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What Causes Negative Behaviors and What to do About Them

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1 What Causes Negative Behaviors and What to do About Them
by Mark L. Sundberg, Ph.D., BCBA and Cindy A. Sundberg (

2 Common Negative Behaviors for Children with Autism
Looking away, non-responding, non-compliance Self-stim (rocking, mouthing objects, etc.) Falling to the floor Running from adults Climbing on tables, counters, bookcases, etc. Screaming, yelling, loud noises, etc.

3 Common Negative Behaviors for Children with Autism
Crying Tantrums (combination of behaviors) Property destruction Hitting, pushing, biting, etc. Self-injurious behaviors

4 Behavioral Psychology can be a powerful tool to understand and change negative behaviors
The three-term contingency (An ABC analysis) Antecedent Behavior Consequence Child doesn’t want Runs from adults Delays going inside to come inside and gets chased

5 What Causes Negative Behaviors?
There are many possible causes of negative behaviors The first task is to identify what is causing the specific behavior Use the three-term contingency to identify the cause of a behavior Define the behavior (start small--1 or 2 behaviors) Identify the antecedents (the events before the behavior) Identify the consequences (what happened after the behavior) Antecedent Behavior Consequence

6 What Causes Negative Behaviors?
Many negative behaviors are caused by inadvertent reinforcement Negative behaviors may get attention, reaction, reprimands, etc. Negative behaviors may get access to reinforcers Negative behavior may allow one to avoid undesirable activities

7 What Causes Negative Behaviors?
Negative behavior may allow one to escape undesirable activities Negative behavior may be fun (Self-stim, destruction, climbing) Positive behaviors don’t have the same effect as above No alternative skills to achieve the same reinforcer (Expressive language)

8 What is Reinforcement? Reinforcement is anything that increases a behavior Reinforcement can be getting good things (e.g., attention, toys, food) Reprimands and negative attention can sometimes be reinforcers for kids Reinforcement can be getting rid of bad things (e.g., demands, bedtime, putting on shoes)

9 What is Reinforcement? Reinforcement increases good and bad behavior
Most reinforcement occurs naturally and unplanned Understanding how reinforcement works is essential to reducing negative behaviors

10 Both good and bad behaviors are strengthened by reinforcement

11 How to Change Negative Behaviors
First identify the cause and frequency of the behavior Reinforcers are your behavior change tools: Identify and control them Three parts to the intervention Prevention (antecedent intervention) Teach and reinforce (positive) replacement behaviors Change the consequence after the problem behavior (reduce negative behavior)

12 Minor Negative Behaviors
Behavior: Loud voice, knocking things off the table, taking other’s toys for attention, fidgeting, whining, mild pouting, sulking, etc. 1st step: Identify the cause using an ABC analysis: For example, seeking attention Intervention: 2nd step: Prevention: Identify high probability settings and time of problem behaviors, and re-schedule competing activities (e.g., phone calls, bill paying), plan activities that will engage the child

13 Minor Negative Behaviors
3rd step: Teach positive behavior: Reinforcement: Deliver reinforcement for appropriate behavior, on a consistent basis (e.g., times per hour) 4th step: Reduce negative behavior: Extinction: Ignore minor negative behaviors. Choose your battles wisely.

14 Attention Seeking: Minor Negative Behaviors
Other possible causes of minor negative behaviors Weak expressive language Provide mand training Manding is asking for reinforcers with words, signs, or PECS It is often very easy to teach a child to mand (see Sundberg & Partington, 1998)

15 Attention Seeking: Minor Negative Behaviors
Other possible causes of minor negative behaviors The curriculum is too hard, out of developmental sequence, or of little value to the child. Use an assessment tool to identify a developmentally appropriate language and social skills curriculum

16 How to use Reinforcement to Reduce Negative Behaviors
Make sure you really have a reinforcer Deliver the reinforcer immediately after good behavior Set up lots of opportunities for good/correct behavior (Don’t just wait for them) Use a variety of reinforcers Deliver some reinforcers free (pairing)

17 How to use Reinforcement to Reduce Negative Behaviors
Smile, be sincere, laugh, goof around, have fun with your child Some kids will require lots of reinforcers per hour (30-50) Engagement usually is reinforcing! Lack of reinforcement for positive behavior may increase negative behavior

18 Examples of Reinforcers that Many Children Like
Social/physical reinforcers: attention, smiles, hugs, praise, funny faces, high fives, tickling, rough housing, chasing clapping hands, praise, a good laugh together, thumbs up, pats on the back, etc. Activity reinforcers: playing a game, going to the park, reading a book together, pushes on a swing, riding a bike, wagon rides, swimming, adventures, put up a tent in the yard, watching a DVD, helping cook, etc. Material reinforcers: food, drink, toys, bubbles, balloons, crayons, musical toys, playdough, cars, sand play, etc.

