How to Prevent Challenging Behavior: Part 2

Today we’re covering part 2 of how to prevent challenging behavior from occurring.  This is a follow up to our blog post How to Prevent Challenging Behavior: Part 1.  In Part 1, we covered an important first step in preventing difficult behaviors.  In order to know how to prevent the behavior, it’s important to think about why the behavior is happening.

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 to escape or avoid something.

If your child engages in crying, screaming, hitting, kicking, or any other type of challenging behavior during or right before a difficult, long, or non-preferred task, this may be occurring in order to escape or avoid that task or activity.  If this type of behavior has resulted in your child getting out of things in the past, then this behavior has likely been reinforced, meaning it will continue to happen unless we change the variables around it.

If your child tends to engage in these challenging behaviors in order to get out of something, some great prevention strategies are:

  1. Prepare for transitions.
    Children with autism often struggle with transitions from activity to activity or place to place.  Transitioning to a non-preferred task or simply transitioning away from a preferred task, can result in escape or avoidance maintained behavior.  Preparing your child for this transition can help to mitigate this response.  You can accomplish this through talking about it, if that is appropriate for your child, or using visual supports to help your child understand what is about to happen.  Visual supports can include an entire visual schedule for the day or part of the day, or simply one visual at a time to know what’s to come in the immediate future.  For more information on visual aids and creating schedules, check out our blog post on Visual Schedules and Autism.  The more prepared your child is for what is coming, the less likely they are to engage in challenging behavior to escape or avoid it.  This preparation can also signal them to use any coping skills you may be working on.
  2. Provide Breaks.
    If a task is non-preferred, long, or difficult, it may be prime for escape maintained behavior.  Just as I may avoid long, difficult tasks through procrastination, children with autism may engage in challenging behavior, such as crying or hitting, in order to get out of those kinds of tasks.  If you’ve ever caught yourself working past the point of where you should, you’ve probably realized how important taking breaks can be in keeping yourself going.  When you burn yourself out, you’re less likely to want to take on that kind of work again.  This works the same way for children with autism, providing breaks can help keep your child motivated and less likely to engage in challenging behavior in order to escape the task.  The key here is to provide the break BEFORE the challenging behavior occurs.  Otherwise, you are only reinforcing the challenging behavior by allowing your child to escape.  In order to prevent this, start small.  You can always build up to longer tasks or activities, but you want to make sure you give your child the break ahead of that challenging behavior, so that the task or activity is successful.
  3. Break task into parts.
    Similar to providing breaks, breaking a task into small parts or lessening the difficulty of the task can helpful.  When I break up a seemingly endless to-do list  into small chunks, it becomes much more manageable, and I am more likely to keep going rather than shutting down and avoiding it completely.  If your child has a difficult or long task ahead, you can try to dial down the requirement.  For instance, asking for only 1 section of the room cleaned, rather than the whole thing, or 3 Math problems, rather than the whole page.  Think about ways you can take the task from overwhelming to manageable so that your child can be successful.  The more successful experiences they have, the less likely they are to engage in that challenging behavior in order to escape or avoid the task.
  4. Offer Choices.
    When possible, offering choices can be a great preventative strategy.  This can be done according to task, task order, materials you will use, etc.  For instance, if your child needs to do some homework, you may offer a choice of which assignment you will complete.  If your child needs to brush teeth and get dressed, you can offer a choice of which they complete first.  If working on a worksheet, you can offer a choice of using pen or crayon, or choice of color.  Having some sense of control can help keep your child engaged and less likely to attempt to escape through inappropriate behavior.

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.