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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Nordman

Behavior Management #2: Emphasizing Prevention

Updated: Jun 11, 2021

Welcome back to our series on behavior management for families. Last week we kicked things off by discussing the “ABCs” and learning how to identify the antecedent, behavior, and consequence. Hopefully since then you’ve been able to observe some behaviors with that same perspective. This week we will look at the “A” in the equation: Antecedent. This is an important week since it’s much easier to prevent a behavior compared to stopping it once it has already begun. If you missed last week, you can click on the link below.

Part 5: Extinction (6/18/21)

Part 6: What to Teach? (6/25/21)

Part 7: Generalization (7/2/21)

Part 8: What Next?: Maintenance (7/9/21)

Last week we reviewed the differences between antecedents and consequences, went through a handful of examples, and saw how important it is to find out the “function” of a behavior. It was definitely more academic in nature since there are some ABA terms and concepts that needed to be learned before moving on. But going forward, we will discuss more and more strategies, so hopefully it doesn’t feel like a classroom anymore!

Let’s ditch the classroom and discuss

strategies for your own child at home.

I think I found out the function of my son’s what?

Let’s say you did your homework from last week and completed an A-B-C data form for your son’s tantrums. Based on your observations you are pretty confident that his tantrums are maintained by escape. But now what you do?

Like I said last week, determining the function is usually the most difficult part of the process. Once you do find the function of a behavior, it just comes down to implementing ABA principles (and typically with some trial and error). If you’re the type of person who doesn’t want to wait to find out what the process is, you can simply scroll to the top of any of these articles to see the order of topics that I am writing about. This is the same order of operations that you would normally follow after determining the function. If you simplify those chapters, the order would look something like this:

Why Emphasize Prevention?

There are a handful of different topics that are always difficult to discuss with parents. One conversation in particular is how we prefer to try to prevent behaviors from occurring rather than react to them once they are already happening. A lot of families think that they will be able to wave a magic wand and stop a tantrum or aggression in its tracks with just a little bit of training. Stopping a severe behavior once it’s already happening is difficult for everyone. While it’s doable, typically if you wait for a child to fully escalate to that point then it’s too late to implement helpful tips and strategies.

For example, I met my wife while working at a day program for adults. We both loved working there, but the behaviors could often be very severe due to the size of our clients. Managing a 3-year-old having a tantrum is one thing, but when it’s a fully grown adult then it’s a totally different story. With some of the adult clients who engaged in things like severe physical aggression, you wanted to try to prevent escalation to that point as much as possible. Helping a 200 pound gentleman move to a quieter environment from a loud cafeteria, because you know he finds loud noises aversive, is a lot easier than having to de-escalate him while he is attempting to push you.

It’s Difficult to Teach Behaviors During a Behavior

The second reason we emphasize prevention is because that’s the better time to teach the appropriate replacement behaviors that we will discuss in part 4. Think about the last time you were REALLY upset or frustrated. Maybe you got cut off by someone in traffic when you were already late for work, a relative said something offensive at Thanksgiving dinner, or your favorite sports team let you down (easy for Illinois residents to imagine). When you are in that escalated state, you tend to shut out communication and social interactions while you “let off steam”. If all of a sudden my friend or family member said, “Hey Matt, when I get upset I like to take five deep breaths”, it would probably make me even more upset. The ideal time to teach and train is before the behavior occurs, not during. We all know how ineffective it is when someone repeatedly tells someone else to “Calm down”, but then we often forget that it’s just as ineffective with our kids.

“Ah thanks, that 7th ‘Calm Down’ is what really did the trick to help me”

So then what do I do to prevent behaviors?

Here we go - one and a half articles in, and we are finally getting to some ABA strategies. Here are 6 different ways to prevent behaviors, in no particular order:

Practice Scenarios

If our infographic above has too much information, here are some practice scenarios:

#1 Alfred only asks for unhealthy cereals like Froot Loops for breakfast.

Control environment and objects: Put Froot Loops away and only leave out 2-3 healthier cereals.

