A Brief Overview
- This article provides examples and simple guidance about how to be more strategic in parenting a child who struggles with behavior—during the weird winter of 2020 and beyond.
- PAVE consulted with University of Washington positive behavior support expert Kelcey Schmitz for this article.
- Anticipating trouble and making a best guess about the behavior’s “purpose” is a great place to start.
- Listen and look for opportunities to praise expected behavior. It’s easy to forget to pay attention when things are going well, but keeping the peace is easier if praise is consistent while children are behaving as expected.
- Read on to gift the family with a plan for improving holiday happiness.
Holidays can be challenging for families impacted by disability, trauma, grief, economic struggles, and other stressors. Holiday season 2020 has its own flavors of confusion. Families with children who struggle with behavior may want to head into the winter with plans in place. Anticipating where trouble could bubble up and developing a strategy for working it out provides all family members with opportunities for social-emotional growth, mindfulness, and rich moments.
PAVE consulted with a University of Washington (UW) expert in positive behavior supports to provide insight and information for this article. Kelcey Schmitz is the school mental health lead for the Northwest Mental Health Technology Transfer Center, housed at the UW School Mental Health Research and Training (SMART) Center. An area of expertise for Schmitz is Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS), a framework for schools to support children’s academic, social, emotional, and behavioral strengths and needs at multiple levels. An MTSS framework makes room for Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS). When done well, PBIS teaches and reinforces positive social skills, communication strategies and “restorative justice” (working it out instead of punishing).
“This holiday season may present additional challenges given the pandemic,” Schmitz says. “Families, like educators, need to go back to the basics during times of stress and uncertainty. Remembering core features of PBIS at home, such as predictability, consistency, safety, and positive interactions are going to be key. In fact, lessons learned during stay-at-home orders during the pandemic can and will carry us through the holidays and beyond. Never before have routines, regulation, relationships, and reinforcement been more important for everyone in the family than they will be this winter.”
Schmitz has provided articles and content to support PAVE families over the years and offers the following tips for navigating the holidays by using PBIS strategies at home.
Make a list and check it twice to know what troubling behaviors are about
Whatever the holidays mean and include, family routines can shift. Food can look and taste different. The house may be decorated in a different way. School takes breaks. Weather changes, and sunrise and sunset are closer together.
Children may struggle 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.
Keep in mind that all behaviors serve a purpose; they are a way for the child to solve a problem. Without appropriate social skills, children will do what is necessary to have their needs met in the quickest way possible. However, adults who can predict problem behaviors may also be able to prevent them.
TIP: Anticipate trouble and make a best guess about the motivation
Set your child (and family) up for holiday success by thinking ahead about the types of routines and situations that might be challenging. Craft a plan to intervene early, before a full-blown escalation.
Create a best guess statement to better understand the relationship between an unwanted behavior and the child’s environment. Summarize what usually happens by describing:
- The behavior (tantrum, hitting, refusal)
- Circumstances that set the stage (what’s going on right before the behavior?)
- What happens after the behavior (time out, angry adults, something removed or given)
- A best guess about the child’s motivation/the “purpose” of the behavior (to get something or get out of something)
Here is an example:
At Grandma’s holiday gathering, an adult encourages a child to try a food, demands a “please” or “thank you,” or scolds the child. Note if the child is tired, hungry, or uncomfortable in an unusual or unpredictable situation. These are the circumstances that set the stage.
The child cries and yells loud enough to be heard in another room (description of the behavior).
During the child’s outbursts, others leave her alone (what happens after the behavior).
Best guess about the purpose? The child may want to avoid unpleasant people, food, or situations.
Making a good guess about what causes and maintains the behavior (crowded or overstimulating environment, being rushed, being told they can’t have or do something they want, different expectations, demands, exhaustion, hunger) can support a plan and potentially avoid worst-case scenarios.
Determining the purpose or function of a behavior may require a closer look at what typically happens (what others say or do) after the behavior occurs. The behavior may be inappropriate, but the reason for it usually is not. Most of the time there is a logical explanation. Here are some questions to help think it through:
- Does the child get something–or get out of something?
- Does the child generally seek or avoid something, such as:
- Attention (from adults or peers)?
- Tangibles (toys/other objects)?
- Sensory stimulation?
Make a list and check it twice: Prevention is key
Many behaviors can be prevented using simple proactive strategies. Adults can use their best-guess statement to build a customized strategy. Here are some starter ideas that might help prevent or reduce the intensity, frequency, or duration of unwanted behaviors:
- Make sure the child is well rested and has eaten before going out.
- Bring food that is familiar and appealing.
- Anticipate challenges, and plan accordingly.
