Children with neurodevelopmental disabilities such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Learning Disabilities, or other developmental delays often do not respond well to standard approaches to discipline. This leaves many families feeling frustrated and concerned on how to best help their child improve their behavior. Researchers and clinicians have spent years determining what practices are most effective in improving behavioral challenges in this population (see work by Russell Barkley or Ross Greene).
First and foremost, it is important to start asking yourself about the “why” behind your child’s behavior. In psychology we often refer to this as the “function.” Another way to think about this is to ask, “What does my child get out of this behavior?” There are four most common answers to that question:
- To Escape – the behavior removes or stops an unwanted activity
- To Receive Attention – the behavior provides access to people or interactions (Note: negative attention is still attention!)
- To Get Something Tangible – the behavior provides access to a preferred item or activity
- Sensory Stimulation – the behavior feels good and is therefore automatically reinforcing
By understanding the answer to this question, you can start to think about the best way to respond to the behavior so as to not increase the chance that it will happen again. For example, many children will scream, yell, or act out if they are told they can’t have something they want (e.g., dessert, toy, screen time). The function of the disruptive behavior is to gain access to something tangible. They may do this because they have learned that doing so increases the likelihood that someone will give in and just give it to them. However, if a parent holds their ground, it teaches the child that this strategy will not work. This ultimately decreases the likelihood of them using this strategy. Instead you can teach your child positive ways (e.g., making their bed, asking nicely, finishing a homework assignment) they can earn access to what they want.
In addition, it is important to not only think about how you respond to the behavior, but also what you can do preventatively to decrease the chance of the behavior happening in the first place. This includes thinking about how you organize your child’s environment, how you ask them to do things, and being as clear and concise as you can be about what “good behavior” is. Overall, one thing to keep in mind is how you can replace telling your child what not to do with what you would like them to do instead. For example, let’s say your teen in in her room playing a video game on a day off from school. You have reminded her several times today that she has a doctor’s appointment in the afternoon. She often struggles to transition from play a video game to moving onto the next part of her day. Here are some suggestions for what to do to promote positive behavior in your daughter:
- Before she is able to start playing video games, agree to how long she will be able to play before her appointment
- Set a timer or alarm that will go off 15 minutes before you need to leave to signal your daughter when she needs to stop playing video games and get ready to leave
- Verbally review what will happen when the timer goes off (e.g. When the timer goes off you will need to come downstairs and put your shoes on)
- When the timer goes off praise her for successfully turning off the video games and coming downstairs, acknowledging that you appreciate her following through with your expectations
Keeping all of this in mind, consider the following tips for helping to manage challenging behaviors:
- Provide an organized home and school environment with clear and consistent demands and expectations. Try writing out a daily schedule or creating a picture schedule to help with transitions between activities.
- Give clear, short, and specific instructions. Begin with giving instructions one step at a time.
- Give instructions in a firm but calm voice. Make sure instructions are not phrased as requests (e.g., “Please pick up your clothes” NOT “Can you please pick up your clothes?”) and don’t engage in negotiations with your child once expectations have been set.
- Consequences, both positive and negative, should be clear and consistent. Give access to preferred activities only once non-preferred activities are completed (e.g., “You can play video games after cleaning up your toys”).
- Praise children/teens immediately and often anytime they are engaging in positive behavior (e.g., “great job listening,” “thank you for starting that as soon as I asked”). Try to “catch them being good.” No positive behavior is too small to praise. For example, if they try something you know is difficult, if they calm themselves down when frustrated, or if they comply with a request even though they do not want to, praise them immediately.
- Make sure punishments are reasonable so that they can be used frequently and you will be more likely to follow through on them (e.g., take away TV, video games, or dessert for a night NOT for the whole week). Once the threat of a punishment is made (e.g., “If you do not do what I ask, you will lose TV for tonight”) you MUST follow through if they do not comply so that they learn to take the consequences seriously. Once they learn that you will consistently follow through, they will become more likely to comply and you will have to use the punishment less often.
- Ignore attention-seeking behavior, in particular when your child has a tantrum. This means avoiding eye contact, keeping facial expressions neutral, and not talking. Return your attention as soon as your child starts engaging in positive behavior. This behavior will decrease when your child learns tantrums or meltdowns are not going to be an effective way to get what they want.
There is no one-size-fits all approach to managing challenging or disruptive behaviors. There are often outside factors that impact behavior, such as having a “bad” morning, being tired or hungry, or the experience of trauma, that may need to be addressed first before these tips can be effective. However, consistency in setting expectations is always a great place to begin. If your child has significant behaviors related to symptoms of ASD you are encouraged to check out Dr. Sandy Burkhardt’s webinar on the CRG website for more information.