How to handle an autistic child’s behavior

Children with autism typically use behaviors to communicate their wants, needs, anxieties, and frustrations.

These behaviors can include:

  • Fidgeting
  • Stimming
  • Rocking
  • Tapping
  • Repeating words or phrases
  • Mimicking
  • Self-injurious actions
  • Aggression
  • Biting
  • Ignoring peers
  • Refusing to follow directives
  • Eloping

While behaviors are important communication tools, some behaviors can disrupt learning in a classroom setting. Various interventions teach children with autism new skills that help them develop acceptable ways to communicate, socialize, and function.

Strategies For Handling Autism Behavior Problems In The Classroom

The following strategies help school staff successfully handle the behavior challenges exhibited by children with autism in the classroom.

Follow A Behavior Plan

Because each child with autism is unique, they need a customized behavior plan. This document is part of the child’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP) and outlines the child’s needs and includes specific steps that improve maladaptive behaviors without punishing the child.

A behavior plan starts with a Functional Behavioral Analysis (FBA). This analysis identifies the root of behaviors, which can include the child’s desire to obtain an object, activity, or sensation, escape a demand or undesirable situation, or gain attention. The FBA will describe the frequency and intensity of behaviors, identify the causes and consequences of behaviors, and suggest possible solutions.

With information from an FBA, a special education or behavior consultant writes a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP). This document lists the challenging behaviors, their causes, and effective solutions that are specific to the child’s needs. The BIP includes measurable goals that the teacher and other staff can monitor. The BIP can be modified as the student achieves goals.

Incorporate Strengths & Interests

Every child has strengths and interests. These assets can become leverage to help children engage more in class, stay on task, and reduce behavior challenges.

Observe children with autism closely to discover their unique assets. School staff can then incorporate the children’s strengths and interests into the curriculum, activities, and rewards system to prompt positive behavior.

Increase Structure

Changes in the daily routine can create stress for many children with autism. These students thrive on routine and consistency and may exhibit maladaptive behaviors when they face unpredictable situations at school.

An increase in classroom structure and daily organization may relieve stress and pressure. Modifications like an organized and minimalist classroom, predictable daily schedule, visual activity schedule, physical boundaries, and other routines may help children feel calm, relaxed, and less agitated throughout the school day.

Set & Explain Realistic Expectations

Most children function better when they know what’s required of them and when they have the skills to meet those expectations. Children with autism are no different, especially since they can think in very literal and concrete terms.

Carefully set realistic expectations, and explain those expectations clearly to reduce autism behavior problems in the classroom.

For example, teachers may need to show students visually what they must do and use simple instructions. Have the child repeat the instructions back to the teacher, too, to ensure understanding and reduce outbursts.

Time Transitions

Switching between activities and moving between classes can frustrate children with autism. They typically thrive on routine and predictability and also appreciate the opportunity to finish one activity before moving on to something else.

To avoid behavior challenges, time transitions carefully and seek to avoid as many disruptions as possible. Written or visual schedules clarify expectations and verbal prompts may motivate students to transition calmly, too.

Address Sensory Sensitivities

Sensitivity to textures, aromas, bright lights, and noise are a few challenges that may affect children with autism. These sensory sensitivities can cause discomfort and pain, which may precede challenging behaviors.

Address a child’s sensory sensitivities to improve comfort. Teachers can discover these sensitivities by observing the child and talking to parents or caregivers. It may be impossible to remove every child’s sensory triggers, but simple changes like dimming the lights or avoiding crowded hallways can make a big difference.

Offer Quiet Space

It’s common for students with autism to feel uncomfortable, overwhelmed, or anxious at school. These feelings build up until the child responds with challenging behaviors.

A quiet space in a corner of the classroom or another room can help students relax before they disrupt the classroom. Ideally, this space will include tools that help children feel safe, secure, and calm. A swing, rubber wall, art supplies, low lights, no noise, and other tools allow a child to relieve pressure and prepare to return successfully to the classroom.

Improve Communication Skills

Because children with autism often struggle to communicate, they may benefit from strategies that teach functional communication skills. Improved communication abilities can help children communicate better and may reduce autism behavior problems in the classroom.

