Preventing the Tidal Waves of Challenging Behavior at Home this Summer

By Kelcey Schmitz, MSEd
Center for Strong Schools
University of Washington Tacoma

The Whole Child Initiative (WCI)

The Whole Child Initiative (WCI) at the University of Washington Tacoma’s Center for Strong Schools helps schools, families, neighborhoods and community programs to create sustainable nurturing environments that support the academic, behavioral, social and emotional development of children. One essential element of the “whole child” approach is Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports or PBIS.

Imagine living in a world where 80-90% of problem behaviors were prevented through teaching and reinforcing social norms. Positive Behavior Interventions and Support (PBIS) is a term used to describe an approach that is different from more traditional behavior management practices of harsh punishment, humiliation and pain to change what someone is doing.

PBIS offers a framework that allows for a graduated continuum of proactive support. As the intensity of the behavior increases, so do the levels of interventions. Much like how public health prevention is structured, PBIS uses a three-tiered method to organize and deliver strategies to prevent, reduce and reverse challenging behavior.

Researchers have found that frequent harsh punishment is unlikely to effectively change behavior. While there may be short-term benefits, if the child doesn’t learn a more socially appropriate behavior to do instead, the problem behavior is likely to continue.  The parent-child relationship is strengthened by loving and positive interactions and can be negatively impacted by overly harsh punishment.

Tier 1 support, sometimes referred to as universal prevention, involves defining, teaching and reinforcing expected behaviors or pillars. Much like we are all taught about the importance of hand washing to prevent illness and are frequently reminded in public restrooms, we teach and model what we want to see (i.e., respectful, responsible, and safe behaviors) and reinforce when we see those things.

Some children will need additional support that is more technical in one or more of the expected behaviors. Advanced tiers of prevention and intervention (Tier 2 and Tier 3) require a more comprehensive approach. However, when added to an existing layer of prevention, they are more likely to be successful.

Summer evokes a range of emotions for parents. We look forward to all that summer has to offer, a break from hectic schedules, beautiful weather, heading to the beach, trails, or the ballpark and much more. On the other hand, we know that most of our kids thrive in more structured and engaging environments – given all the demands in the family home, this can be a challenge.

Support positive behavior at home by trying the following strategies.  Get a start on them now and ride the waves smoothly through the summer!

Define, teach and routinely acknowledge family pillars or expectations.

Discuss how you want to live as a family and identify some words (pillars or expectations) that represent what you value. Then define and teach what those things look and sound like in every day routines. Some common pillars include respectful, responsible, and safe. Stick with 3-5 positively stated expectations – it’s easier to remember a shorter list.

If you expect it, you must reach it. Identify a couple of “hot spots” to begin. Problem behaviors occur within routines.  Perhaps, it’s the morning routine or mealtime you anticipate being especially difficult. After discussing 1-2 ways to be respectful, responsible and safe in the morning, teach what each looks like. Have fun with it! Set up “expectation stations” and assign each family member one pillar to teach to the rest.

Behaviors that get attention – get repeated. Initially, recognize each time you observe your child doing the right thing. In fact, create opportunities for our child to experience success! Make sure you are specific, “Son, I noticed you stopped to pick up your shoes in the hallway. Thanks for putting them away and keeping the walkway safe for others.” The easiest way to change a behavior is to point out what a person does right.

Remember this catchy phrase, “5:1 gets it done” to ensure you are having five positive interactions for each negative interaction. As the behavior begins to occur frequently, reinforcement can be faded.

Create engaging and predictable routines

Children crave structure and routine. Even though we, as adults, look forward to a relaxing evening or weekend, our kids need regular activity and engagement. Consider the following – we can either keep them busy or they will keep us busy!

Use visuals to create predictability. Put together a visual schedule that represents the major routines of the day. You can cut out pictures, draw them, use a dry erase board or use actual pictures of your kids participating in each daily routine. Create the schedule together!  Ask your child to check the schedule – especially when moving from a preferred to non-preferred activity. It’s hard to argue with a picture!

Set the stage for positive behavior

Teach, pre-teach and re-teach. Just like we teach our children their colors and shapes, we also must take the same instructional approach and apply it to behavior. When your child is first learning the skill or for more difficult routines when you anticipate a problem, pre-teach. Give a quick reminder ahead of time – “when we get in the car, sit up, buckle up, and smile!”

Give transition warnings or cues to signal the end of one activity and the beginning of the next to allow time for your child to move from one thing to the other. This is especially helpful when you ask your child to stop doing something they enjoy and move to a less preferred activity. “In five minutes it will be bath time.”

The first/then strategy can be used to let children know there will be a preferred activity after doing something they don’t like. “First take your bath, then we can play with your dolls.”

Give more start than stop messages. “No”, “don’t”, and “stop” are phrases children hear so frequently that they sometimes tune them out and only hear the verb. Tell your child exactly what you want them to do, “take your plate and put it in the sink.” Do your best to reserve the stop messages for dangerous situations to get your child’s attention quickly.

Giving choices helps to support your child’s development and eliminates the need for a power struggle. “Would you rather play for 5 more minutes or get in the bath now?”  “Feel free to choose the pink pajamas or green ones.”

While these strategies may not completely eliminate problem behaviors you may find that it creates consistency, predictability and a more positive atmosphere for your family. When challenging behaviors persist, a solid foundation of expectations will allow you to quickly build another layer of support for your child.

See the following for additional information, parent support and resources:


Parenting with Positive Behavior Support: A Practical Guide to Resolving Your Child’s Difficult Behavior 


The Association for Positive Behavior Support

Getting Behavior in Shape at Home

Family Resources for Challenging Behavior


Summer and Dads of Children with Special Needs

For more info go to

Summertime Ideas for Dads

Summer time can be a particularly stressful time of year for us dads that are raising special needs children. One of the ways our family and many that we have served go through this time is by networking with other parents to do activities jointly with our kids.

Here are just a few ideas of what you can also take advantage of:

Many local parks have free and reduced priced local camps and many will work with our kids

The Boys and Girls club offers many programs and they do sliding scale

If you are in the Central Puget Sound there is a wonderful program called Sea Scouts.

DadsMOVE will be posting activities throughout the summer so keep looking for things to do at our website.

Attend local support groups to meet other parents like you

Special Families of Puget Sound host and posts many events and activities.

And don’t forget to give you and your significant other time for your own self care