When consulting with a mother of a child with Down Syndrome, she confided that she struggles with a very undesirable behavior the child exhibits. He tends to scream at the top of his lungs in quiet places. Therefore, taking her son to places such as the local library, her church, a restaurant or even a grocery store can be a very difficult trip for her. I introduced her to the idea of replacing the undesirable behavior with something more socially appropriate. But how do we do this?
Here are my basic rules when attempting to replace an undesirable behavior:
1. Find a behavior the child can already do. When replacing an undesirable behavior with something more socially appropriate, we do not want to spend time on trying to TEACH a new behavior if we have a perfectly acceptable behavior in something the child can already do.
For example, when I worked in the school setting, I had several PK students who wanted to climb on, hug or cuddle with teachers. Although a hug here and there is necessary and a great way to boost our little ones confidences, we must remember that there are certain times when this behavior just isn't acceptable. Circle time just doesn't work if everyone in the PK classroom wants to sit in the teacher's lap. So we attempted to replace this behavior with a quick "compliment and high five". This way each child was given individualized attention. The teacher or myself told each student something we really liked about their behavior that day (e.x. "Johnny, I really loved how you helped clean up the books earlier!") and they still received some physical contact with a "high five" before they were asked to sit on the floor. We began with something the students could do without spending valuable time teaching a new behavior.
2. Find something that motivates the child. Again, remember your goal is just to eliminate the undesirable behavior as quickly as possible. So to do this, we must find something that is MORE motivating than the current behavior. If this replacement behavior is NOT more motivating, than it will NOT stick! So really watch your students, know what makes them tick, and see what puts that light of excitement into their eyes.
For the little child with Down Syndrome above, he delighted in hearing his voice echo in quiet places. He also enjoyed the attention his mother gave him after each scream when she looked at him and told him "sh" or "no". So I noticed that he could use a pincer grasp to hold on to items AND he liked cool sounds. Therefore, I suggested his mother get him a quiet book with LOTs of pictures to pull from velcro patches. Each time he pulled a picture off the velcro, she was to give him quiet praise to feed his desire for parental attention. The fun velcro sound would still delight him, while it was much quieter than his screams. In addition, simple books such at these never run out of fun because you can simply return all the pictures to their velcro patches and he can begin again.
3. Practice before "game day". We know practice makes perfect but we are not trying to be perfect here. We are just trying to replace a undesirable behavior with something a bit more socially acceptable. As a child ages we can shape these behaviors into the "desired" behavior, the ultimate goal. Yet in the meantime, an acceptable behavior will do. But we cannot expect our children to be ready to substitute these behaviors if we do not practice them. Practice your replacement behavior when is it not needed and your student will know how to perform them when it is.
For our little guy, practicing his quiet book at home for a few minutes a day, helps prepare him for his next library trip.
4. You may need an external motivator. Remember when working with cognitively delayed children you may realize, during your practice sessions, that the replacement behavior is NOT motivating enough. However, if you couple that replacement behavior with an external motivator (E.x. Your student pulls all pictures off the velcro patches of a quite book then receives one goldfish as a snack), you may have a very compliant student on your hands.
5. Over time fade out external motivators and/or find new replacement behaviors that are closer to desired behavior. Over time you can begin to fade out your external motivator by providing them less often and inconsistently. You can also spend time creating a repertoire of various socially appropriate replacement behaviors to keep interest and motivation high. In addition, you can think about ways to shape these replacement behaviors to get the child to exhibit behavior closer and closer to the ultimately desired behavior.
For example, with our little guy who loves to scream, once we replace the screaming with quiet books and possible snacks, we may want to shape this behavior to using the quiet book independently in his own chair, rather than while being held by mom. We may eventually want to practice using these replacement behavior for longer and longer periods of time at the local library, church or restaurant. See how long we can extend the use of the replacement behaviors before the child looses attention or motivation. The longer we extend the behaviors and the more we increase the independence with which a child uses the replacement behavior, the closer we will come to the desired behavior.
So these are my basic rules for replacement behaviors. Remember it may take some trial and error before you find that one thing your student enjoys doing enough to replace an undesirable behavior. But when you do, know you have struck gold. Run with it and soon you will be seeing a whole new side of your students.
Have you spent time replacing behaviors in the past? Feel free to share your experiences below to help others.