One of the challenges parents often face is attempting to figure out why their child is engaging in problem behaviors. Being able to recognize the function of a behavior is essential for teaching a child how to get what they want in an appropriate manner without strengthening problem behaviors.
Why do problem behaviors occur? (S.E.A.T)
The function of a behavior occurs because of one of four reasons: self-stimulating (sensory), to escape from something, attention seeking, or to get something they want (tangible). S.E.A.T is an easy acronym to help you remember these 4 functions. Often children with autism struggle to communicate and engage in problem behaviors to get their point across. A tantrum could be saying, “I don’t want to do this.” Hitting may translate to, “Hey, give that back to me!” Scratching oneself can be pleasing to the child or self-stimulating.
What do they want?
An appetite stimulus is something that child wants more of. Examples may include praise, an iPad, toys, or candy. An aversive stimulus is something the child does not want or wants to get away from including homework, demands, or a barking dog.
Behavior can be broken down into three parts in order to predict the function of the behavior,
Antecedent Behavior Consequence or ABC.
Antecedent is what happens before the behavior occurs. It may be a change in temperature, a demand, or a want. Behavior is anything a person does. Consequence is what happens after the behavior occurs including access to a toy, attention, or being ignored.
Let’s break down these examples:
Ex. 1 – Billy sees his milk bottle on the table and begins to cry. Mom gives Billy his bottle.
Ex. 2 – Dad tells Bob its time to do homework. Bob starts hitting dad and dad takes away homework and says “Ok! We can do it later”.
Reinforcement is as stimulus (anything you can touch, taste, smell, or hear) that increases the future occurrence of a behavior. Wait, what? When a baby wants to be picked up from the crib it cries and what does a mother do? Run to the crib to attend to the crying baby. Attention is a stimulus in this example. So now the baby has learned that every time she wants attention she just has to cry and mom will come running to pick her up. Therefore, in the future the baby will cry more in order to get attention from mom.
Reinforcement can be broken down into positive or negative reinforcement. Positive reinforcement gets a person something. It may be to get an item (tangible), for attention, or self stimulating (sensory). Negative reinforcement gets a person out of something. It may be for escape from an aversive stimulus.
In this example the baby wants milk and begins to cry. The baby is given milk (+). The baby now cries every time she wants milk. The crying behavior has increased. Instead teach the child how to ask or point for milk.
In this example, homework is presented. The child hits dad and homework is removed (-). The child now hits dad every time homework is presented. This punching behavior has increased. Instead ask the child how to ask for a break.
In order to decrease problem behaviors, we have to STOP reinforcing these behaviors and instead reinforce appropriate behaviors. Now that you know WHY challenging behaviors occur let’s go over how to respond most effectively
How to Respond
Tangible seeking behaviors occur when the child wants something. Teach the child to point, ask, or complete a specific behavior in order to gain access to what they want. Alternate betwee n fun preferred items and activities and not preferred items and activities. Reward long periods of good behavior with the preferred item.
Attention seeking behaviors occur when the child wants to socially interact with another person. Teach the child to how to get attention by tapping, saying name, or other desirable behaviors. Remember not to just give attention for bad behaviors (Stop that! No! Don’t stand on the table!), but for good behaviors as well (Good job! Keep it up!). If you’re not able to give attention at the moment give child a preferred activity.
Escape behaviors occur when a child is trying to avoid or get away from something aversive. Teach child how to ask for a break or say “no”. Allow child to choose between activities and break the activity into smaller parts allowing multiple breaks. Remember, learning should be fun!
Sensory behaviors occur at any time, alone or around people. Teach a similar behavior that provides the same/ similar sensory input. Keep the environment full of stimulating toys and games.
SUM IT UP!
It’s important to know why the behavior is occurring in order to reinforce the good behavior and not the problem behavior. For example, if a child is having a tantrum because he doesn’t want to eat (escape), taking away the plate of food would be reinforcing his bad behavior. Instead, the child needs to sign that he’s all done or say “no”. Remember the ABC (Antecedent, Behavior, Consequence) of behavior in order to determine the function (S.E.A.T): sensory, to get away from something (escape), for attention, or to get something (tangible). An appetitive stimulus is something a child wants. Aversive stimulus is something the child wants to avoid or get away from. It may not seem functional to allow your child to say “no” or get whatever they want as long as they do it appropriately but once your child has mastered these skills and problem behaviors stop, the next step is to teach a tolerance to “no” and increase the time to get reinforcement. Remember, reinforcement increases the occurrence of behavior, good or bad.
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