Available communication tools include augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) tools, such as sign language and Picture Exchange Communication Systems (PECS).

Speech and language therapy can also occur in natural and various settings throughout the day and involve teachers, peers, staff, and the child’s family. The child’s communication goals, therapies, and tools will be listed in the IEP and updated as needed.

Implement Calming Techniques

When a student becomes verbally or physically disruptive or aggressive in the classroom, the staff may respond in kind. A calm demeanor can make a huge impact, though, and often defuses rather than escalates the situation.

Classroom staff can handle behavior challenges more successfully when they implement calming techniques themselves and with the children. Deep breathing, counting to 10, taking a break, pushing on a wall, and using a quiet, slow voice are a few strategies that defuse tension.

These and other calming techniques can be used in the moment or become part of the class’s daily routine as every student develops helpful tools that promote peace, tranquility, and calm.

Successfully Handle Autism Behavior Problems In The Classroom

Children with autism may exhibit challenging behavior in the classroom. Several strategies can help staff handle behaviors appropriately, reduce classroom disruptions, and provide every student in the class with access to a safe and effective education.

Despite these steps, some children with autism may need even more support. A specialized school like the Sarah Dooley Center For Autism provides an educational setting that’s designed to meet the child’s specific needs and successfully handle behavior challenges.

Learn more from these related resources:

Knowing why your child misbehaves can make a world of difference

  • facebook
  • twitter
  • linkedin

Jonathan B. Jassey, DO, is board-certified in pediatrics. He has been in private practice at Bellmore Merrick Medical in New York since 2007 and is the co-author of “The Newborn Sleep Book.”

When typical children misbehave, they often have an agenda in mind. Yell loudly enough in the grocery store, and Mom will quiet me with a treat. Behave badly at a formal event and I’ll get to stay at home next time. After a while, even toddlers learn to manipulate their parents and caregivers through a strategic use of behaviors.

Children with autism often behave inappropriately; some are aggressive or prone to catastrophic meltdowns. Their behaviors, however, are rarely intentional. Autistic children, in general, lack something called “theory of mind,” which is the understanding that other people don’t know what we know or think what we think. This makes it extremely difficult for young children with autism to intentionally annoy or manipulate others.  

Autistic children’s apparent bad behaviors, such as bolting from the room, whacking a peer, refusing to take part in circle time, or climbing the fridge, are rarely attempts to get attention or wrest power from their parents. Instead, the behaviors are often caused by external issues that can be solved by calm, creative parents.   These hints and tips may make for a calmer family life.

Know Your Child

” data-caption=”” data-expand=”300″ data-tracking-container=”true” />

Chris Ward / Getty Images

Few autistic children are intentionally naughty, but many have difficult behaviors. So what’s going on? Each child is different, and knowing your own child is key to taking action. Is your child extra-sensitive to sound and light? Does she need lots of sensory input? Is he likely to misunderstand a close approach by a stranger? Are there words, sounds, or smells that can set your child off? The more you know, the easier it is to troubleshoot a situation.

Modify Your Expectations

Your mother may have expected you to sit still through a full dinner hour, but that’s not a reasonable expectation for most children with autism. Many have unusually short attention spans or need physical movement to stay calm.   Consider starting with a smaller goal, such as sitting still for three minutes or eating with a fork, and building toward the larger goal of sitting through a full meal. Break larger tasks into smaller, more manageable steps so that your child can be successful.

Modify the Environment

Safety is key, and for autistic children, creating a safe environment is a challenge.   Since so many of your child’s behaviors may have the potential to be dangerous, it’s important to take precautions such as bolting shelves to the walls and floor, putting a deadbolt on the front door, and latching cabinets securely. Some parents even put plexiglass on the fronts of bookshelves to keep children from climbing.

Consider the Possible Sources of the Behavior

Many children on the autism spectrum either crave or over-respond to sensory input (lights, smells, sounds, or even the sensation of particular fabrics). Some alternate between the two extremes. Very often, “bad” behavior is actually a reaction to too much or too little sensory input.   By carefully observing your child, you may be able to figure out what’s setting him off.

