented with a similar demand, he is likely to perform the same behavior.  In short, it worked.  If a child is displaying problematic behavior as a result of a demand being placed on him, you want to look at the demand itself and determine what the variables may be that make the demand so difficult to comply with.  You may also increase the level of reinforcement for when the child displays the appropriate behavior and/or change the level of prompting to help the child be successful.  You can also work on increasing functional communication skills to teach the child to ask for a break, be able to ask for help and/or describe any issue he is having with the demand placed on him.

Self-Stimulation: Sometimes problematic behavior occurs regardless of the external conditions, but because the behavior feels good to the individual.  Self-stimulatory behaviors can come in a variety of forms.  Some most common may be hand flapping, body rocking, and finger flicking.

Solution: You can teach your child some replacement behaviors that compete with the self-stims that may be more socially appropriate.  Trying to block all self-stimulatory behavior can often be counter productive. An alternative may be teaching the individual to perform those self-stimulatory behaviors in appropriate settings and/or at appropriate times (if possible). It's also helpful to teach your child how to recognize the triggers that cause stimming and give them strategies of how to avoid those triggers.

Children will engage in the behaviors that are most likely to work.  If those behaviors happen to be problematic, it is key to treat them appropriately and teach functional replacement behaviors.  Decreased problematic behavior will provide increased social opportunities for the child, providing them with an enriched life and greater opportunities to grow.  Developing a systematic way to track the behavior (ie. ABC Chart_NAN attached) and implementing the appropriate intervention related to the function can be instrumental in improving everyday behavior and quality of life of your child and family.  Working with a Board Certified Behavior Analyst can be extremely advantageous in this process and provide the necessary training to individualize these procedures and determine the effectiveness of the interventions.


For further training and/or consultation on this subject, contact us below or call 919.371.2848.

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  1. Nora Arnold
    August 16, 2015 at 01:35

    I need help with my 16 years old High School teen Just diagnosed 2 months ago.

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