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General Strategies for Dealing with Problem Behaviours

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There are many reasons why children misbehave. As a parent, teacher or early childhood professional, one of the first steps in dealing with problem behaviours is to try and figure out what is the “function”, or purpose of the behaviour. In other words, what does your child get when she behaves this way? The purpose of any behaviour is either to avoid or to gain access to objects, activities, attention, or sensory stimulation.

Once you have a good idea about the purpose of the behaviour you can begin to deal with it by making the problem behaviour:

  • irrelevant (not important) – first, try to prevent it from happening, such as making changes to the environment, routines, tasks, teaching methods, and the timing of events
  • inefficient (to have no value) – teach a different and more appropriate behaviour that will serve the same purpose for your child, but will be simple for her to do instead
  • ineffective (not successful) – change the end results or the consequences so that it no longer helps your child to avoid or gain access to objects, activities, attention, or sensory stimulation.

Remember — When attempting to change a problem behaviour, it may get worse before it gets better. Be patient and persistent when attempting to make change.

Here are some general strategies for dealing with problem behaviour that can be used with the following specific functions:

Obtain Objects or Activities

When the purpose for problem behaviour is to gain access to an object or activity,

  • Provide an appropriate replacement. Give your child another way to get the object or activity. For example, make this object easier for your child to access or reach.
  • Teach your child different ways of asking for the item or activity, such as using the Picture Exchange Communication System, gestures, vocalizations, and words.
  • Don’t respond to problem behaviour as if it is a type of communication. For example: If your child is screaming in front of the computer for it to be turned on, wait until she has calmed down, praise her for being calm, then give her the desired result.
  • Do not provide any type of reward for the inappropriate behaviour. Provide as little attention as possible. Redirect your child in a very neutral manner.

Obtain Attention

If problem behaviour seems to be motivated by the need for attention,

  • Attempt to ignore the behaviour, or provide as little attention as possible. For example, if your child bangs the table to get your attention, wait until she has stopped banging and then give her attention. Do not look at or acknowledge the banging while it occurs.
  • Provide more attention and praise when your child is doing the right kinds of things. When your child is sitting and playing, or doing an activity, give her lots of attention, such as saying “Nice job doing your puzzle!”
  • Teach your child to seek attention more appropriately by calling a person by name, taking an adult by the hand, tapping the adult on the shoulder, or by producing a specific sign or exchanging a picture symbol to make this request.

Remember that negative attention, such as raising your voice, can be just as reinforcing to some children.

Obtain Sensory Stimulation

If your child is seeking sensory stimulation in an inappropriate way,

  • Replace! Determine what kind of sensory stimulation your child is seeking and provide it in a more appropriate manner. For example, if your child bites or puts things (other than food) in her mouth, you may want to provide her with a chew tube or a specific chewing toy, so she gets the same feeling in her mouth. An occupational therapy consultation will be helpful when identifying safe alternatives.
  • When possible, direct your child’s attention away from the sensory feedback by getting her busy with other activities.

Escape Objects and Activities

You need to think carefully about children who attempt to escape certain kinds of objects or activities.

Consider these questions:

  • Is the activity too difficult for my child?
  • Does she know what other people want from her?
  • Are there sensory concerns? For example, is the music loud in the room?
  • Was a warning provided before the transition to the activity? (e.g., one more minute, then we are leaving).

If all of the above points have been addressed and the behaviour continues, the following strategies will help you deal with the problem behaviour:

  • Ensure follow-through. Initially, this may mean that your child is expected to participate in the activity for an extremely minimal amount of time (e.g., sit at the table for lunch for twenty seconds).
  • Provide rewards as soon as your child has completed the activity, or for any cooperation during the activity.
  • Teach your child to indicate their desire to end an activity by asking for a “break”, saying/signing “no” or “finished”, or using a picture symbol.

Escape Attention

If your child does not like attention, she may be trying to send a message. Think about the following questions:

  • Is the interaction too difficult for my child?
  • Is my child stressed?
  • Are there sensory concerns, such as difficulty with loud noises or physical contact?

Try to:

  • Slowly pair yourself with things or activities your child loves. This will make your attention much more tolerable and perhaps even fun.
  • Reduce or change your expectations.
  • Teach coping strategies and stress-release techniques. For example, you can create a Personal Story to help teach your child about what to do in difficult social situations. Check out the For more information box for details.

Escape Sensory Stimulation

If your child does not like certain kinds of sensory stimulation,

  • Change the environment and play materials to reduce the sensory input that is difficult for your child. For example: If your child is sensitive to loud noise, lower the sound volume on toys (many now have lower volume buttons). Watch your child’s response to different types of noise. By decreasing the noise level or type of noise, your child may be less likely to look for an escape.
  • Seek a consultation with an occupational therapist.

Most of all, it is important to remember not to force your child to participate in activities that they really does not like.

Remember that dealing with problem behaviour can be challenging. Be consistent in your approach and seek help if you need it. Change takes time and patience.

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