Remove Overwhelming Sensory Input

If your child is over-reacting to sensory input, there are many ways to change the situation. Of course, the first step is to simply avoid overwhelming sensory settings such as parades, amusement parks, and loud venues such as movie theaters. You can also make changes in your home such as replacing fluorescent lamps with incandescent bulbs or turning down the music. When that’s not an option, consider ear plugs, distracting sensory toys, or plain old bribery to get through difficult moments.

Provide Sensory Input

If your child is crashing into couches, climbing the walls or spinning in circles, chances are she’s craving sensory input. You can provide that in any number of more appropriate ways. Some people recommend bear hugs; other suggest squeezing youngsters between sofa cushions, rolling them up like “hot dogs” in blankets, or providing them with weighted vests or quilts. For some children, physical activity can be a great way to provide sensory input; horseback riding therapy, kickball, or just running and jumping can help.  

Look for Positive Outlets for Unusual Behaviors

While climbing the entertainment center may be “bad” behavior, climbing at a rock gym can be a great way to build muscles and friendships at the same time. While spinning at the grocery store may be odd, it’s ok to twirl on a tire swing. What’s a problem in one place may be a virtue in another.

Enjoy Your Child’s Successes

When you’re the parent of a child with autism, you have extra opportunities to celebrate successes. While other parents may get angry when their child lies, you can cheer your child’s new understanding of other people’s thoughts and feelings. While other parents may find their child’s chattering annoying, you can delight in knowing that your autistic child is finding his voice. In other words, when your an autism parent you can sometimes delight in “naughty” behaviors that are actually exciting signs of development.

Worry Less About Others’ Opinions

Your child is really doing a fine job in the grocery store. He may be flapping a bit, but it’s no big deal. Until you catch the eye of the mom with the perfect little girl, and she’s staring at your son. Suddenly the flapping seems like a very big deal, and you find yourself snapping at your son to “just put his hands down!” It’s not easy, but it’s important to remember that he’s autistic and not intentionally embarrassing!

Find Ways to Have Fun Together

It’s not always easy to associate autism and fun. But if you think about it, rolling your child up like a hot dog, bouncing on a trampoline, or even sitting and cuddling together can be a lot of fun. Instead of worrying about the therapeutic value of each action, try just enjoying the silliness, the tickling, the cuddling. and the child. At least for a little while.

Keep Calm and Carry On

It’s easy to get upset, embarrassed, or even frightened by an autistic child’s behaviors. But by staying calm, relaxed, and supportive, you can turn anxiety into a positive experience for you and your child.

Common types of behaviour in autistic children

Some autistic children may behave in ways that put a lot of strain on you and your family.

You may hear health professionals call some behaviours “challenging”.

These behaviours include:

  • stimming – a kind of repetitive behaviour
  • meltdowns – a complete loss of control over behaviour

Some autistic children can also be physically or verbally aggressive. Their behaviour can be harmful to themselves or other people.

But remember, all autistic children are different and not every day will be challenging or stressful.

Why these behaviours happen

Many autistic children have difficulties with communication, which can affect their behaviour.

Some things that can cause these behaviours include:

  • being oversensitive to things like bright lights or loud noises
  • being undersensitive to things like touch or pain
  • anxiety, especially when routines suddenly change
  • not being able to make sense of what’s going on around them
  • being unwell or in pain

These behaviours are not your or your child’s fault.

Stimming

Stimming stands for “self-stimulating behaviour”. It’s a kind of repetitive behaviour.

Common stimming behaviours include:

  • rocking, jumping, spinning, head-banging
  • hand-flapping, finger-flicking, flicking rubber bands
  • repeating words, phrases or sounds
  • staring at lights or spinning objects

Stimming is usually harmless. It may look odd to others, but there’s no need to stop it if it’s not causing any problems for you or your child.

Ambitious about Autism has more on stimming and repetitive behaviours.

Meltdowns

Meltdowns are a complete loss of control caused by being totally overwhelmed.

If your child has a meltdown, the most important thing is to try to stay calm and keep them safe.

If you’re worried your child might hurt themselves, try to hold them to keep them safe.

It’s not always possible to prevent meltdowns, but there are some things you can do that may help.

