Parenting is an extraordinary journey filled with moments of joy, laughter, and discovery. However, along with these rewarding moments, it’s not uncommon for parents to face challenging behaviours in their children that can leave them feeling overwhelmed and unsure of how to respond. As parents, caregivers, or educators, our primary goal is to provide a nurturing environment that supports the emotional and behavioural growth of our children. Here we look at Positive Behaviour Support (PBS) – a research-backed approach that not only helps us understand the root causes of challenging behaviours but also equips us with proactive strategies to create a positive and supportive environment for our children.
Navigating through the labels commonly used to describe challenging behaviours, such as “tantrums,” “oppositional defiance disorder,” or “behaviour issues,” we’ll explore why understanding the function of these behaviours is crucial. Beyond the topography of actions lies a deeper purpose, an underlying reason our children may be expressing themselves in particular ways. Drawing upon antecedent strategies, setting events, skills training, and functional communication training, we will provide you with a comprehensive toolkit to manage challenging behaviours effectively. By setting the stage for success, addressing triggers, and equipping our children with vital skills, we can foster an environment where positive behaviours thrive and challenging ones fade away. We emphasise the significance of individualisation. Each child is unique, with distinct emotional needs and communication styles. As we tailor our approach, we ensure that our interventions align with their personal growth and development, ultimately leading to happier, healthier, and more harmonious family dynamics. So, let’s embark on this transformative journey together – a journey that empowers us to nurture understanding, patience, and empathy as we unlock the potential within our children and guide them toward a future filled with positivity and self-discovery.
Here’s a list of common search terms commonly used by parents to try and get help with behaviour issues in their children:
- “Oppositional defiance disorder”
- “Child tantrums”
- “How to handle tantrums”
- “Dealing with toddler tantrums”
- “Tantrum management strategies”
- “Tips for stopping tantrums”
- “Temper tantrums in children”
- “Toddler behaviour problems”
- “Disciplining a child with tantrums”
- “Meltdowns in kids”
- “Coping with tantrums in preschoolers”
- “Child behaviour problems”
- “Behaviour issues in children”
- “How to deal with child behaviour problems”
- “Parenting tips for difficult behaviour in kids”
- “Children’s behaviour disorders”
- “Managing challenging behaviour in children”
- “Aggressive behaviour in children”
- “Discipline techniques for kids with behaviour problems”
- “Child tantrums and meltdowns”
- “Child defiance and oppositional behaviour”
In the context of behaviour management and analysis, these terms, such as “child tantrums,” “toddler behaviour problems,” and others, describe the topography of behaviours rather than their underlying function. Topography refers to the physical form or observable characteristics of a behaviour, while function refers to the reason or purpose behind the behaviour. For example, the term “tantrums” describes a specific topography of behaviour, characterised by emotional outbursts, crying, screaming, and sometimes physical actions like kicking or hitting. Similarly, “aggressive behaviour” refers to behaviours that involve hostility, physical harm, or verbal aggression.
In society, these labels are commonly used to describe and categorise behaviours, which can be helpful in identifying and discussing behavioural patterns. However, it’s important to recognise that these labels may lack precision when it comes to understanding why a particular behaviour occurs. This is where the concept of circular reasoning comes into play. Circular reasoning occurs when the reason given to explain a behaviour is similar to the behaviour itself, creating a loop of explanation without providing deeper insights. For example, if we label a child’s behaviour as “tantrums” and then explain it as “the child is having tantrums because they are upset,” we are not really uncovering the root cause of the behaviour.
Why Does The Behaviour Happen?
To truly understand and address behaviour, it’s essential to move beyond the topographical labels and consider the functions that these behaviours serve. Identifying the function means understanding what purpose the behaviour serves for the child. For instance, a tantrum may serve as a way for a child to gain attention, escape a task they dislike, or seek a desired object. Functional analysis involves exploring the antecedents (triggers), behaviours, and consequences in a systematic way to determine the function of the behaviour. By understanding the underlying function, parents, educators, or professionals can develop more effective and targeted strategies to address and modify the behaviour positively. A functional analysis includes a topographical description of the behaviour we are studying which helps us to identify what we are looking at. However, these topographical summaries do not provide insight into why a behaviour occurs. Our society would benefit from moving towards a more function-based approach to behaviour labels, as it allows for more individualised and effective interventions for children and individuals exhibiting challenging behaviours.
Figure 1. Functions of Behaviour
What Can We do?
As parents, caregivers, or educators, we know that dealing with challenging behaviours in children and individuals can be a demanding and emotional journey. However, understanding the underlying reasons for these behaviours and implementing effective strategies can pave the way for positive change. PBS is a key strategies to manage challenging behaviours and foster a supportive environment for individuals with diverse needs.
- Positive Behaviour Support (PBS):
Positive Behaviour Support is an evidence-based approach that focuses on understanding the function of behaviours and implementing proactive strategies to support positive behaviours while reducing challenging ones. Rather than solely reacting to behaviours after they occur, PBS aims to create an environment that prevents challenging behaviours from happening in the first place.
- Antecedent Strategies:
Antecedent strategies involve modifying the environment or conditions before a behaviour occurs to prevent or reduce the likelihood of challenging behaviours. By setting individuals up for success through supportive conditions, we can minimise the triggers that lead to problem behaviours.
a. Structured Routines: Implementing predictable and structured routines can provide a sense of stability and reduce uncertainty for individuals, thus promoting positive behaviours.
b. Environmental Modifications: Creating a calming and organised environment can help reduce sensory overload and enhance individuals’ ability to focus and engage positively.
c. Task Simplification: Breaking tasks into manageable steps and offering clear instructions can increase success and reduce frustration, which may lead to challenging behaviours.