19 Ignoring Bad Behavior: Extinction
Be prepared for an extinction burst Eye contact is often attention (reinforcement) Don’t show facial reactions Don’t argue, scold or talk (attention) Don’t show anger (attention) Act absorbed in some other activity, walk away Give your child attention shortly after the bad behavior stops

20 More Serious Negative Behaviors
Behavior: Tantrum, hitting, throwing, scratching, falling to the floor, etc. 1st step: identify the cause of the behavior for that child Some possible causes: Adult demand (e.g., go to bed, eat at the table, academic work), remove/denial of reinforcers (turn off TV, come inside, can’t have desired activity) OFTEN, THE CHILD HAS LEARNED THAT NEGATIVE BEHAVIOR WILL REMOVE OR DELAY A TEACHER’S OR PARENT’S DEMANDS

21 More Serious Negative Behaviors
2nd step: Prevention, expressive language training, and curriculum change 3rd step: Intervention: Teach positive behavior 4th step: Intervention: Weaken negative behavior

22 More Serious Negative Behaviors
2nd step: Prevention Identify high probability problem areas Initially avoid demands that compete with powerful motivators Verbally prepare the child if possible Use “if-then” contingency for more verbal children Take activities and reinforcers to Drs office, store, airplane or car trips, friends houses, etc.

23 More Serious Negative Behaviors
Ask for the same behavior under less “high probability” times, and reinforce Break demand into small steps and reinforce each step Make your expectations clear, and be consistent Reinforce approximations Establish time limits for reinforcers Use extra time as reinforcers for no tantrums

24 More Serious Negative Behaviors
Step 3: Teach the positive behaviors Obtain the most powerful reinforcers for that child Carefully control and deliver those reinforcers after positive behaviors However, periodically deliver free reinforcers (pairing) Create a hierarchy of demands beginning with the simplest tasks (“clap hands” might be an easy demand) Provide lots of opportunities for the child to comply and be successful

25 More Serious Negative Behaviors
Gradually increase the demand, always reinforce Work in short sets of demands throughout the day Work in all environments Transfer control to other adults (generalization) Gradually begin to include high problem area demands (e.g., giving up reinforcers) Occasionally give back the reinforcer when given up Always end the interaction on a positive note

26 More Serious Behaviors and Noncompliance
4th step: Weaken the negative behavior Extinction: Do not remove the demand Follow through with the demand Be prepared for an extinction burst Make your expectations clear Caution: Removing the demand will make the problem worse

27 More Serious Negative Behaviors
Make sure negative behavior DOES NOT get reinforced in any way Do not promise reinforcers for stopping Do not show reinforcers when engaging in negative behaviors Do not try and “talk a child down” (reinforcement) Be calm, firm and non-emotional. Do not get caught up in an argument or power struggle

28 Be Organized and Plan Ahead to be More Effective
Anticipate your child’s needs before his bad behavior forces you to meet his needs Avoid situations that you think might make the child irritable (e.g., staying out past their bedtime, shopping for a long time) Start your program in an environment that you can control (not at church, in a store, etc.) Teach others who work with the child how to use these behavioral techniques

29 Summary Most negative behavior is learned behavior
Use the four steps to reduce a negative behavior 1st step: Use the three-term contingency to identify what causes the behavior 2nd step: Prevent behavior problems (Change the task or demand levels, increase prompts, increase reinforcers for approximations) 3rd step: Actively teach positive behaviors and continue to build on them Identify a wide variety of reinforcers and frequently deliver them for good behavior

30 Summary 4th step: Change the existing consequences for negative behavior Negative behavior often gets reinforced more often than positive behavior Don’t reinforce the problem behavior Ignore minor misbehavior Change is often gradual Learn as much as you can about Behavior Analysis, it is a powerful tool for improving the lives of children with autism and their families

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