  • letting your child wear headphones to listen to calming music
  • turning down or removing bright lights
  • planning ahead for any change in routine, such as a different route to school

It may help to keep a diary for a few weeks to see if you can spot any meltdown triggers that you can do something about.

The National Autistic Society has more on meltdowns.

Non-urgent advice: Speak to the autism assessment team or a GP if your child is:

  • stimming all the time or having lots of meltdowns
  • being bullied at school because of their behaviour
  • aggressive, harming themselves or harming other people

If you’re struggling to cope, you may be referred to a professional who can help.

Advice from other parents

If you need emotional support, call the National Autistic Society’s Parent to Parent phone line on 0808 800 4106.

You can also get advice and help from support groups and online forums.

Find out more:

Autism and everyday life

Page last reviewed: 18 April 2019
Next review due: 18 April 2022

Listen to what the child is trying to say. Ignore it, and the behavior may escalate until the child gets the point across.

Don’t Insist on Eye Contact

Adults look one another in the eye when they speak. For children with autism, this is a difficult task. Some children learn to look near your eyes (at your forehead, for example) through practice, but some never pick up this skill.

Never force a child to look into your eyes. Don’t bow down to try to meet the child’s eyes, and don’t point to your own eyes to make the child follow along. Accept the child’s behavior.

Don’t Use Creative Language

Children with autism take things literally. If you sprinkle your conversation with irony, sarcasm, exaggerations, or idioms, you’re bound to confuse the child.

For example, don’t tell a child to “keep an eye on” something. The child may reach for it and put the item near his face.

Be as literal and direct as you can, so the child knows exactly what you’re talking about.

If you slip and say something unusual, don’t laugh at the child for taking your words literally. Apologize for your mistake, and rephrase the sentence so your meaning is clear. There’s nothing funny about a misunderstanding like this.

Don’t Assume the Child Can’t Hear

Even autistic children who don’t speak may hear and understand what you say. Don’t talk about them as if they don’t exist or aren’t worthy of your attention. Speak directly to them with your questions. If you have nothing nice to say about them, don’t say anything at all.

Don’t Stare

Activists explain that some people with autism feel compelled to do unusual things. They may flap their hands, jump around, blink their eyes, or make unusual noises. These behaviors help to calm them when they feel overwhelmed.

These are unusual behaviors, but resist the urge to watch them carefully. Some older children may be self-conscious about their behaviors, and they can be embarrassed by your reactions. Younger children may notice your stares and feel blamed for them.

You don’t need to document the child’s behavior. Just be a gentle presence that doesn’t judge. You’ll have a friend in no time.

How to handle an autistic child's behavior
It’s one of those moments you dread.

It’s the holidays, and your house is filled with relatives eating and chatting.

Suddenly something small and hard hits you in the cheek.

And then your head.

Your ten-year-old child is throwing crayons at you.

Now he steals a handful of crayons from one of the cousins and chucks them all right at you, while your visitors (and your mother-in-law!) stare.

The good news is that ABA offers some very successful methods to deal with this sort of situation.

How to handle an autistic child's behavior

How to handle an autistic child's behavior

How to handle an autistic child's behavior

It’s important to understand from the start that ABA is not a system of discipline, nor does it focus on discipline. Instead, ABA seeks to understand the why behind the unwanted behaviors, and the how for giving your child the tools they need to start choosing preferred behaviors.

Does that sound like more work than a quick spanking or time out? Yep. That’s because it is. But the long-term pay off will be so much greater!

Each child is unique and depending on where your child lands on the spectrum methods will need to be adjusted to fit the needs of each child. Please use this information as supplemental help while also working with a licensed ABA or BCBA therapist.

How to Correct Problem Behavior

Step 1. RECOGNIZE

Problem behaviors are generally the child trying to communicate something. Simply “punishing” the behavior won’t bring about long-term results.

A child with autism generally won’t respond to authority in the same way a neurotypical child would, and many traditional methods will likely backfire in the long run.

Strong reactions from you will probably reinforce the behavior instead of deter it. If your voice gets louder, your face turns red or you wave your arms you’re suddenly very interesting. Instead of feeling chastised, your child may be curious and repeat the behavior to see what kind of show you’ll put on next.