- Setting Events:
Recognising and addressing factors that might trigger challenging behaviours is crucial. Setting events are specific events or circumstances that increase the likelihood of a particular behaviour occurring. By preemptively managing potential challenges, we can create a more supportive environment.
a. Addressing Physical Needs: Ensuring individuals have met their basic needs, such as hunger or fatigue, can reduce the likelihood of behaviours arising from discomfort.
b. Identifying Stressors: Understanding and addressing external stressors, such as changes in routine or unfamiliar situations, can help prevent challenging behaviours.
- Skills Training:
Equipping individuals with the necessary skills to communicate effectively, cope with emotions, and engage in appropriate behaviours is a fundamental aspect of PBS.
a. Communication Skills: Teaching individuals functional communication skills, such as using visuals or verbalisations, empowers them to express their needs and feelings more effectively.
b. Emotional Regulation: Helping individuals develop strategies to manage their emotions, such as deep breathing or self-calming techniques, can promote self-control and reduce impulsive behaviours.
- Setting Up Capable Environments:
Creating environments that accommodate individuals’ needs and preferences can foster a sense of control and reduce stress.
a. Choice and Autonomy: Allowing individuals to make choices within appropriate boundaries can increase their sense of control and reduce frustration.
b. Sensory Spaces: Designing sensory spaces to cater to individuals’ sensory preferences can offer them a safe retreat during times of distress.
- Functional Communication Training:
Functional communication training involves teaching individuals alternative and appropriate ways to communicate their needs and wants, thereby reducing the use of challenging behaviours as a means of communication.
a. Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS): PECS is a powerful tool that uses pictures or symbols to help individuals communicate their desires, feelings, and needs effectively.
b. Visual Schedules: Visual schedules provide a clear and structured representation of tasks and activities, reducing uncertainty and anxiety for individuals because visual processing is so much quicker everyone can benefit from visual information to help reduce anxiety.
Example Scenario Of Challenging Behaviour:
Scenario: A mother and her young child are shopping at the supermarket. The child spots a colorful candy display and eagerly asks the mother, “Can I have a sweet, please?”
Mother’s Initial Response: The mother, knowing that sweets are not a healthy choice, replies calmly, “No, sweetie, we’re not getting any sweets today.”
Child’s Persistent Behaviour: The child, determined to get what they want, starts to plead with the mother, “But please, just one! I really want it! Please!”
Mother’s Reaction: Initially, the mother remains firm with her decision and tries to distract the child with other items in the store. However, the child persists, now becoming more insistent and louder in their demands.
The mother may have given in before and the child knows the mother will eventually give in but she just has to “keep on”.. Gradually the behaviour becomes more an more animated (topography of behaviour is being shaped up to a higher level of response to get reinforcement).
Intermittent Reinforcement: Feeling embarrassed by the escalating scene and wanting to end the public spectacle, the mother eventually gives in and says, “Okay, just this once, but remember, no more sweets for a while!”
Child’s Response: Upon receiving the sweet, the child is delighted and happy. They have learned that persisting and escalating their behaviour led to the desired outcome. The child may now be more likely to use this approach in the future, especially in similar situations where they want something.
Shaping Higher-Level Behaviour: With each successful occurrence and nonoccurence of mother giving in to this demand, the child’s persistence and escalation are reinforced intermittently (not each instance is reinforced). The child has learned that continuing to plead and scream can lead to a higher chance of getting what they want.
Different Responses from Others: As mentioned, the child’s behaviour may vary depending on the responses they receive from different individuals. If the child uses the same tactic with their grandmother, who consistently stays firm with her decisions, the child may be less likely to persist in the same way because they have learned that it doesn’t work with her.
Social Embarrassment: The mother also experiences social embarrassment when her child starts screaming in public. This can add to the motivation to end the situation quickly, leading to intermittent reinforcement this might result in mum being able to refuse sweets or similar at home but not when they are out. It might result in a contextual control of behaviour.
The Importance of Consistency and Functional Assessment: This example highlights the importance of consistency in responding to challenging behaviours. Intermittently reinforcing the behaviour can inadvertently strengthen it over time. To address such behaviours effectively, a functional assessment is essential. Understanding the underlying function of the child’s persistent behaviour can help the mother develop a consistent and targeted intervention plan that promotes positive alternatives, such as teaching the child to ask calmly and accept the mother’s decision.
Conclusion: In this example, we see how a child’s persistent behaviour in the supermarket is shaped by intermittent reinforcement and the mother’s desire to end the situation. By recognising the impact of responses and conducting a functional assessment, parents and caregivers can develop effective strategies to address challenging behaviours positively and consistently. Through consistent and supportive responses, we can empower children to develop appropriate communication and coping skills, leading to more harmonious interactions in public and other settings.
It is every behaviour analysts dream to have parents who are trained and able to implement consistent strategies in the home. In addition, we are experiencing a shortage of people to implement these programs and evidence is emerging that parent training is an incredibly effective tool in behaviour intervention plans. So, we have developed a parent training course which covers behaviour analysis techniques and concepts. This course is certificated and there are 5 modules with multiple choice assessments after each unit and a daily audio cast. This can be completed in your own time and at your own pace, access is for life. The course would take around 2 hours per week to complete and it is currently being offered at just 25 pounds please go to:
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