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Abdi and Lunch Time

Abdi is a three-year old boy with some verbal language. At lunch time he sits down at the table and has little difficulty eating or drinking independently. Lately, he has been grabbing food from other children’s plates.

Does this story about Abdi at lunch time sound familiar to you – perhaps you have a child like Abdi in your classroom?

If so, then you’ve actually taken the first step of identifying a problem behaviour that may be putting a child at risk. In this case, Abdi’s problem behaviour is also interfering with his social development.

Deciding what to do next may be difficult. Here’s the 3-step approach we followed in Understanding and Changing Behaviour.

Step 1: Decide Where to Start

We’ve identified a problem behaviour. Let’s take a moment to describe exactly what we see or hear. Describing the behaviour will help us to be consistent when gathering information a bit later.

Abdi grabs food from the plates of children sitting next to him. He also reaches across the table for food.

In order to better understand Abdi’s behaviour, we’re going to use the Functional Assessment Interview by O’Neill. This functional assessment tool will help us to record our observations at child care and gather some information from his parents. We’ll try to find out how Abdi eats at home and if his parents have any concerns around mealtimes.

Now let’s move onto the next step.

STEP 2: Gather and Analyze

Here is some information we gathered from the Functional Assessment Interview which includes: what happens before the behaviour; the setting and time when the behaviour occurs; and what happens afterwards.

  • The behaviour occurs about 3 times a week. Abdi grabs for others food 2-3 times per meal.
  • Snack time is optional and Abdi does not usually come for afternoon snack.
  • The behaviour occurs when different teachers and peers are sitting next to him.
  • The behaviour results in Abdi getting immediate attention from the other children and teachers. Abdi is allowed to eat the food. Teachers tell Abdi to “stop grabbing”.
  • The food items that Abdi grabs include bread, crackers and sometimes bananas. We noticed that the behaviour occurs only when these items are present.
  • We also noted that Abdi communicates by using gestures, pointing or single words.

We spoke with Abdi’s mother to learn more about his eating routine at home. We found out that his favourite foods are bread and rice, and he also eats a lot of pureed or soft foods. Abdi’s mother mentioned that he has recently been grabbing food from other people’s plates at home, and believes that his appetite has increased.

The results from the Functional Assessment Interview suggest that the function of the problem behaviour is to obtain an object. He has learned that this behaviour will consistently get him his favourite food.

We have also suggested that Abdi’s mother have his teeth checked to assess any oral motor problems that may be contributing to the behaviour.

Now it’s time to move onto the next step and plan for change.

Step 3: Plan for Change

Planning for change involves making the behaviour irrelevant, inefficient and finally ineffective.

Making the Behaviour Irrelevant

We can make the behaviour irrelevant by preventing or controlling the things in the environment that happen before the behaviour.

Let’s take a look at some ways to prevent the behaviour from happening by changing the environment at lunch time, adapting routines, and using visuals.

Positioning and creating boundaries for Abdi during the lunch time will be important to help him understand what food belongs to him and others. We’ll try placing Abdi at the end of the table where there is only one child next to him – reducing his opportunities to grab food. Custom placemats will be provided for all the children to use during lunch to help establish visible boundaries.

Using Visuals
We can use a rules board to provide a visual representation of lunch time rules. These will be placed beside the table, and reviewed each day before lunch is served. Rules will include: keep hands to yourself; eat what is on your plate; and use words to ask for more food.

We will also use visual supports when teaching an alternative behaviour – keep reading for more details.

Making the Behaviour Inefficient

To make behaviour inefficient, we might choose to teach specific adaptive, educational and social behaviours. By teaching these types of behaviours, we eliminate the need for the problem behaviour.

At other times, we may teach an alternative behaviour. An alternative behaviour serves the same function as the behaviour being replaced but is seen to be more appropriate by other children, adults and the general public. To be successful, it requires equal or less physical effort and complexity but results in the same type of pay-off for the child.

In this case, we will teach an alternative to grabbing food. We’re going to help Abdi to request his favourite foods by using words.
For specific details on the strategies and other teaching techniques we used to teach Abdi to “request a food item” visit our “Teaching New Skills” section.

Making the Behaviour Ineffective

The last step is to make problem behaviour ineffective, meaning that it no longer works for the child. Behaviour may not change right away. It is very common for problem behaviour to increase before decreasing when implementing changes. The key is to be consistent with our plan.

If Abdi grabs other children’s food, the teaching team will respond by removing the food from him. Using visuals, he will be reminded of the rule: hands to yourself.

Next we need to look at changing the behaviour in every environment in which a child finds himself. We will talk with Abdi’s mother about teaching him to ask for more food or a specific food item. Our partnership with parents is the key to success.

If the problem behaviour persists then we will have to re-assess but it is important for us to give our plan time to work. Be patient! Some behaviours can take a couple of weeks to change.

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