Behavior is defined as the observable actions performed by an individual; it is what a child does and is usually expressed in verbs (e.g., runs, jumps, waits, requests).  For our purposes, there are two kinds of behavior, positive and negative:

By negative behavior, we mean those things that your child does that are potentially dangerous, that interfere with his/her learning, or that interfere with family and daily life activities.

By positive behavior, we mean those things that your child does that protect him or her from harm, that open him or her up to learning, or that contribute to a more harmonious home life.

What shapes behavior?  What influences how a child behaves?

Behavior is influenced by many factors, including:

Behavior changes constantly as these factors change constantly.  It is very dynamic and complex.

All behavior (positive and negative) is affected by:

By manipulating the antecedents and the consequences, two things can happen:

(1)  Behavior can be strengthened (reinforced or rewarded) or made more likely to occur.

(2)  Behavior can be weakened (punished or discouraged) or made less likely to occur.

When you control the antecedents, you can prevent behavior from occurring.

When you control the consequences, you can stop the behavior from occurring.  This is called intervening.

What is the function or purpose of behavior?

Behavior is communication.  For children whose language is not well developed, it is sometimes the only form of communicating what they want or need.  Often, our challenge is finding out what the child is trying to “say” with his/her behavior.

Often, behavior is directed to meet one or more of these needs: 

The messages that are being sent by the child are:

Examples of behaviors which send these messages are listed below:

Behaviors used to gain social attention

Behaviors used to obtain a tangible object

Behaviors used to control sensory experiences

Behaviors used to avoid or escape

How can we change behavior?

Our goal is to make positive behavior useful for the child (i.e., it will result in access to what the child wants) and to make negative behavior useless for the child (i.e., it will not result in access to what the child wants).  Behavior management is really a form of teaching. The most effective behavior management strategies involve teaching the child a new skill — an appropriate way to meet his or her needs.  Often, this is a communication skill or a new behavior which is the opposite of the negative behavior.

Since every family is different and every child is different, we cannot write an automatic prescription for behavior change.  But, we can share specific strategies that have worked for other families and teach you the technology so that you can decide how best to use it.

Behavior management strategies are like tools in a toolbox.  You will find some tools essential, and you will find yourself using them in a lot of different situations.  You will find other tools are useful only in certain situations.  Some tasks will require that you pull out all your tools, and the combinations are endless!  In addition, some of these tools won’t seem useful to you at all — you can just store those away.  Even if you aren’t using them now, it might be good to know you still have them somewhere down the road.

Top 10 Tools of Behavior Management

1.  Apply Your Knowledge of the Child

2.  Use the Problem-Solving Approach to Behavior Change

3.  Teach Functional Communication

4.  Adapt the Environment

5.  Incorporate Visual Cues

6.  Develop Predictable Routines

7.  Adapt Your Interaction Style

8.  Teach Alternative Behaviors

9.  Provide Powerful Rewards

10. Implement Meaningful Consequences

Adapting the Environment

Our model of behavior change stresses using two approaches simultaneously:  prevention and intervention.  Adapting the environment to meet the needs of the child is one way of preventing negative behaviors from occurring.  These ideas have been presented to us by other parents of young children.  We offer them for your consideration.

To ensure safety:

1.  Fence-in a portion of the backyard.

2.  Place gates in doorways, such as the child’s bedroom.

3.  Place alarms in the doorways leading outside.

4.  Install child-proof locks on cabinets, etc.

5.  Keep delicate high-tech equipment out of the child’s reach (i.e., perhaps mounted on a wall).

6.  Temporarily remove objects that are misused by the child.

To encourage independence:

1.  Have a box/place for toys in the child’s room and in the play area.

2.  Have a basket for your child’s favorite objects.

3.  Use adaptive equipment when it is helpful (e.g., grips for utensils if child has fine motor difficulty, velcro fasteners instead of shoe laces).

4.  Use rugs to delineate boundaries for activities, such as toy play.

5.  Use a specific seat at the dinner table for your child.

6.  Use a specific placemat at your child’s seat which includes pictures to indicate “food”   and “drink” and “all done”. Use these pictures during dinner to communicate.