Step 2. REFRAME

Your interpretation of the “why” behind the behavior might be increasing your own anger… and it might be wrong.

It’s possible that what you observe as disrespectful might actually be your child’s reaction to physical pain or an inability to clearly express legitimate needs.

Step 3. RESEARCH

Look for patterns to see what your child might be trying to say. What happened immediately before the problem behavior? It might be as obvious as you refusing to buy a donut or as subtle as sensory overload each time Aunt Agatha hugs your child.

Step 4. REINFORCE & PUNISH

Behaviors have consequences. You will need to create a behavior plan that includes what we in the ABA professional community refer to as reinforcers and punishments in order to begin the change process.

Reinforcers are consequences that increase the likelihood of the behavior repeating. If your child knows that by not melting down in the store he gets to play with a favorite toy on the car ride home, the toy is the reinforcing consequence. It increases positive behavior.

Punishments are consequences that make your child less likely to repeat a behavior. If your child hits their sibling while playing with blocks, you remove access to what they want: the blocks and a playmate.

Step 5. REPEAT

Once your plan is in place, follow through. Consistency is the key to making this work, so you will need to repeat the same steps multiple times before you start to see a change.

Things will probably get worse before they get better, but if you persist it will work.

Step 6. REQUEST

Because autism has neurological roots some sensations are truly painful for your child.

In all likelihood, your child’s behavior is a visceral reaction to some kind of trigger. It’s worth putting in the effort to try to pin down what that trigger might be.

The solution to a major meltdown could be as simple as asking Aunt Agatha to avoid wearing perfume when she comes over.

But What Do I Do RIGHT NOW?

IGNORE … If you know the behavior isn’t in response to true physical pain, and the behavior is non-harmful, seek to ignore it. For example, if your child is throwing crayons at you get up and walk out of the room. Any verbal discipline or chastisement actually reinforces what your child most likely wanted…your attention!

After some time away from the child, return to the room and offer your presence.

REMOVE … Until you start practicing ABA principles at home and preparing your child for upcoming triggers, you may need to remove your child from the situation. This may mean that in the short term you leave the store without finishing your grocery list or your child goes to his room until visitors leave the house.

Remember… ABA is all about working toward long-term changes in behavior, and sometimes short-term solutions will only prolong the change process.

For some children time outs are effective both at home and in public. However, they are only part of the story and alone will not result in long-term change.

Spanking is highly discouraged when working with children with autism.

Why? Because your child’s final takeaway will be that when others do something they don’t like, they can respond physically. This can lead to hitting other children or throwing rocks on the playground when they are upset.

In addition, spanking fails to take into account the reality that your child may be acting out because he or she is truly in pain or experiencing a valid need.

Instead, we want to give our children the tools to respond to the situation appropriately and be able to tell us what is wrong.

Individuals with autism may be at risk of displaying severe disruptive, aggressive, self-injurious, or other dangerous behaviors. When your child engages in these behaviors, it is important to:

  • Stay calm
  • Avoid facial and vocal expressions of frustration
  • If there is a treatment plan in place, follow it, consistently
  • Once the child is back on task, increase rates of reinforcement
  • Don’t provide reprimands. Redirect nonverbally.
  • Always ensure the safety of the child and yourself.
    • For example, if you believe your child is doing something (e.g., climbing up a bookshelf) to access attention, ensure the safety of your child while providing limited attention to the behavior (e.g., physically remove your child from the bookshelf [or other dangerous situation] without saying anything to them, making eye contact with them, or changing your facial expression).
  • Remember, once a behavior is over, it is over. As hard as it may be, you cannot let your feelings about the occurrence carry over into the next activity or interaction you have with your child.

How to handle an autistic child's behavior

If your child is engaging in behavior that is dangerous to themselves or others, reach out to a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) as soon as possible. BCBAs are trained to identify antecedents and consequences that maintain these behaviors. It is important to remember that these behaviors were learned through their consequences and with prolonged exposure to these consequences, the behavior could be more challenging to decrease in the future.

Would you like information about our programs?

