What’s our approach to challenging behaviour? Well, we must first take the time to understand behaviour.
All behaviour serves a purpose. We all engage in behaviours that ‘work for us,’ and stop engaging in, or refrain from, behaviours that don’t work for us or for which the effort outweighs the payoff. We wouldn’t wake up in the morning and get ourselves to work if it didn’t enable us to pay our bills and fund our vices. The following image from the Geneva Centre for Autism depicts how the effects of our behaviour impact the likelihood that we will continue those behaviours. You may not be familiar with some of the terms but that’s not important for our purpose here, just notice the cause and effect.
When we are trying to address challenging behaviour, we must first understand what purpose (aka function) the behaviour serves. This process is referred to as functional assessment. Intuitively, parents or caregivers will try to interpret challenging behaviour, and sometimes the answer can be relatively straight forward. But behaviour is influenced by many factors including the environment, situational triggers, and historical or anticipated outcomes (how have people responded in the past?). Behaviour is also influenced by factors such as being tired, hunger, how well we feel, or even our own repertoire of skills (e.g. problem-solving, anxiety management, etc.). So, figuring it all out can sometimes be more complex than we would hope.
In reality, what seems like one why question, really involves a whole series of questions, but many would be related to these 3 below:
1. What is the desired payoff, or what is the child likely trying to accomplish or get? This is what is referred to as the function of the behaviour. To identify the function, we look at the ABCs of the challenging behaviour; the antecedents, behaviours, and consequences. Antecedent refers to what happened just before the behaviour, the ‘B’ refers to the targeted behaviour, and the ‘C’ refers to consequence or what happened just after the behaviour. We often use charts such as this to record instances and look for patterns:
If we see that a child frequently tantrums when asked to turn off the tablet, and that this usually results in more time with the tablet, of course the child will continue to tantrum. If a child starts tossing toys everytime his mother gets on the phone, resulting in his mother getting off the phone to manage the behaviour, he will continue to toss toys to get attention.
The most common functions of behavior are described here:
2. Another useful distinction is understanding whether the child is trying to manage internal events (sensory or physiological events) or external events (observable events or conditions in the environment). Things can be relatively straight forward, although we’re not saying easy, if the child is trying to influence the environment (e.g. trying to get our attention, avoid hair brushing or homework). It gets a bit trickier however if a child is engaging in behaviours in an attempt to get sensory input or regulate arousal/emotions. Decreasing the behaviour of a child who eats sand to get a reaction from his/her parent requires very different strategies than trying to reduce that same behaviour if the child is eating the sand because he likes the sensation.
3. The final question we’ll address is the extent to which the behaviour of concern is related to a skill deficit or performance deficit. Is the problem related to a ‘can’t do’ or a ‘won’t do,’ because this significantly impacts the plan. One of the most common and most versatile behaviour management strategies is that of the ‘good behaviour chart’. If the child genuinely understands what is expected and the behaviour is something they can do but just aren’t motivated to do, this alone can be effective. Such a strategy would not however be effective at addressing a skills deficit. For example, there will be some children who lash out at other children in yard; they know they shouldn’t, but there’s little reason for them not to. Perhaps they are trying to get the other children to go away and they have the ability to say ‘I don’t want to play,’ but it’s just easier or more effective for them to lash out. In this instance, you can probably get away with establishing some rules, identifying a reinforcer, and ‘contracting’ with the child. However, some children will engage in behaviours with peers related to a social skills deficit. They may not understand how to appropriately get a peer’s attention, or may have difficulty with social problem solving, or understanding other’s perspectives. In this instance, a behaviour chart or token economy will do little to change behaviour without explicitly teaching important skills. In reality for most children, it’s likely a bit of both, but still an important consideration.
Once we can answer these questions, we can select strategies that have the greatest chance of success.
Visit our services page if you want to learn more about how we can help with challenging behaviour.