Beyond the B.A.S.I.C.S. Blog

PROACTIVE STRATEGIES FOR AVOIDING PROBLEM BEHAVIORS (and a few for when you just can’t prevent the tantrum)

December 13, 2011

SCENARIO: Your client consistently displays negative behaviors when you run a certain program.
SOLUTION: Give your client as much control over the situation as you can. Let’s say your client LOATHES his drawing program and throws a tantrum each time you run it. Let him escape the program by offering him a choice – he can either do the drawing program OR a different program-related task. Eventually you’ll have to come back to the drawing program, but sometimes avoiding it for a minute or two (or ten) allows your client to feel some control over the situation. If you HAVE to run an unpopular program, ask your client if he wants to do it now or later, or, in the case of drawing, if he wants to use crayons or markers, paper or a coloring book, chalk or paint, etc. Let your client feel that HE is in charge of the program – everybody likes to be in charge, and, at the end of the day, it probably doesn’t matter if he draws on the back of your data form instead of in his journal; the important part is that he’s drawing (without a tantrum)!

SCENARIO: Your client refuses to come back to the work area.
SOLUTION: Again, give your client the control. Teach her to say, “I need a minute, please.” If she’s non-verbal, teach her a gesture (a raised index finger works well) so she has a way to tell you she’s not ready to do something. Be careful not to create a behavior chain here – don’t ALWAYS allow her to escape – but every so often, don’t you avoid doing your work, too?

SCENARIO: Your client has his own agenda.
SOLUTION: Say “YES” as often as you can. If your client really, REALLY wants to watch YouTube videos, instead of saying, “NO, you need to do your work first,” say, “Oh, sure! Let’s watch a video RIGHT AFTER we finish washing our hands!” Instead of saying, “NO, it’s not time to go see mom yet,” say, “YES! We ARE going to go see mom just as soon as the timer beeps – let’s write our name while we’re waiting.” Instead of saying, “NO, we can’t go to the park today –it’s raining,” say, “Oh! Great idea! I LOVE going to the park! Let’s pretend the park is right over there by the couch! Come on!” ***Note: Your enthusiasm will make or break this strategy, so try your best to be genuine.

SCENARIO: You’ve tried all of the above strategies (plus a few of your own), but your client ended up in the middle of an epic meltdown anyway. Now what?
SOLUTION 1: Model appropriate self-calming strategies. Lower your voice, even to a whisper if you have to. Take some deep breaths (it’ll help both you and your client stay calm) and ask your client to do the same. After they follow s simple direction, offer some sensory input, but let your client keep the control here – ex: “Do you want some squeezes or to turn the lights out?” If your client says “no,” DON’T DO EITHER. If your client can’t answer, continue modeling your calming strategies. Deep breaths work great, but you could also model counting to ten, hugging/punching a pillow, or even curling up on the couch. Some clients react negatively to being touched while tantruming, and others the opposite – once you get to know your client you’ll have a pretty good idea of which will work best for you and your client.

SOLUTION 2: Model appropriate language. Chances are you have a pretty good idea why your client is in crisis (perhaps you forgot to give him a choice over the drawing program). Model some language that he can use next time to avoid the undesirable activity (Ex: “I don’t want to color.”). Non-verbal kiddo? Remind him about his break card, PECS, or whatever gesture he uses to tell you he’s done or he needs a break.

SOLUTION 3: Use simple language. Humans, neurotypical or otherwise, have difficulty processing language when they are upset. Don’t waste your time explaining the seven reasons your client can’t have TV time – chances are she’s not going to process what you’re saying anyway. Instead, acknowledge her feelings and move on to your self-calming strategies (Ex: “I’m really sorry you’re feeling mad/sad/angry, but it’s not time for TV right now.”). Don’t negotiate. Don’t give in – if you do you’ll have reinforced the tantrum. Keep your language to a minimum until your client is calm, THEN offer explanations and alternatives if appropriate.

***Remember: even the most experienced ABA therapist has bad days, and even the best-behaved child occasionally throws tantrums. You can’t avoid every negative behavior, but using the above strategies will help you decrease their frequency. Keep your client safe, keep your cool, and keep trying different strategies until you find the ones that work best for you and your client.


By Melissa Ruiz, BCaBA


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