Here are some thoughts on how to manage difficult behaviors of an autistic child. While restricted and repetitive behaviors are key components of the diagnostic definition of Autism, several other behavioral symptoms may be present in children with Autism; some common ones are:

  • mood volatility,
  • inattention,
  • hyperactivity,
  • aggression, and
  • self-injury.

To a large extent, medication can be used to control these behavioral types. However, they should be used only as a last resort. The first step to managing difficult behaviors is to understand their root cause and function. Most behaviors serve a purpose or function, and this can often be identified through a careful evaluation of the behavioral patterns as well as its triggers and consequences.

The ABC Behavioral Model

The A-B-C model of behavior has three interlinked components: Antecedent, Behavior, and Consequences. For a while now, these 3 legs of the behavioral tripod have formed the basis for understanding how humans in general behave.

Family members and Educators are a critical part of the process and help to identify functions of behavior, as they can provide documented evidence by utilizing an A-B-C analysis. When provided to the healthcare provider helping the child, this helps in identifying behaviors that require medication. Generally, when there is a clear antecedent (A) or consequence (C) for a behavior (B), managing that scenario is easy.

Most responsible clinicians would, however, avoid immediate medical intervention unless the behavioral impact is so high in magnitude that waiting for adjustment of the antecedents or consequences may jeopardize the child or others around him/her.

Another role that family members and teachers play is to help the healthcare provider gain an understanding of the baseline position of the child’s behavior (how he/she behaves in normal circumstances).

Educational interventions and behavior improvement techniques are considered essential for children with autism, as these make a direct contribution towards the increase in skill-sets and positive behaviors in a child with Autism.

For example, a child with Autism may show increased anxiety levels when asked to focus away from a preferred task and, as a consequence, may act out or become aggressive when asked to transition. One helpful intervention in such situations is the use of visual schedules (or visual management boards) to prompt a child to understand “what is about to come next” and to help them learn skills that can help manage anxiety.

How to handle an autistic child's behavior

Interestingly, behaviors in children with Autism often serve a finite (and at times limited) set of functions. The table above demonstrates that concept. You can download a copy of this Behavior Matrix from our resources page: Autism Behavior Matrix for Children

Other broad context situations, also referred to as “setting events,” may influence behavior problems, and these may have a biological connection. For example, pain may lead to an increase in self-injurious behavior in a nonverbal child with ASD, while constipation may increase irritability in hyperactive children. These events and their causation need to be adequately examined before pursuing medication for the behavior itself.

A few examples of biological setting events might be:

  • Allergic: eczema, nasal allergies
  • Endocrine: thyroid conditions
  • Dental: cavities, abscesses, tooth pain, impacted teeth
  • Infectious diseases: ear infections, sore throat, sinus infections
  • Gastrointestinal: constipation, diarrhea, gastroesophageal reflux
  • Bones/Joints: Strain or sprain
  • Medication side effects: dietary supplements, prescription or over-the-counter medications
  • Neurological disorders: headaches, seizures

When Medication is the Only Option

While in general, behavioral strategies have more research support and are preferred in treating behavioral symptoms in children with ASD, there are times when medication should be strongly considered. These occasions include:

  • When the behavior interferes with learning and skill acquisition
  • When the behavior poses a physical risk of harm to the individual or others
  • When behavior strategies alone do not adequately improve the behavior symptoms
  • When the behavior causes significant stress to family members and educational personnel so as to interfere with their functioning

How to handle an autistic child's behavior

Non-compliant behavior can be a challenge for parents and caregivers of children with autism. Common social activities that parents take their children along with such as going out to eat, going to church or the movies, can feel like a challenge for the family. However, Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) researchers developed 3-step prompting, a simple strategy used to encourage compliance with any known skill and a given instruction. By following this systematic method of prompting, parents and caregivers can encourage social behaviors in their children.

What does non-compliant behavior look like?

First, let’s look at what types of behavior 3-step prompting can address. Non-compliant behavior is when a child fails to start or complete a task or follow an instruction. There are a few factors that cause non-compliance. Among them are a lack of motivation to comply or they may have not learned how to complete the task.

