How To Decrease Challenging Behavior

I wish I could tell you there was a quick fix; all you need to do is ____ and your child’s challenging behavior will disappear. Unfortunately, there is no pill or device that will do that.  What does work, and many years of scientific research supports this, is a package of strategies derived from the principles of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). In tackling those challenging behaviors, such as crying, screaming, kicking, hitting, head banging, etc., we start by looking at the behavior’s function.


In order to change behavior, we need to know the behavior’s function.  In other words, we need to understand the reason an individual is doing what they’re doing. We all engage in behavior for a reason.  We may not always be conscious of it, but there is still a purpose or a reason we continue to emit a certain behavior.  I drink water to quench my thirst.  I call my mom to hear her voice.  Challenging behaviors are no different. Once we know a behavior’s function, we can utilize strategies to decrease that challenging behavior, while supporting a child in getting his or her needs met.

We typically talk about the 4 functions of behavior as:

  • Access
  • Attention
  • Escape/avoidance
  • Automatic

The quick explanation:

  • Access: I engage in this behavior in order to gain access to something.
    Ex: I’m told I can’t get a new toy at Target- I scream and throw myself on the floor- My dad says, “fine, but you have to promise to be good for the rest of the day.”
    Result: I got access to my toy
  • Escape/Avoidance: I engage in behavior in order to escape of avoid something
    Ex: I’m in Math class, which is really hard for me-I hit a student next to me- I get sent out of the room
    Result: I escaped Math class
  • Attention: I engage in behavior in order to gain attention
    Ex: I’m alone playing with my blocks and mom is busy cooking- I dump my blocks all over the floor- Mom comes running over and scolds me
    Result: I got mom’s attention
  • Automatic:  The behavior itself is reinforcing.  I don’t need anyone else in order to get what I need.  Behaviors with an automatic function are often those behaviors people refer to as “sensory” because they may have a sensory component.
    Ex: My ear hurts- I hit my ear- The pain is dulled

    Ex: I do not have enough visual stimulation- I wave my hands in front of my face- I have more visual stimulation.

So, how do we determine function?

We look at what surrounds the behavior, what comes before and what comes after.  We call this the Antecedent and Consequence.

For instance, let’s look at the Escape example.  If a student is hitting during class, I want to look at what is happening before and after that hitting.  If I started tracking all of this, I would see that in this example, the hitting is happening during Math class.  Further, if I looked at what happened after the hitting, I would see that the student was routinely getting sent out of the classroom.  While meant to be a punishment, this getting sent out of the room, or escape, is actually reinforcing this hitting behavior, or increasing the probability that it will continue to happen in similar situations in the future. This is how we would hypothesize that the function maintaining the hitting behavior is escape.

We’ve determined the function- now what?

There are 3 main pieces to this puzzle:

  1. Preventative Strategies
  2. Replacement Behaviors
  3. Consequence Strategies.

One part of the package on its own isn’t enough.  Typical discipline or behavior management approaches usually only include a consequence.  If a consequence alone were enough, you probably wouldn’t be reading this post.

Preventative Strategies:

First things first, we want to think about how we can prevent the behavior from happening. This is another reason we need to know the function of the behavior.  Let’s say we’ve determined that the function of my behavior is access.  If I engage in crying to get access to a favorite toy, is there anything we can do to prevent this behavior from occurring for this purpose?  Maybe I could get access to the toy ahead of time.  If I am able to play with my favorite toy in small doses throughout the day, I’m less likely to cry to get it.  A quick, but very important note- this would need to happen BEFORE the crying occurs.  If we give the toy after the crying behavior, we are only reinforcing it, ensuring that it will happen more in the future.

Replacement Behaviors:

Next, we want to teach your child how to get their needs met in a more appropriate way.  If I scream in order to get access to a toy, what would be a more appropriate way to get the toy?  Asking nicely, right?  Not every child has the vocal language to do this, but there are other ways, such as sign language, PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System), or even pointing to start.  This is another reason why building those communication skills is so important.

Consequence Strategies:

Finally, we want to teach consequence strategies.  There are several, and it really depends on your child and specific behavior, but I want to touch on the basics of a concept called extinction.  Fundamentally, extinction is no longer providing whatever consequence was maintaining or reinforcing that behavior.  In other words, no longer providing whatever your child is trying to get (access to a toy, attention, escape from Math, etc.) from that challenging behavior.  If I don’t want my child screaming to gain access to a toy, I need to stop giving the toy in response to the screaming.  If I don’t want my student hitting to escape Math class, I need to stop sending her out of the room.  This may seem obvious or easy, but it’s not.  Implementing extinction can be really difficult when you just need the crying/screaming, kicking (fill in the blank here) to stop.

This is part of why we teach that replacement behavior.  It makes sense when you think about it- If I know that screaming gets me my toy, why would I ask nicely? Also, if I don’t know how to ask nicely, I’m likely to find another way that is probably less desirable.  However, if I no longer get the toy when I scream, but asking nicely gets me the toy, what am I more likely to do in the future?

I know this is really simplified and life is much more complicated than this, but all behavior intervention is built on these principles.  It’s best to consult with a BCBA or ABA professional to determine a behavior’s function and the best course of action for intervention.

For more information on how ABA works and how to apply these principles to your own child’s behavior, take a look at our foundational course on ABA and Behavior Management.  Even if you are already working with an ABA provider, it’s important to really understand how all of this works and educate yourself to be able to better support your child.  Reducing these challenging behaviors through ABA will not only create a more peaceful experience in your home, but can lead to a happier child who is able to get their needs met.