Is your child having difficulties with behavior? Is he or she having tantrums that leave everyone exhausted and upset? It may be time to get to the bottom of what is going on. Here are some tips on behavior management, from a communication perspective.

This handy guide was developed to offer you, the parent or caregiver, a chance to get down to the nitty-gritty of your child’s behavior and figure out why they may be acting that way in the first place. Then, we will help you figure out what to do about it. The first thing to do when a child is having behavior difficulties is to investigate the ABC’s of the behavior: the antecedent, the behavior, and the consequence.

Antecedent: When does the behavior occur?

The antecedent is the situation leading up to the specific behavior. For example, if your child’s tantrum typically occurs after passing by a desired item in a store and being told that they cannot purchase it, that would be the antecedent. Here are some more common antecedents for challenging behaviors:

• Being denied a desired object
• Transitioning from one activity to another
• Being asked to do something they do not like to do
• Having attention paid to someone/something else
• Being frightened/startled
• Trying to use an object that is not working properly
• Having a sensory need that the behavior satisfies (such as slapping the table because it feels good on their hands)

It is often useful to write down the antecedents of a behavior for a period of time, to figure out when you can expect the behavior to happen. When you can anticipate the behavior, you will be one step closer to understanding it. You will also be able to react in a constructive manner when your child engages in the behavior, as we will discuss below.

Behavior: What is the child doing, and why?

This is the most straightforward part of the behavior ABC’s, but can still hold subtle, useful information. Here are some examples of challenging behaviors that many parents face:

• Screaming/yelling
• Crying/whining
• Hitting
• Pinching
• Biting
• Kicking
• Falling on the ground
• Running away
• Throwing objects or pushing them onto the floor
• Self-injurious behaviors (head-banging, etc.)

Remember that behavior is communication. When your child acts out, s/he is telling you something. For children with speech or language difficulties, they may be using their behavior to communicate something that they would not otherwise know how to communicate. Watch and listen as your child engages in these behaviors, and do your best to determine the function of the behavior. The function of a behavior is the message that the child is communicating. It is the end goal that the child is attempting to achieve by using this behavior. For example, if your child cries without tears while looking at you out of the corner of her eye, that may indicate that she is waiting for you to give her attention. If your child falls on the ground and kicks whenever you bring him into a store, that may indicate that he is trying to avoid going into the store.

Here are some common functions of behaviors:

• Escape/avoidance (to avoid a task or situation)
• Attention (to get adults to pay attention to the child rather than to someone/something else)
• Control (to have power over the situation)
• Access (to obtain a desired object or activity)
• Self-stimulation (to make her/himself feel good)

Included in all of these functions is the element of communication. Children with speech and language difficulties frequently become frustrated with their inability to communicate. If they do not have a way to communicate their desires or share their emotions, they may act out in other ways. Understanding the function of the behavior can help adults figure out how to respond to the behavior in the consequence.

Consequence: What happens after the behavior?

The consequence includes everything that happens directly after the behavior starts. It may include any number of reactions by family, friends, and strangers. Here are some common consequences of challenging behaviors:

• Affection (picking up the child, hugging, comforting)
• Punishment (taking away objects, time out, reprimanding)
• Planned Ignoring/Withdrawal (walking away, looking away, purposely ignoring the child’s behavior)
• Redirection (getting the child involved with a different activity)
• Prompting (helping the child behave appropriately)

If a child is engaging in a behavior frequently, it is likely that the consequence is somehow reinforcing the behavior.


Positive reinforcement is any consequence that makes it more likely that a behavior will re-occur. Remember that behaviors can be positive, neutral, or negative. For example, a good grade on a test can be positive reinforcement for studying. Here are some examples of positive reinforcement:

• Social/verbal: a high five, hug, or “Good job!”
• Tangible: an object, toy, or chance to take a turn in a game
• Physical: physical play, such as being spun around or tickled
• Token: small objects that a child may collect in order to turn them in for a larger reward
• Edible: food or drink that the child enjoys
• Intrinsic: an activity that makes the person feel good in and of itself. This may include anything from self-stimulatory sensory behaviors, to a feeling of a job well done

So, what can we do about it?
Once you have figured out the common antecedents, identified the behavior(s) you want to address along with its function, as well as the typical consequence that happens when the child engages in the behavior, it is time to figure out what may be reinforcing the behavior. Here are some examples of behaviors and the consequences that reinforce them, or make them more likely to reoccur, with the functions of the behaviors written in italics:

• A 4-year-old pushes his older sister’s toys off the table. When he does it, his sister yells at him and his mother comes into the room to reprimand him. He smiles and walks away. (attention)
• A 6-year-old whines about doing her homework, saying “I don’t want to!” After 15 minutes of this behavior, her father lets her go watch television instead. (avoidance)
• An 18-month-old pulls his mother over to the kitchen counter, then reaches upward toward a box of his favorite cookies. When his mother tells him “no,” he hits her and begins to cry. When she gives him a cookie, he hits it out of her hand and continues to cry. (access, then control)

So, what can we do about it? We can replace the undesired behavior with a socially-appropriate alternative that achieves the same function. Here are some examples of strategies that parents might employ:

Behavior: Function: Consequence (Strategy):
Pushing sibling’s toys off the table Attention Planned Ignoring: Instruct the sibling to keep playing and ignore the behavior.  The sibling may choose to stay where she is or go play somewhere else that is out of reach.Redirection with Prompting: Without bringing attention to the behavior, offer the child a choice between two alternate activities, then get the child engaged in one of them, then praise him for playing nicely with that activity.
Whining about homework Avoidance, escape Prompting: Sit down and help the child with her homework, praising her when she solves a problem herself.Affection: Comfort her if she is upset, but encourage her to keep trying
Hitting mother, crying, hitting cookie out of her hand when she offers it If control, attention (child changed his mind about cookie)If access (child actually wants the cookie) Punishment (mild) with Planned Ignoring: Tell the child “no” and put the cookies away, then walk away and ignore the child’s behavior.
Model (show) a word, phrase, or sign that the child could use to request the cookie.  It should be something the child is capable of doing, so he can be successful.  Have him request it appropriately in order to get the snack.
Hitting, biting as parent talks to sibling Attention, control Planned Ignoring: Walk away and wait for the child to calm down, without giving them any attention for the negative behavior.  Praise and reward any good behavior, such as calming down or using their words.
Throwing food Avoidance – child does not like the food or has finished eating Prompting: Have the child request to be “all done,” verbally or with a sign, depending on their abilities.Redirection: Intersperse bites of the undesired food with a more desirable one, encouraging the child to continue eating a short time longer, then dismiss them as a reward for good behavior.
Throwing food Attention Planned Ignoring: Remove the food from the child to avoid further mess, then walk away, without giving attention for the throwing.  When she is ready to continue eating without throwing food, bring it back,


Be consistent!

Remember that the goal is to remove all reinforcement (rewards, whether purposeful or not) for the negative behavior and to establish reinforcement (purposely reward) for the good behavior! Your child has come to expect a certain consequence for her behavior, so when those consequences change, you may see a sudden spike in that behavior. Don’t worry! It is natural to “up the ante” for a short period of time, in order to see how much it will take to get that expected consequence. You may think of it like the “vending machine story:”

Imagine that you go to get a snack from your favorite vending machine. You put in a dollar, but nothing happens. You push the buttons, peer into the slot, and shake the machine, but nothing. Finally, in your frustration, you kick the machine – and your snack falls down into the slot! You think, “Hmm, maybe next time I’ll just skip all the other steps, and kick it instead.” The next time you come to get your snack, you go straight to kicking the machine. Your snack falls down again! The next time, you kick the machine, but nothing happens. You kick again. Nothing. You kick it a third time, and your snack falls down! On your next snack break, you will be willing to kick the machine at least five times, if there’s even a chance of getting the free snack. However, if you kick the machine ten times, but get nothing, chances are that you wouldn’t mind finally putting a dollar in the machine. When your dollar works just fine, you’ll probably decide to use a dollar again tomorrow, to avoid all the trouble.

This spike in behavior (symbolized in this story as kicking the vending machine) is a natural reaction when the consequence changes. For example, if your child is used to crying in order to get what he wants, he may cry more loudly and for longer when his crying is ignored. However, if he is also shown an alternative to crying (such as using his words or signs) and does not receive a reward for his crying, he is more likely to give up on the crying and try using his words instead. If he only receives the reward for the positive behavior, he will be more likely to continue using it in the future. Be firm, and be consistent!

As speech and language professionals, we are uniquely qualified to help you figure out the function of your child’s behavior, then help your child replace that behavior with communication!

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