Step by Step: Being a Replacement Teacher
In our previous article, ‘Why is Challenging Behavior Happening?’, we examined the circumstances and outcomes that explain why behavioral challenges occur. One of the key take-aways is that, in order to create durable change, we must replace challenging behaviors with more effective and appropriate alternatives that fulfil the same purpose. Here are some examples:
PURPOSE: Gaining an interaction that helps
- Challenging Behavior: Screaming
- Replacement Skills: Bringing a toy to initiate play Saying “Can we talk, please?”
PURPOSE: Escaping a task that is difficult
- Challenging Behavior: Throwing Materials
- Replacement Skills: Putting materials away Asking for a break
Selecting a good replacement behavior may seem pretty straightforward, but how do we effectively teach these skills, especially when we are all still coping with the challenges?
We can’t teach someone to swim when they are drowning
As a parent who is with your child 24-7, you can make the best teacher. To be thorough and efficient, teaching should involve the following seven steps.
1. Set a goal
Work as a team to set a SMARTE goal so everyone is really clear of what the new behavior looks like when it is being completed successfully and independently.
SMARTE goals are: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Timed, Evaluated
• Specific: conditions in which the behavior is needed are clearly described.
• Measurable: clearly defined that we can measure how often the skill is used.
• Achievable: the behavior is doable for the child, even when they are stressed.
• Relevant: using this behavior will meet the child’s assessed needs.
• Timed: criteria include how often the behavior will be reassessed.
• Evaluation: goal specifies how often, well, and long the
It is essential that the replacement behavior goal help children meet the same needs as the challenging behavior would. See the following video as an illustration of the teaching process with Elly.
Elly’s behavior has ‘tantrums’ in the form of yelling, screaming, and verbal protests. Tantrums typically lasted anywhere from 1-5 minutes approximately three times a day.
The “why” was to escape any kind of non-preferred activity: daily living skill, instruction to play, or work on an activity. She also was motivated by adult attention.
The replacement behavior is a simple phrase that when used will provide the same outcome as tantrum in the past would. For example, when Elly says the replacement phrase of “I don’t want___””, the adult will give choices and/or a break from the demand – like a snooze button for demand.
The SMARTE goal for Elly in the video is
‘When Elly want to or escape a demand, Elly will say “I don’t want that”’ 100% of the time by the end of 4 weeks of practice.”
** It is important to get everything you need so you are ready to teach. Remember, failing to plan is planning to fail. Preparation includes determining who will be involved, what you will need, where and when the teaching will occur, and how exactly you plan to teach the skill. Young people learn best when we include them in the process and build on their strengths and interests.
In the video, lots of preparation has already occurred. Different types of hair bands are available in the drawers and her mother has time to talk with Elly to resolve her concerns (i.e., they are not rushing out the door).
3.Teach the skill
.Demonstrate the skill and teach positively through role play, modeling, or video modeling, whatever is the child’s preferred method of learning. Make sure you give your child enough support (prompting) to succeed the first time and then fade your support little by little as they grow in skill and confidence.
As soon as Elly starts to pull away and fuss, her mom reminds her that she must use her words to communicate. She provides Elly with different choices of how to wear her hair and models how to ask.
4.Reinforce effort and success
It is important that when children use the replacement behavior, we respond quickly with praise and feedback and attentively so they learn that this is the most effective way to get their needs met. Sometimes children benefit from extra rewards (e.g., special activities, snacks, tokens, free time) when starting to learn new behaviors, helping their effort feel noticed and appreciated.
When Elly states she does not want something and wants something else (i.e., to have her hair pulled up with two bows), her mother responds to her request immediately and with added attention and praise.
5.Practice makes perfect
It will take a lot of practice to learn a new habit. Remember to practice often. As practice continues, you can reduce your reminders and assistance, use more natural rewards, and even add new and more complex skills and tolerance behaviors such as waiting or accepting no. The goal is that children can complete the new behavior automatically when faced with triggering events.
Since Elly runs into situations in which she has to do things she doesn’t necessarily want to do every day, there are plenty of opportunities to teach her to communicate her desires more effectively. Her mother views all of these as teaching opportunities.
Once a new behavior is learned in a specific setting or with one family member, it is important to practice the behavior in different settings and routines, with different people, and with different materials.
Elly needs to learn to use her words to negotiate alternatives during dressing, snacks, playing with her siblings, and her bedtime routine. Her mother determines which choices will be available to her in each of these situations and prompts communication.
**7. Maintain and monitor **
Sometimes, as children develop and circumstances change, we forget to acknowledge or respond to these replacement behaviors and children return to challenging behaviors. To prevent this, you can check in during situations that used to provoke challenging behavior periodically to make sure the new behavior is still occurring successfully.
Once Elly has learned to use her words effectively to deal with challenging situations, her mother teaches her that sometimes she has to accept options as is (e.g., when hurrying out the door). She teaches Elly to say “Ok this time” and to ask if she can do something different later.
It is helpful for families to remember that teaching does not only include common skills such as daily living skills or academics. We must learn to teach behavioral skills such as communication, imitation, coping strategies, self-regulation, advocacy, and tolerance. These are pre-requisite skills to reach goals for quality of life changes that last.
Some Final Tips
1.Find out why the behavior is occurring. Knowing the purpose of your child’s behavior helps you work out what to teach the child to do instead of the challenging behavior.
2.Focus on teaching one new behavior one step at a time. It’s easy to try to do too much too soon, thereby overwhelming yourself and your child.
3.Try your best to make sure all family and supporters understand what you are trying to achieve and are on board, so every potential learning opportunity is maximized.
4.Don’t worry about a little extra reward when new behaviors are being learned. If they are easy efficient and effective, most replacement behaviors quickly become the go-to behavior and you can fade additional rewards quickly.
Meme Hieneman, has a Ph.D. in Special Education and is nationally certified as a behavior analyst. She has published a variety of articles, chapters, and books including “Parenting with Positive Behavior Support: A Practical Guide to Resolving Your Child’s Difficult Behavior.” In her professional career, Meme has worked with children with severe behavior problems for more than 20 years.
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This post originally appeared on our November/December 2020 Magazine