Home for the Holidays: The Gift of Positive Behavior Support

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.

Full Article

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)?
    • Activity?
    • 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:

  1. Demonstrate/model the wanted behavior
  2. Provide many opportunities for practice
  3. 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.

Resources:

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

Tips to Help Parents Reinforce Positive Behaviors at Home

A Brief Overview

  • Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) is a strategy schools use to teach children expected behavior. Read on for PBIS strategies families can use at home.
  • A key PBIS principle is that punishment fails to teach children and youth what they should do instead. Adults can direct a child toward a better choice or interrupt an escalation cycle.
  • 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 five positive interactions for each negative interaction.
  • Parents might find success with strategies they can share with school staff eventually.
  • For additional strategies unique to COVID-19, the Office of Superintendent of Public instruction (OSPI) offers a series of 3 webinars for family caregivers. For information and links to the videos, see PAVE’s article: Webinars offer Parent Training to Support Behavior during Continuous Learning.

Full Article

Schedule changes and seasonal transitions cause emotional upheaval for some families in typical years. Summer 2020 includes unique conditions, with families moving into a summer with fewer-than-usual options to keep children busy after months of learning from home due to the COVID-19 building closures. A few strategies, described below, might help families keep things chill this summer.

Experts in education use a framework for creating a positive environment called Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS). PBIS has been implemented in more than 26,000 U.S. schools. The PBIS framework has been shown to decrease disciplinary removals and improve student outcomes, including grades and graduation rates. When done well, PBIS provides positive social skills, communication strategies and “restorative justice,” (working it out instead of punishing) and may prevent 80-90 percent of problem behaviors.

Punishment does not teach

PBIS requires an understanding that punishment fails to help a child know what to do instead. Researchers have learned that a child who is being punished enters an emotionally dysregulated state (fight/flight/freeze) that blocks learning. Adults who calmly direct a child toward a new way of problem-solving can interrupt or prevent an escalation.

Keep in mind that adults need to stay regulated to help children. For strategies related to mindfulness, see PAVE’s article: Stay Home Help: Get Organized, Feel Big Feelings, Breathe. PAVE also provides a library of short videos with mindfulness and breath practices for all ages and abilities: Mindfulness Videos.

Within a PBIS framework, de-escalation strategies might include:

  • Remove what is causing the behavior
  • Get down to eye level
  • Offer empathy—the ability to understand and share the feelings of another
  • Provide choices
  • Re-teach expectations
  • Reinforce desired behaviors
  • Communicate care instead of control

Behavior is a child’s attempt to communicate

Simple, consistent, predictable language is a critical component. Insights about these strategies and more were shared in a webinar by Change Lab Solutions on April 30, 2019.

Among experts talking about PBIS are staff at the University of Washington’s School of Mental Health Assessment, Research and Training (SMART) Center. Staff from the SMART center lead the School Mental Health supplement of the Northwest Mental Health Technology Transfer Center (NWMHTTC). These agencies, in collaboration with the League of Education Voters, in June 2019 hosted a webinar: How to Implement Mental Health Supports in Schools, focused on the importance of blending school and community supports with PBIS.

A University of Washington (UW) expert who participated in the webinar is Kelcey Schmitz, a former OSPI staff member who has written articles for PAVE about positive behavior supports and state initiatives and has experience helping families and schools implement PBIS.

“PBIS is a game changer for children and youth with behavior challenges and their teachers and caregivers,” Schmitz says. “In fact, everyone can benefit from PBIS. Behavior is a form of communication, and PBIS aims to reduce problem behavior by increasing appropriate behavior and ultimately improving quality of life for everyone. The same approaches used by schools to prevent problem behaviors and create positive, safe, consistent and predictable environments can be used by families at home.”

Schmitz, an MTSS training and technical assistance specialist, provides the following specific tips for creating a successful PBIS home environment.

Support Positive Behavior before there is a problem

PBIS is set up with three layers—called tiers—of support. The parent-child relationship is strengthened by loving and positive interactions at each tier.

Tier 1 support is about getting busy before there is a problem. Much like learning to wash hands to prevent getting sick, expected behavior is taught and modeled to prevent unexpected behaviors.  Parents can look at their own actions and choices and consider what children will see as examples of being respectful, responsible, and safe.

Tiers 2 and 3 are where adults provide more support for specific behaviors that are getting in the way of relationships or how the child or youth functions. In a school setting, Tier 2 is for students who need a social group or some extra teaching, practice, and reinforcement. Tier 3 supports include a Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA) to find out why the behavior is occurring, and an individualized Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP).

Any student may access supports that include aspects of Social Emotional Learning at all three Tiers. At home, Tiers 2 and 3 naturally will be more blended and may include support from a community provider. Note that targeted interventions in Tiers 2-3 work best when Tier 1 is already well established.

Define, teach, and routinely acknowledge family expectations

  • Discuss how you want to live as a family and identify some “pillars” (important, building-block concepts) that represent what you value. Talk about what those pillars look like and sound like in every-day routines. To help the family remember and be consistent, choose only 3-5 and create positive statements about them. Here are a few examples:
    • Speak in a respectful voice.
    • Be responsible for actions.
    • Be safe; keep hands, feet, and objects to self.
  • Identify a couple of “hot spots” to begin. Challenging behaviors often occur within routines.  Perhaps mornings or mealtimes create hot spots for the family. 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” for practicing the plan and assign each family member one pillar to teach to the rest.
  • Behaviors that get attention get repeated. Notice when a child does the right thing and say something about each success: “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 five positive interactions for each negative interaction. When the expected behavior becomes routine, the reinforcement can fade away.

Create engaging and predictable routines

  • Children crave structure and routine. Adults may look forward to a relaxing evening or weekend, but kids often need regular activity and engagement. Consider that either the kids are busy, or the adults are busy managing bored kids!
  • Use visuals to create predictability. A visual schedule can display major routines of the day with pictures that are drawn, real photos or cut-outs from magazines. Create the schedule together, if possible.  Parents can ask a 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. Children need to learn behavior just like they learn colors and shapes. A quick reminder can help reinforce a developing skill: “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 another: “In five minutes, it will be bath time.”
  • First/then statements set up a child for delayed gratification: “First take your bath; then we can play dolls.”
  • Focus on Go instead of Stop. Children often tune out words like NoDon’t and Stop and only hear the word that comes next, which is what an adult is trying to avoid. Tell a child what to do instead of what not to do: “Take your plate and put it in the sink.” Save Stop and No for dangerous circumstances that need a quick reaction.
  • Choices prevent power struggles: “Would you rather play for five more minutes or get in the bath now?”  “Feel free to choose the pink pajamas or the green ones.”

While these strategies may not eliminate all problem behaviors, they create consistency, predictability, and a more positive atmosphere. They teach new skills to help children get their needs met. The solid foundation will help even if challenging behaviors persist by creating a bedrock for additional layers of support.

Here are places to seek additional information:

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

Home and Community Based Positive Behavior Support Facebook Page

Home and Community PBS Website

Parent Center Hub Positive Behavior Supports Resource Collection

Intensive Intervention: An Overview for Parents and Families

The Association for Positive Behavior Support

Getting Behavior in Shape at Home

Family Resources for Challenging Behavior

The National Center for Pyramid Model Innovations (NCPMI) Resource Library, articles in multiple languages