- Pre-teach family expectations (respectful, responsible, safe) and talk about how those expectations work at grandma’s house: “When someone gives you a present, say thank you and smile at the person who gave you the gift.” For information about developing family expectations, see PAVE’s article, Tips to Help Parents Reinforce Positive Behaviors at Home.
- Encourage the child to bring a comfort item (toy, book, blanket).
- Give more “start” messages than “stop” messages.
- Teach a signal the child can use to request a break.
- Create a social story about family gatherings; review it regularly.
- Rehearse! Practice/pretend having a meal at Grandma’s house, opening gifts, playing with cousins, and other likely scenarios.
- Arrive early to get comfortable before the house gets crowded.
- Create a visual schedule of events, and let the child keep track of what’s happening or cross off activities as they happen.
Respond quick as a wink: Reward replacement behavior
An essential prevention strategy is teaching what to do instead of the unwanted behavior. “What to do instead” is called replacement behavior. To be effective, the replacement behavior needs to get results just as quickly and effectively as the problem behavior.
For example, if a child learns a signal for taking a break, adults need to respond to the signal just as fast as they would if the child starts to scream and cry.
Responding quickly will strengthen the replacement behavior and help make sure that the unwanted behavior is no longer useful.
Here are steps to help teach replacement behaviors:
- Demonstrate/model the wanted behavior
- Provide many opportunities for practice
- Let the child know they got it right (as you would if they learned a skill like riding a bike, writing their name, or saying their colors)
Praise a silent night
Inspect what you expect. Listen and look for opportunities to praise expected behavior. It’s easy to forget to pay attention when things are going well, but keeping the peace is easier if praise is consistent while children are behaving as expected.
Evidence indicates that children’s behavior improves best with a 5:1 ratio of positive-to-negative feedback. Increasing positive remarks during difficult times—such as holidays and pandemics—might reduce escalations.
Provide frequent, genuine, and specific praise, with details that help encourage the specific behavior being noticed. For example, say, “You did a nice job sharing that toy truck with your cousin!”
All is calm: Intervene at the first sign of trouble
Be ready to prompt appropriate behavior, redirect, or offer a calming activity when there are early signs of agitation or frustration.
- Provide early, clear instructions about “what to do instead,” using language and modeling consistent with what was pre-taught and practiced (see above).
- For example, if a child is getting frustrated, say, “Remember, you can give me the peace signal if you need a break.”
- Redirect the child to another activity or topic when appropriate and practical.
- Hand the child a comfort item (stuffed animal, blanket).
- Show empathy and listen actively: “It seems like you’re having some big feelings right now. Want to talk about it?” After listening, maybe say, “Wow, that’s a lot to feel.”
Do you hear what I hear? Heed alarm bells when plans need to shift
Not all challenging behaviors can be prevented, and adults may overestimate a child’s ability to control emotions. A child experiencing significant distress may be unable to process what is going on around them and follow what may seem like simple instructions.
If an adult’s best efforts are unable to prevent or diffuse a behavior escalation, a graceful exit may be the best strategy. It’s important for adults to remember that a child’s crisis isn’t their crisis. An adult’s ability to remain level-headed is critical, and children may ultimately learn from the behavior they see modeled.
Wait for a child to calm down before addressing the issue: An overwhelmed brain is not able to problem solve or learn. Later, everyone can review what worked or did not work in order to adjust the strategy for next time.
Believe: Be a beacon for hope
Support a child to learn, practice, and perform behaviors that enable fun, rich family experiences. The work may feel challenging—and the scale of the project may be impacted by a unique set of tough circumstances—but expecting and accepting the challenge enables the whole family to move toward new opportunities. Trust that the work will pay off—and relish the moments of success, however large or small. Believe that consistency and predictability can make a big impact this holiday season and beyond.
Here are a few points to review:
- 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 examine the root of the problem for long-term positive results.
- Prevention strategies and intervening early can be very effective, but they are often underutilized. Plan ahead to eliminate, modify, or neutralize what might set off behavior.
- Support wanted behaviors by teaching them, practicing them, modeling them, and making them consistent sources for praise and encouragement.
COVID-19 Handbook and Family Binder (multiple language options) from the Autism Intervention Research Network on Behavioral Health (airbnetwork.org)
The Comprehensive, Integrated Three-Tiered Model of Prevention (ci3t.org) provides videos and other COVID-Related Resources for Families in English and Spanish
The Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS.org) provides a downloadable booklet (English and Spanish) for Supporting Families at Home with PBIS
Parent Training Modules from Vanderbilt University’s Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (CSEFEL), available in English and Spanish
YouTube video interview with Mark Durand, author of Optimistic Parenting: Hope and Help for You and Your Challenging Child