7.  Use a visual schedule (see “Using Visual Cues”).

8.  Use a color scheme to indicate what is available to the child (green) and what is off-limits (red).  For example, a red circle might be placed on the door to mom’s study, while a green dot is placed on the door to the play room.

To prevent specific behavioral problems:

1.  Have a rocking chair available if your child likes to rock, or a mini-tramp available if s/he likes to jump.

2.  Prepare a bag for outings which has a few favorite toys, books, juice, etc.

3.  Have music available in various places (e.g., car, bathroom, etc.)

4.  Create an area of the house which is okay for rough-housing and make the boundaries visually clear to the child.

5.  Create an area of the house which is for calming down (preferably the bedroom) and consider decorating it in muted colors and using music or a water-bubbler or a fan to provide calming sounds.

Provide Powerful Rewards

5  General Considerations:

1.  Choose rewards in light of the child’s preferences.

2.  Make sure that access to the rewards is controlled by an adult or a peer.

3.  Rewards must be delivered by more than one person in more than one place.

4.  Continually assess the potency of rewards by providing the child with chance to choose his or her rewards.

5.  Choose rewards which match the function of the behavior you are trying to change.

4 Kinds of Rewards:

1.  Social/Attention(children with autism or PDDNOS often like rewards)

2.  Tangible (that are in the escape or stimulatory categories)

3.  Stimulatory

4.  Escape

3  Levels of Availability:

1.  Always available  (e.g., praise, hugs, drink)

2.  Sometimes available  (e.g., playground, car ride, snack treat)

3.  Rarely available (e.g., trip to Opryland, going out for pizza)

2  Ways of Delivering:

1.  Immediate (when you are getting started, use immediate rewards

2.  Delayed (and over time, use delayed rewards)

1  Criteria to be a Reward:

1.  Must increase the likelihood that a positive behavior will occur.

Incorporate Visual Cues

Using visual cues means using your child’s sense of sight to help you to communicate with him or her.  Visual cues are signals, like spoken words are signals.  For children who do not consistently and fully understand spoken language, visual cues become instrumental in helping you to send clear messages to your child.  Over time, your child can use these visual cues to communicate back to you.

Visual cues can help you to communicate to your child about:

As a result, they serve to prevent negative behaviors and encourage positive behaviors. 

In general, it is helpful to

Visual cues can take the form of:

Implement Meaningful Consequences

A consequence is what happens after a behavior occurs.  Here are some examples:


Child screams

Child eats vegetables

Child takes brother’s toy (and no one sees it)

Child takes brother’s toy (and Grandma sees it)


Parent comes to comfort child

Child gets to have dessert

Child gets to enjoy new toy

Child gets a scolding, brother gets toy

Notice that some consequences, such as having dessert, are pleasant and rewarding.  The behaviors which are linked with this consequence are more likely to occur again; they have been strengthened.  Other consequences, such as losing access to a toy, are unpleasant and not rewarding.  The behaviors which are linked with this consequence are less likely to occur again; they have been weakened.  Obviously, the strengthening and weakening of behaviors takes place over a long period of time.  The more a behavior is rewarded, the stronger it becomes.  The more a behavior does not achieve its function (i.e., the more it is not rewarded), the weaker it becomes.

The challenge in using consequences to change behavior is to simultaneously reward good behavior (make it useful and functional) and remove the rewards of problem behavior (make it non-useful for the child or non-functional).  In order to do this, the consequences to behaviors must be meaningful, which means:

The following example will help to illustrate these concepts:

Kelly is a four-year old girl who does not stay seated at the dinner table during meals.  Her parents decide to use consequences to increase a positive behavior (staying seated) and decrease a negative behavior (leaving the table).

First, they figure out the function of the leaving the table behavior by looking at the patterns of behavior in their household.  They recognize that when Kelly leaves the table, she doesn’t eat what everyone else eats.  Rather, she has a cheese sandwich later, served on the coffee table where she can eat and run.  Kelly’s parents decide that Kelly leaves the table partly because she doesn’t like the food and partly because she doesn’t like the conditions in which the food is served to her.  This is an example of a behavior which has two functions:  tangible (Kelly gets a cheese sandwich) and escape (Kelly doesn’t have to sit still).

