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  • Matthew Nordman

Behavior Management #4: Replace-Reinforce-Reduce

This week we talk about how to replace problem behaviors with appropriate replacement behaviors, then we discuss the process of reinforcing the replacement behaviors to ensure that they continue in the future. Instead of just focusing on the reduction of problem behaviors, learn why it’s equally important to target replacement as well!


Part 1: Learning A-B-C (5/21/21)

Part 2: Emphasizing Prevention (5/28/21)

Part 3: 5 Ways to Structure the Environment (6/4/21)

Part 4: Replace-Reinforce-Reduce (6/11/21)

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)


Why Not Just Reduce?

When talking about problem behaviors, especially severe ones like physical aggression, self-injurious behavior, or tantrumming, parents understandably want to have them stop ASAP. Ultimately the goal is of course to have them continually reduce to the point that they no longer occur at all, but in ABA we use a two-pronged approach:

In general, we decrease problem behaviors by cutting off positive reinforcement when they occur while simultaneously positively reinforcing the replacement behaviors. We will go into the left side of the chart in great detail next week, when we focus on Extinction, but this week we will look at the arrow on the right.

Imagine your nonverbal six-year-old has learned to get ice cream, her favorite dessert, by crying after dinner until she gets it. If you simply stopped giving her ice cream when she cried (extinction), it would most likely lead to a decrease in the crying, but if that’s the only way that she has learned how to get ice cream then it may not be successful in the long run. Eventually, even if she may only be successful 1 out of every 20 times that she cries, if she continues to get ice cream by crying then she will do so. However if you consistently did not give her ice cream when she cried, but did give it to her when she appropriately requested ice cream with sign language, then she would quickly learn what we are ultimately trying to teach: that she doesn’t get what she wants when she engages in problem behaviors, and that she does get what she wants when she is appropriate.


So Then What Do We Replace With?

This is why it is so important to determine the function of the problem behavior, like we discussed in Week 1. In the example above, the function was clearly Access to Tangible (ice cream). Just as a reminder, the four primary functions are: Attention, Escape/Avoidance, Access to Tangible, and Sensory/Automatic. The first three are typically the easiest since they are usually socially mediated through adults (e.g. they’d need your permission for ice cream, they’d want your overreaction to something for attention, etc.)

Once you find out what the function is, you would choose a replacement behavior that:

  1. Serves the same function as the problem behavior

  2. In order for the replacement behavior to serve its purpose, it needs to have the same function as the problem behavior. For example, asking to eat is not the same as asking for ice cream. She will only engage in the behavior if she knows that it will specifically lead to obtaining ice cream.

  3. Is something the child can do

  4. If the girl in the example above is nonverbal, then choosing to have her ask “May I have some ice cream, please?” wouldn’t be successful since she wouldn’t be able to vocalize it. Instead you would want to choose a replacement behavior that is at the functioning level of the child. In this case, it might be handing you an icon with ice cream on it or using sign language. If she is able to minimally vocalize, then just stating “ice cream” would be appropriate.

  5. Can be widely understood

  6. A lot of times I notice that parents almost have their own type of communication system with their child, especially if they are non-verbal. For example, they might say “Oh and if she says ‘I’, that means she wants ice cream”. While this example would satisfy the first two criteria above, it wouldn’t work with school staff, babysitters, therapists, etc. unless they already knew what saying “I” meant. And once she realizes she is not getting what she wants with her vocalizations, she might revert back to the crying. Similarly, this is why gesturing/pointing isn’t a long-term solution. While it might be easy for her to just point to ice cream when the freezer is open while in the kitchen, what if she is in a different part of the house? Or at school? The replacement behavior should be something that will generalize to multiple people and settings. We will go into generalization in further detail in Week 7.

By now I’m guessing you will either be craving ice

cream or wanting nothing to do with it. Moving on!

I’ve Decided On a Replacement Behavior, Now What?

