By Jing Zhou, M.S., BCBA

In my 20 years of practice as a behavior analyst, I often come across children who are described by their teachers or caregivers as “unable to learn”, “not teachable”, or “impossible to engage”. Often times, upon close observation, I have found that many of the children that have been described as “unable to learn, not teachable, and impossible to engage” are actually engaging in undesired behaviors such as tantrums, aggressive behaviors or disruptive behaviors. They are often uncooperative with adult direction and actively avoid instructions or learning tasks. These children are often excluded from various activities such as camps or school programs due to these behaviors. Their problem behaviors become obstacles on their path to learning and reaching their full potential.

Children often engage in problem behaviors because they do not possess the skills to ask for desired items or activities, to ask for attention appropriately, to negotiate a delay or a break from required tasks, or to engage in appropriate play or social interaction with others. This is even more prevalent for children with developmental disabilities who often have insufficient language and/or social skills.

Research has shown that the most effective way to reduce problem behavior in children is to strengthen desirable behaviors through positive reinforcement rather than trying to weaken undesirable behaviors using aversive or negative processes. The more competent a child becomes and the more adaptive skills a child acquires, the less maladaptive behaviors he or she may engage in.

In behavior analytic terms, “behavior” refers to all kinds of actions and skills, such as language, social interactions, playing, academic skills, and self care skills (not just problem behaviors). The best approach to teach these skills is to use teaching strategies based on the principles of behavior and learning. Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is the science of teaching and learning. It helps children develop the social, academic, self-help and behavioral skills needed to interact with others and to cope with the challenges of everyday life. ABA uses a systematic approach to teaching complex skills through the use of positive reinforcement and motivation. ABA helps teachers, clinicians and caregivers assess the best ways to teach and the best ways to analyze successful learning. ABA methods have been used successfully with learners of all ages, with and without disabilities, in a variety of settings.

It is no secrete, that children with problem behaviors are challenging to teach because they may not be motivated learners. Therefore, before any teaching can occur, it is important to establish cooperation and to help children become motivated learners.

The following procedures can be used to effectively establish cooperation:

  1. Pair yourself with positive events (reinforcers) by making the activity more fun with you than without you; deliver favored items or activities without requiring any responses, and avoid association with termination of fun activities.
  2. Start instructions by requiring easy tasks, such as requiring responses that the child already knows, or giving an instruction that the child is already engaging at the moment and heavily reward compliance. Then gradually increase the difficulty of instruction as your instructional control grows.
  3. Reinforce, reinforce and reinforce! Give immediate and frequent reinforcers in small amounts for any cooperation the child displays. Better rewards for better responses.
  4. Mix easy tasks with more difficult tasks to reduce the motivation for avoidance and escape maintained behaviors.

Once you have established cooperation, you have won half of the battle. You are on your way to teach other skills. Effective teaching involves knowing the skills to teach; identify, capture and maintain motivation, and use behavioral shaping through systematic reinforcement and careful measurement of progress. Behavioral teaching methods that have been shown to be effective through research include: discrete trial teaching, errorless learning, prompt and prompt fading, shaping, natural environment teaching, and fluency based training.

Problem behaviors usually work effectively and are meaningful for the child who engages in them. For example, a child who has limited communication would like to play with a toy but does not know how to communicate her needs. She gets frustrated and throws herself down on the floor. As a result, her parents bring out several toys they think she might like. Finally, they bring her a musical toy; she takes it and stops crying and is happy. When this scenario is repeated several times, the child learns that tantrums will eventually get her what she wants.

Remember that problem behaviors have functions. The functions of these behaviors may not always be obvious to others, especially people who are involved with the child’s every day care. Through careful observation and data collection, patterns can be identified regarding the situations in which these problem behaviors occur. By rearranging the settings in which the behaviors occur, teaching the replacement behaviors, and changing the way that we respond to these behaviors, we can reduce or eliminate the majority of these problem behaviors.

However, the change will not be long lasting if we only eliminate a problem behavior without teaching a new behavior to replace it. What the child wants is not usually considered inappropriate. It’s the behavior itself that is judged “appropriate” or “inappropriate”. Common reasons why children engage in problem behaviors are to obtain attention from peers or adults, get what they want, seek sensory input, or to escape/avoid unpleasant situations such as tasks, demands, or overly stimulating situations. It is important to teach children to communicate their needs appropriately to achieve the same goal, and send them the message that these new skills will work better and the old problem behaviors will no longer work. Parent consistency is the key.

At Interventions Unlimited, our services usually involve two aspects: teaching adaptive skills and decreasing problem behaviors that hinder the child’s success. Before starting intervention, our behavior therapists and teachers carefully assess the child’s motivation and reinforcers so that they can pair themselves with positive events and gain cooperation. Individual goals and objectives are designed for the child in all areas of functioning such as language, academic, self-help, social and behavioral performance. The therapists and teachers use a variety of behavioral teaching techniques to teach the skills and develop a behavior intervention plan to address any problem behaviors. Intervention and client progress are evaluated through meticulous data collection and graphing. During our course for treatment, we strongly encourage parents to be active participants. Parent training is an integrated part of our services. Parents are taught to interact with their children in new ways that will encourage and reward positive behaviors and skills, and respond to problem behaviors in ways that will reduce them.
Jing Zhou is the founder and director of Interventions Unlimited, Inc . She is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst with extensive experience working with children with autism or other developmental disabilities. Interventions Unlimited specializes in providing ABA therapy to children with autism and other special needs. Interventions Unlimited Academy is a McKay approved school.