Second, they choose rewarding consequences for various levels of the good behavior (staying at the table) and an unpleasant consequence for negative behavior (leaving the table). While Kelly stays at the table, she gets to eat a cheese sandwich, and if she stays for 3 minutes, she can have dessert.   If she stays through dessert, they will take her outside to run around.  If Kelly leaves the table, she won’t find food anywhere else in the house, plus she doesn’t get dessert, or an opportunity to go outside and run around.  Like this:


Leaving the table

Staying at the table

Staying for 3 minutes

Staying through dessert


No food elsewhere

Get to eat a cheese sandwich

Get to eat dessert

Get to run around outside

Do these consequences meet our standards for being meaningful?

1.  The consequences fit the function.

Since Kelly leaves the table because she doesn’t like the food, then giving her food she likes when she is at the table is very functional.  And, making sure she doesn’t get her favorite foods when she leaves the table makes that behavior non-functional.

2.  The consequences fit Kelly’s preferences.

Kelly much prefers cheese sandwiches to any other food.

3.  Kelly’s parents can consistently provide the consequences.

Cheese sandwiches, desserts, and the chance to play outside are always available at dinner time in Kelly’s house.

It is very important to remember that in order to use meaningful consequences, you need to consider the function of the negative behavior, your child’s preferences, and the consistency with which you can deliver the consequences. Here are some more examples of consequences to consider in different situations. Since it is so important that consequences fit the function of the negative behavior, we have organized our examples by function:  attention, tangible, stimulation, escape from task, and escape from the environment.  We will discuss these examples in group and talk about ways to implement the consequences effectively.

Examples of Meaningful Consequences

I.  Attention

J.R. yells to get attention.

J.R.’s parents want to give him attention for being quiet and remove their attention when he yells.

Ways to Give Attention

Verbal praise

Physical engagement

Interaction that J.R. really likes

Ways to Remove Attention

Verbal ignore

Physical ignore

Time out

II.  Tangible

M.P. pulls his sister’s hair when she tries to play with his favorite toy train.

M.P.’s parents want to provide M.P. with access to toys when he shares his toy with his sister and to reduce his access to toys when he pulls her hair.

Ways to Provide Access

Provide access more often

Provide access for longer time periods

Provide access under optimal conditions

Ways to Reduce Access

Toy is put away

Sister gets toy

Child gets time-out

III.  Stimulation

B.A. runs into the street without heeding his parent’s command to stop because it feels good to run — it stimulates him.

B.A.’s parents want to provide stimulation when B.A. heeds their command to stop and to reduce the stimulation he experiences when he runs away.

Ways to Provide Stimulation

Provide more frequent opportunities

Provide longer access to stimulation

Provide greater intensity of stimulation

Ways to Reduce Stimulation

Redirect child’s attention

Block child’s behavior

Remove the stimulation

IV.  Escape from Task

S.W. hits her mother when she wants to escape from brushing her teeth.

S.W.’s mother wants to provide escape from toothbrushing when S.W. cooperates with the activity and not allow her to escape the activity when she hits.

Ways to Give Escape from Task

Decrease prompting

Reduce expectations

End the task

Ways to Disallow Escape from Task

Maintain in environment

Prompt through the task

Do the task again

V.  Escape from Environment

R.J. tantrums in crowded restaurants.

R.J.’s parents want to provide escape from the environment when he is calm and not allow him to escape from the environment when he tantrums.

Ways to Provide Escape

Distract the child

Modify level of participation

Leave the environment

Ways to Disallow Escape

Remove distractors

Maintain in setting

Require 1 good behavior before leaving

Some consequences are useful for behaviors of many different functions.  These include:

For Positive Behaviors

Earning special privileges

Earning a reward

Earning a token

Getting to make a choice

For Negative Behaviors

Losing special privileges

Losing a reward

Losing a token

Losing a chance to make a choice

The more immediate the consequences can be, the better.  In other words, the closer the behavior and the consequence are to each other in time, the better.

Article Topics

Discover More