By Kelcey Schmitz, MSEd
The holiday season is upon us! Good food, family gatherings, festive decorations, changing seasonal weather and a break from school may provide you and your family with peace, hope and joy. If your child struggles with changes in routines, different food items on the menu, overstimulating environments, long periods of unstructured activities or sensory issues that make long pants, socks, gloves, coats and hats feel like shards of glass against their skin, you may not find too much merriment in the coming weeks.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. All behaviors serve a purpose – they are a way for the child to solve a problem. Without the appropriate social skills our kids will do what is necessary to have their needs met in the quickest way possible. However, if we can predict problem behaviors, we can prevent them.
Set your child (and family) up for holiday success by thinking ahead about the types of routines and situations that might be challenging and then craft a plan to prevent problem behaviors or intervene early before they escalate. The first step is to create a best guess statement as a way to better understand the relationship between the behavior and the child’s environment. This summary should include a description of the behavior, what happens before and after the behavior, circumstances that set the stage and what seems to be the purpose.
Here is an example of a best guess statement:
At Grandma’s holiday gathering when someone tells my child to try a food she doesn’t like, tries to force a “please or thank you”, or scold her inappropriate behavior (what happens before), she will cry and yell loudly (a description of the behavior). When she does this, others leave her alone (what happens after). She is more likely to do this when she is tired, hungry or in a new or unpredictable situation (sets the stage). We think she engages in these behaviors to avoid unpleasant people, food or situations (purpose).
To create your own best guess statement, replace the underlined words with descriptions about your child’s behavior and surrounding circumstances. Once you have a good guess about what causes and maintains the behavior under certain circumstances (e.g., crowded or overstimulating environment, being rushed, being told they can’t have or do something they want, different expectations, demands, exhaustion, hunger) you can come up with a plan and potentially avoid a worst case scenario.
When determining the purpose or function of behavior carefully think about what typically happens (what others say or do) after the behavior occurs. Does the child get something or get out of something? This could include seeking or avoiding attention (from adults or peers), an activity, a tangible (a toy or other object), or sensory stimulation. The behavior may be inappropriate but the reason for it usually is not. Most of the time there is an obvious reason for misbehavior once we take a few moments to break it down into these different components.
Make a list and check it twice: prevention is key
Many behaviors can be prevented using simple proactive strategies – we underestimate the power of prevention. Using the best guess statement from above, here is an example of a list of some different strategies to prevent or reduce the intensity, frequency or duration of the behavior.
- make sure she is well rested and has eaten before going to grandma’s house
- bring some food to grandma’s that she likes and would recognize on her plate in case the new food isn’t appealing
- extend family expectations (respectful, responsible, safe) to other settings such as Grandma’s – teach what each looks like during difficult activities (e.g., during the gift exchange respectful looks like saying thank you or smiling at the person who gave you the gift).
- allow her to bring a comfort item (toy, book, blanket)
- teach a signal she can show to indicate a need to take a break
- create a social story about family gatherings and review on a regular basis
- rehearse going to grandmas, practice the specific routines (meal time, opening gifts, playing with cousins)
- arrive early to allow her get comfortable before the house gets crowded
- create a visual schedule of the events – let her cross off as each occurs
Your brainstormed list may look different than this one – but there may be similar themes. Next, select the strategies that are easiest to implement have the highest probability of working. An essential prevention strategy is teaching your child what to do instead of displaying the problem behavior. This other behavior is often referred to as the replacement behavior. The replacement behavior must achieve the same results just as quickly as the problem behavior. For example, if you teach your child a signal to let you know that she needs a break then you must ensure she gets a break as immediately as she would if she were to scream and cry. Responding quickly to the replacement behavior will strengthen it and make the other behavior no longer useful. Teaching involves demonstrating the behavior, providing many opportunities to practice, and letting the child know they did it correctly (the same way you might teach them to ride a bike or learn their colors).
All is calm: intervene early at the first sign of trouble
Be ready to prompt appropriate behavior, redirect, or offer a calming activity as soon as you notice early signs of agitation or frustration. Pre-correction is a strategy to use when you anticipate a problem behavior by prompting what they should do instead. For example, if you notice your child getting frustrated you can say, “remember, you can give me the peace signal if you need a break.” A simple redirect to another activity or topic can decrease chances that the problem behavior will escalate. Handing your child a comfort item or showing empathy can also help alleviate anxiety.
Raise the praise: giving effective positive feedback
Praise expected behavior so your child is encouraged to continue using appropriate behavior. Normally a 5:1 positive to negative ratio is an acceptable rate, however you might want to consider increasing the praise during difficult routines. Provide frequent, genuine, and specific praise. For example, you could say, “you did a nice job sharing that toy with your cousin!”
Do you hear what I hear? Responding to escalating problem behavior
Not all challenging behaviors can be prevented. A child’s ability to control their emotions can often be overestimated by adults. When a child is experiencing significant distress, they are less likely to be able to process what is going on around them — including following what may seem like simple instructions. If, despite your best efforts, the behavior escalates, plan a graceful exit and remove your child from what is causing or maintaining their behavior. Wait for your child to be calm before addressing the issue. Learn from what worked and didn’t work and adjust your strategies next time.
What might seem fun and relaxing to adults, could be overwhelming and upsetting to children. Children are more likely to exhibit the behavior that will most quickly get their needs met, regardless of the social appropriateness. Acting-out is typically a symptom of an underlying issue – it’s important to get to the root of the problem for long-term positive results. Prevention strategies and intervening early can be very effective – yet often underutilized. Think ahead to what can be changed in the environment to eliminate, modify or neutralize anything that might trigger a problem behavior. Support the positive behavior by teaching and reinforcing expected behavior. Ensure consistency and predictability. These small changes can make a big impact this holiday season and beyond.
Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (CSEFEL) Parent Training Modules: http://csefel.vanderbilt.edu/resources/training_parent.html#workbook
Durand, V.M. (2011). Optimistic parenting: Hope and help for you and your challenging child. Baltimore: MD: Paul H. Brookes.