Changing challenging behaviour


How child-centred interventions can help improve challenging behaviour 

When we speak of difficult or challenging behaviour, or indeed behaviours that require our attention, it is too commonly assumed that it is the child’s behaviour that requires change. But what about our behaviours? Behaviour does not exist in a vacuum; it sits within a three part contingency whereby behaviours are triggered by antecedents and are maintained by consequences. To use alternative language, behaviours are affected or cued by environmental situations and are reinforced by how others react to the behaviours or by what the individuals receive for exhibiting the behaviours.

It is useful, at this point, to remind ourselves of the five main reasons why people continue behaving the way that they do. These are:

  • to receive desired items
  • to gain attention
  • to avoid tasks or particular situations
  • to escape
  • to experience self stimulation.

We need to understand these functions of behaviour as they can show us how to reinforce the children that we work with. We can reinforce children by giving them items that they like, for example, a favourite toy, preferred foods, or any other tangible item that they particularly like.

Attention is also a key reinforcer and one that is used very commonly. The majority of children enjoy receiving attention. If, for some reason, the children that you work with do not enjoy attention, then an alternative method of reinforcement should be chosen. Avoidance and escape are quite different and fall into the realm of negative reinforcement. An example of using avoidance as a reinforcer could be when a child completes his/her work on time they may be reinforced by avoiding having to take the work home to complete. Similarly, an example of reinforcing with escape could be if a child completes his/her maths problems quickly they may leave (or escape) maths and move on to a preferred activity.

Attention is a key reinforcer and one that is used very commonly.The final reinforcement, self-stimulation, refers to stimulation of the senses. A common way to achieve this for children with SEN is by allowing them access to a sensory room. Other methods may include stroking, brushing or massage.
Remember, the key to reinforcement is that the individual that you are hoping to reinforce must like the reinforcement they are receiving, and not everyone likes the same things. In order to ensure that the reinforcers you use are appropriate and suitable to each individual you work with, it is best to conduct a reinforcer assessment. This is not antecedent manipulation in the real sense, but it is certainly child-centred in that you are working from the individual’s perspective and considering their particular likes and dislikes. Some methods of determining preferred reinforcers are:

  • provide a choice. This may be in the form of a menu or by simply offering a range of items for the child to choose from
  • sampling. This can be achieved by regularly allowing the child access to a range of different reinforcers. This way you will soon understand what the child enjoys. Ideally, this should be conducted at the beginning of every session of work or intervention. As our preferences change, it is important to ensure that what was reinforcing yesterday continues to be reinforcing today. Do not assume that because the child liked a particular item yesterday that he/she will always want or enjoy it
  • ask the child what they would like. When working with children who can communicate, this is often the easiest and surest way of utilising effective reinforcers
  • ask someone who knows the child. Parents are often the best people to ask about what their children like
  • observe the child and see what they eat, play with and basically enjoy.

In order to ascertain the function(s) of behaviour, it is important to conduct a functional behavioural assessment. The easiest way to do this is to collect A-B-C data. This involves defining the behaviour in question and then observing the child and noting down what happens immediately before the behaviour is exhibited, and also what happens as a consequence of the behaviour. However, when it comes to what we can do from a child-centred perspective, I particularly want to focus on antecedent manipulation.

Children and adolescents with SEN often behave inappropriately due to communication difficulties. If an individual cannot express themselves, they often resort to behaviours that result in their needs being met. The best way to avoid challenging behaviours being utilised as an inappropriate, yet effective, form of communication is to teach communication skills. This may be in the form of spoken language, some form of sign language or a communication system that involves symbols. The best way to commence language training is to teach children how to ask for favourite or desired items. This makes sense from a motivational perspective. So, when beginning language training, ascertain what the child you are working with particularly likes and start from there.

When considering disruptive behaviours, it is often the case that individuals are finding the task at hand too difficult. This is where shaping can be effective. Determine the target behaviour and then begin at the point where the child can be immediately successful. This way you will be able to reinforce the behaviour. The child will be happy to repeat the behaviour and will understand that this task typically results in receiving something that they like or want. The key to shaping is to increase your expectations, but only gradually. If you increase difficulty too quickly or too soon, the child is likely to fail and consequently will not be able to receive reinforcement.

It is also important to utilise prompting and fading. Prompting is where you assist the child with the task but still reinforce the end product. The goal of any prompting and fading procedure is an independent response by the child. The key here is fading. You need to gradually reduce your assistance and increase the amount of reinforcement. That is, more independent responses should receive greater amounts of reinforcement. If working with a team of people, be sure that everyone understands how much assistance is being provided. Consistency is crucial.

There are many ways that we can help the young people that we work with so that they do not have to engage in inappropriate behaviours. However, we first need to ascertain what they find difficult and then help them with these tasks. This may be handwriting, maths, reading, eating, dressing, playing, and toileting. The list is seemingly endless. There are many interventions that we can adopt to help in these and other areas of difficulty. What we need to remember is that often life and learning is difficult for children and adolescents with SEN and it is our job to help them through these difficulties, not to blame them for their challenging behaviours.

Further information

Dr Paul Holland is a private behavioural consultant, parental coach and Makaton trainer:

This article was first published in issue 49 (November/December 2010) of SEN Magazine

Paul Holland
Author: Paul Holland

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