Change the way you ask: Instead of asking, “What do you want for breakfast?”, which always gets the response of “Froot Loops!”, provide choices. For example, “For breakfast today do you want Cheerios or Life?”

#2 You can’t get Susie off the iPad to get ready for school in the morning.

Change the way you ask: “You need to get off the iPad or else you’ll be late!” probably wouldn’t be as effective as something like “First get dressed, then you’ll get the iPad”or “5 more minutes on the timer for iPad, then it’s time to get ready”.

Take baby steps: Completely withholding the iPad in the morning, especially if she’s gotten used to a routine where she has access to it at that time, would most likely escalate to some problem behaviors. If I was denied access to Reddit in the mornings out of the blue, I would probably get frustrated as well. Instead you could gradually decrease her screen time over the span of a few weeks.

#3 Eric doesn’t seem like himself while working on homework after dinner.

Consider medical & physical causes: You remember his teacher mentioning this afternoon that he seemed lethargic at school as well, so you believe that being tired and/or sick could be the issue. Instead of pushing him too hard with his homework, which could lead to a behavior, you have him go to sleep early.

#4 The whole family wants to go watch fireworks on July 4th, but you know that they can sometimes be too loud for your youngest son, Noah.

Notice precursor signs: You know that before Noah tantrums he typically starts flapping his hands while scripting from his favorite movies, so when the fireworks begin you watch out for these precursor behaviors vigilantly.

Avoid situations: If the fireworks end up being too much to handle, or you decide beforehand that it’s not worth risking, you can prevent the behavior by avoiding being in the areas where it’s too loud. An alternative option could be watching them from inside his house through a window.

It didn’t work!

Using the prevention strategies above don’t come with a 100% guarantee. There is a lot of trial and error in ABA, so tweaks are constantly being made. Just like how collecting data made it possible to determine the function of behavior in last week’s post, collecting data in this stage would allow you to see what works and doesn’t work. The good news is that there are always options for prevention, and there are countless strategies beyond the six listed above.

That being said, I think a lot of families are surprised at how much some of these prevention strategies can lead to less behaviors. For example, for the Change the way you ask strategy, a lot of parents find that they have been over-prompting their kids in the past without realizing it. The next time you get your kids ready for school, count how many times you ask them to do something after you’ve already asked them once. Or for the Control the environment & objects strategy, see how easy it has been for your kids to grab their iPad and favorite snacks when they should be doing their homework, getting ready for bed, etc.

“Well I tried preventing behaviors for one

evening without 100% success...back to scolding!”

Not in Response to Behaviors!

We will really go into this in detail with Part 5, but for now the one thing I want to say about the timing of these prevention strategies is that they need to be before the behaviors occur, not during or after. For example, if your child tantrums when you tell them it’s time to get off the iPad, you would move into “reactive” strategies instead (discussed in 3 weeks). You wouldn’t use a preventative strategy like giving them more time on the timer, providing choices, etc. The reason is because we do not want to reinforce any problem behaviors.

What Next?

Just like we recommend baby steps as a prevention strategy to reduce your child’s behavior, you also want to take baby steps when it comes to implementing these strategies. You don’t want to “bite off more than you can chew” too soon, which could lead to less success.

“How was work today, honey? By the way, going forward there are 4 things you need to do with our daughter effective immediately. Oh and I’ll explain all of the timers and visual schedules around the house later.”

If you are just working on reducing 1-2 behaviors, I recommend picking only 1-2 prevention strategies for each behavior. If the behavior isn’t very severe (e.g. not wanting to do homework), just try one strategy at first then see how it goes. If the behavior is more severe, which usually means you want to reduce it as soon as possible (e.g. hitting his younger sibling), put in the effort to implement two strategies. When using the strategies, do your best to keep things consistent.

“I know your mom has you get ready for school before giving you the

iPad...but just one day a week won’t mess up your plan!”

Narrator: “It did.”

Next week

Even though we touched on structuring the environment a little bit this week, next week we will really dive into strategies to make sure that your home is structured in a way that can lead to more success and less problem behaviors for your child. Get ready for some visual schedules!

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