How to Prevent Challenging Behavior: Part 1

I think all parents have been there: your child starts melting down in public and you need it to stop, so you may give in to whatever your child is wanting in that moment.  Even at home, I’m sure all parents have experienced times when they just can’t handle the behavior getting bigger than it already is.  You probably know that giving in is not the best idea.  Though it may stop the behavior in the moment, It’s possible that your reactions are only reinforcing the behavior, ensuring that it will continue in the future. You shouldn’t beat yourself up about it; sometimes you need to do what you need to do, but there are things you can do ahead of time to prevent this from happening at all. Start with why this behavior is happening:
  1. Is your child trying to get something? (a toy, going somewhere, food, etc.)
  2. Is your child trying to get out of something? (a Saturday trip to Costco is enough for me to drum up some challenging behavior)
  3. Is your child seeking a reaction or attention from you or someone else?
  4. Is your child undergoing sensory overload or in need of sensory input? (maybe it’s too noisy or your child needs more visual stimulation)
Depending on the reason, there are several strategies you can use to prevent what may have been an inevitable part of your day in the past.  Today, I’m going to cover how to prevent the behavior when your child wants access to something. If your child tends to engage in these challenging behaviors in order to get something, some great prevention strategies are:
  1. Provide access to that item (if possible) in small increments BEFORE the challenging behavior occurs. May seem simple, but if I have what I want, I do not need to engage in challenging behavior to get it. Delivering the item or activity in small increments can help ensure that I don’t satiate (get tired of it) and keeps me motivated throughout the day.
  2. Use a First-Then contingency. If you know your child can’t have what they want in that moment, but you can give it later, you can always use a First-Then contingency.  “First, we ‘re going to Target, then you can have your toy.”  Or,  “First put away blocks, then you can have iPad”.  This way, the item or activity is providing reinforcement for the behavior you’d like to see, but it’s also a good way to let your child know what to expect.
  3. Offer choices of other options before the challenging behavior occurs. If you know you can’t deliver what your child wants in a particular moment, you can think about other things you can deliver and offer your child choices.  Just make sure this isn’t turning into bargaining, following the challenging behavior.  This should be an option to prevent the behavior.  Choices are always a great tool, as it gives your child some control over the situation.
  4. Keep your child occupied with appropriate activities. The more occupied I am with appropriate activities, the less likely I am to engage in inappropriate behavior.  At home, it’s important to make sure your child has a variety of activities he or she can engage in independently.  Setting up play areas where toys are organized and easily accessible can help your child know what to do.  If you’re going to be in public, planning some easily transported activities your child can keep occupied with can be really helpful.

I think most of us always want to know what to do about a behavior after it’s occurred, but one of the most important pieces to behavior management is preventing challenging behavior from happening in the first place.  Using these strategies can be a really powerful tool in supporting your child and maintaining your sanity.  In the next few blogs, we’ll cover prevention strategies for other reasons your child may be engaging in challenging behavior.