Time for reinforcement! If you remember the ABCs from week 1, the C is for consequences. These consequences are what occur in the environment after a behavior takes place. When we talk about “positively reinforcing” a behavior, we are really talking about providing rewards that will hopefully either strengthen the behavior or lead to the new behavior occurring more frequently.

How Do We Know Which One to Pick?

You would base this off of a handful of things. Since you already know your child well, most of these should come naturally:

  1. What does he already like?

  2. What does he tend to play with when he has multiple choices?

  3. What do his teachers say he likes to do during breaks?

  4. What can be delivered consistently?

  5. For example, you don’t want to rely on just going to a playground since it is only doable during good weather.

  6. Understand that one child’s likes and dislikes could vary widely from other kids and siblings

  7. Understand that reinforcers can change as your child gets older

  8. What is related to the function?

  9. If the function above is Access to Tangible (ice cream), then saying “Hey, nice job asking for ice cream!” with a high five would be a nice response if it was Attention, but that wouldn’t satisfy the Tangible function. Similarly, if she asked for ice cream then you allowed her to leave the dinner table, that might be good if it was Escape, but it still wouldn’t be Tangible since she wouldn’t be getting the ice cream.

Putting It All Together

During a talk show a long time ago, Jim Carrey told a story about his school days. He said that he was getting in trouble during class for telling jokes and talking out of turn. His teacher decided to implement a plan, but before we discuss that, let’s walk through the initial steps:


  1. ABCs

  2. Antecedent: Sitting near his friends, being bored in class, etc.

  3. Behavior: Telling jokes in the middle of class

  4. Consequence: Classmates laugh at joke; teacher and class get distracted

  5. Determine the Function

  6. Most likely attention (laughs and smiles from classmates)


Armed with the same information above, Jim Carrey’s teacher came up with a plan to hopefully decrease his talking out of turn. The deal was that if he could remain quiet during class, he would be allowed to tell jokes to the class for the last few minutes of class. This ended up working like a charm. Let’s walk through the remaining steps that the teacher utilized:

  1. Emphasizing Prevention

  2. The teacher most likely learned that any kind of verbal rebuke or punishment when Jim Carrey talked out of turn could not compete with the laughs that he received. While the teacher could’ve just sent him to the principal’s office, she thankfully instead decided to take some preventative steps. If you remember Week 2’s article, the teacher used some of the following preventative strategies:

  3. Controlling the environment (I don’t blame her for not wanting to compete for attention with a young Jim Carrey in a room full of kids)

  4. Changing the way you ask (instead of ignoring or rebuking, offering choices in the form of a first-then helped)

  5. Structure the Environment

  6. Last week we talked about ways to structure the environment. The teacher utilized a couple of those:

  7. Create a schedule (Jim Carrey’s teacher essentially utilized a “First remain quiet during class, Then you can tell jokes” schedule)

  8. Be consistent (What do you think would’ve happened if Jim Carrey was quiet all class, but when it was about to be his turn to tell jokes his teacher continued to lecture until the bell rang? Most likely the following day he would be less compliant).

  9. Replace-Reinforce-Reduce

  10. The teacher incorporated what we discussed today in this week’s article:

  11. Replacement behavior: The teacher realized that whatever replacement behavior was taught, it had to provide him with the same type of reinforcement, be appropriate by not disrupting her class, and be easily teachable. Ultimately that replacement behavior ended up being a combination of remaining quiet and waiting.

  12. Reinforcement: If the reinforcer for talking out of turn was getting his classmates to laugh, then the replacement behavior needed the same reinforcer. Giving him a few minutes at the end of class to tell jokes was a great way to satisfy the same function.

  13. Reduction: The rate of Jim Carrey’s problem behavior, talking out of turn in class, ultimately reduced, so the teacher’s plan was thankfully successful.


Next week


We are already at the halfway point! Next week we will discuss what to do if your child is already engaging in the problem behavior.


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