Addressing noncompliant behavior at an early age is crucial. If problem behaviors are not attended to they can escalate into aggression or other problem behaviors.

How NOT to deal with non-compliant behavior

Just as important as what to do when faced with non-compliant behavior, is what not to do. Some of the ways in which parents and caregivers react to problem behavior may reinforce and encourage those behaviors. Often times, parents are unaware that their actions are having adverse effects that may encourage the problem behavior.

Here are a few tips on what not to do:

  • DO NOT negotiate your request or give into the child’s demands/resistance.
  • DO NOT make empty threats or promises. You must follow through!
  • DO NOT stop placing the demand or instruction to the child
  • DO NOT give your child attention when they display non-compliant behavior. Remember that attention can be expressed, behaviorally in a positive or negative manner. Scolding or giving your child a reprimand is a form of negative attention and can reinforce problem behavior.

What to do when dealing with non-compliant behavior

We covered the “do nots,” now before we dig into the actual 3-step prompting procedure, here are a few things you should be doing:

  • DO give positive reinforcement. Reward the child whenever she or he is compliant. Let the intensity and size of the reward match the action. So, if your child is making strides, make sure that you let her or him know it!
  • DO ensure that what you are asking of the child (your demands) are reasonable and clear. If your child is not yet toilet trained, you shouldn’t demand that they use the bathroom on their own. If your instruction is go to the potty and the child doesn’t know what a potty is, your instructions are not clear. A better instruction would be “go sit on the toilet”.
  • DO be clear about consequences. Ensure that the consequence fits the crime, is age appropriate, and that the child cannot negotiate her or his way out of it. Common consequences might be withholding of reinforcement.

Preparing for 3-step prompting

Before beginning 3-step prompting, there are a few things you should do:

  • Have your reinforcer (aka reward) ready. This should be something that your child likes or wants. For example, if your child likes to play games on the computer, computer playtime would be a great reinforcer. It’s also always a good idea to participate in the reinforcing activity. Lastly, just as consequences should fit the crime, the reward should match with what your child is accomplishing.
  • Have your consequences ready and make sure your kiddo is clear on what the consequences are and how she or he can avoid them. Always know what you are going to do next in responding to noncompliance.
  • Remind your child of the reward by using If you do _____________, then your will receive_____________. In ABA we call this the Premak principal. An example would be, eat your peas and then you can have dessert.
  • Be aware of patterns. Does your child exhibit non-compliant behavior when she or he is tired? Is there a time of day that problematic behavior is more frequent? Plan ahead to deal with these particularly difficult times. For example, you can use a schedule so your child knows what to expect.

Implementing 3-step prompting with your child

So, you’re ready! You’ve identified the problematic behaviors you want to address. Also, you have chosen your reinforcers and consequences and made them clear to your child. You’ve also taken notes on when those behaviors occur frequently and have a plan to work through them. Here are the steps to follow:

  • Step 1: Clearly give the instruction. For example, “eat your peas.” Give the child five seconds to comply. If she or he complies, enthusiastically present them with the reward! If they do not comply, or exhibit any non-compliant behavior, move on to step two.
  • Step 2: Clearly give the instruction and a gestural or modeled prompt. Give the instruction again and this time, look over or point towards the activity or model the desired behavior. For example, “eat your peas.” (point to the peas.) If they comply, give subtle, or verbal, praise. If they do not, move on to step three.
  • Step 3: Clearly give the instruction and a full physical prompt. Give the instruction then physically guide the child to complete the task. One popular physical prompt is a hand-over-hand prompt where you would place your hand over the child’s hand and guide them to eating their peas. You should not stop the guidance until the task is finished. At this point, do not reinforce, or reward the behavior but acknowledge that the behavior was completed. For example, “that’s eating your peas,” said in a neutral tone.

3-step prompting is a proven method to reduce problem behavior and promote positive social behaviors in children with autism disorder. The above steps can be implemented at home, in school or in the community. However, consistency is key. If a problem behavior is addressed in the same manner, using 3-step prompting, in all instances, the effectiveness of this method increases. Speak to your Board Certified Behavior Analyst to learn more or contact Animate Behavior with your questions, today!