Use Your Words Replacing Problem Behavior with Communication
Darrin begins shifting his body weight, then mumbling, and then finally screaming. Something is clearly amiss, but what? His grandmother starts offering him food items and toys and trying different ways to soothe him (e.g., rocking, massage, music). She finally takes him to another room, hoping that a change of scenery will help. What did Darrin need? Only he could tell her.
The majority of problem behavior children with special needs experience is related to communication challenges. Children want something, or want out of something, but cannot adequately express their needs. Parents and other caregivers often respond by trying to fix the situation for the child as in the example above, but that is not a long-term solution. To effectively support children, we must teach them how to communicate effectively.
The first step in replacing problem behavior with communication is to determine the likely purpose of a child’s behavior. These purposes might include getting attention, items, or activities, or avoiding, delaying, or getting help in a difficult situation. To figure out these purposes, we pay attention to the situations in which the behavior occurs (and does not occur) and what the child typically receives as a result of the behavior. It is important not just to label the function as attention, tangible, or escape; but instead figure out exactly what a child is trying to get or avoid.
The table below shows different messages, the situations that are likely to prompt communication, and the different things children might be trying to express (i.e., “words” children might say if they could).
Once we have a good idea of what a child is trying to say through his or her behavior – noting that these messages may be quite different across situations, we can teach them other, more appropriate ways to express those needs. This teaching process is often called “functional communication training” and is embedded in a variety of instructional programs.
Here is a summary of the steps:
Set the Stage for Success
If opportunities to teach communication happen naturally throughout the day, and you can “get out in front of them”, that is the best option. For example, if your child typically wants to go outside after breakfast, plays video games upon his arrival home, or becomes frustrated when asked to do brush his teeth, you can use those as opportunities to teach. If things are not this predictable, you can set the stage for learning. For example, you might put a toy out of reach to encourage your child to ask for
Once the stage is set, you need to prompt communication BEFORE problem behavior occurs. As soon as your child signals what she wants (e.g., by looking in that direction), you must provide a means to request it. The form of communication maybe different depending on each child’s capabilities. For example, a child might use gestures, sounds, picture cues, signs, words, or full sentences. The important thing is that it be doable for the child. You might, start with something very simple such as a sound or movement. You can always increase your expectations to include more complex communication after they are initially successful.
When prompting communication, you also need to decide how to best help your child to use the new form of communication. You may tell them (e.g., “remember to ask me to _ by saying __”), show them (e.g., by modeling a sign or gesture), guide them (e.g., hand them a picture card or physically prompt the action), or use more subtle prompts such as pointing or standing between the child and what they want. As with the forms of communication, you want to use what works for your child and will maximize your chances of success.
The following video shows how parents prompt their children to communicate using words and pictures – instead of problem behavior – to get attention, request activities, and delay unpleasant circumstances.
Reinforce Only the Words
For appropriate communication to replace problem behavior, you must make sure that positive outcomes occur only after the expected behavior, and that you can withhold reinforcement following problem behavior. For example, if your child asks for attention, activities, or items appropriately, you should provide them. If he demands, screams, grabs, or uses other problem behavior, he must wait. If your child tantrums to get out of a task, she should complete at least one small step and then ask to be excused. For children who are just learning, reinforcement needs to be immediate. Once children learn to communicate effectively and consistently, they can be taught to tolerate delays or accept other options. They may also be required to use more elaborate forms of communication such as phrases or sentences.
Ultimately, parents want children to not only communicate to get or avoid things, but also to use language to share information and engage in conversation. Once a child learns that “words” have power, they are likely to be increasingly interested in learning to repeat words they hear or label what they see. Teaching these types of skills (e.g., “can you say _” or “what is this?”) during interactions, reinforcing responses with praise or more tangible items, will give children a greater array of options for expressing themselves.
As children’s repertoires of language become more elaborate, conversational skills can be developed. Conversations can be verbal (e.g., talking about the day), but may also be supplemented or replaced by using pictures or items. A great tool for elaborating communication skills is a conversation book that is stocked with a child’s favorite people, places, and activities. As a child flips pages, he can comment on items or ask questions using words, sounds, signs, or gestures depending on his ability.
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.