Severe challenging behavior can significantly impact the quality of life for the individual who engages in the behavior as well as the entire family.
The best thing parents can do to safely manage severe challenging behavior is to get help from a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst® (BCBA®) with expertise in its assessment and treatment. In addition, understanding how contingencies of reinforcement work can empower parents to successfully manage their child’s behavior at home while waiting for services to begin.
Let’s start with the basics. All behavior produces a consequence. If that consequence reinforces the behavior, it increases the chances that it will happen again in similar circumstances. Challenging behavior can be inadvertently reinforced when, after it occurs, you provide attention or access to desired items (e.g., toys or snacks) or allow the child to escape non-preferred activities, like schoolwork or chores. Behavior interventions generally involve changing which behaviors you reinforce. The most basic example of this is withholding reinforcement for challenging behavior and only delivering reinforcement for appropriate behavior. If you do this consistently, you’ll eventually see less challenging behavior and more appropriate behavior.
Challenging behavior can also be prevented by decreasing the value of the reinforcer that maintains the behavior. You can do this by giving the desired reinforcer on a predetermined schedule, without having it tied to a particular behavior. For example, every 30 minutes a parent can provide their child attention, snacks, playtime or breaks from work. That way, they can make sure the child is satiated and will be unlikely to engage in challenging behavior to access the reinforcer. A somewhat related strategy involves making environmental adjustments to situations that are known to evoke challenging behavior. This can be as simple as rearranging a daily schedule to include more preferred activities or by providing noise canceling headphones to a child before entering a noisy restaurant.
Safety is paramount when addressing severe challenging behavior. It is important to note that not all reinforcers are easy to withhold and/or deliver, and many behavior interventions require training to implement effectively. Please consult with a professional if there is any risk of harm to your child or other family members.
Dr. David Wilson is a doctoral-level Board Certified Behavior Analyst with over 25 years of experience in the assessment and treatment of severe challenging behavior.